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National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)

Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility

By Dominic Brown - New Labor Forum, May 2021

Despite 2020’s record fall in carbon dioxide emissions—largely due to extensive and repeated “lockdowns” of cities, plus dramatic decreases in air travel and the use of motor vehicles[1]—the world is far from making the changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe. The fact that the shutdowns over periods of last year had a marginal effect in the fight against climate catastrophe at best illustrates the enormity of the task that lies ahead. According to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization, “time is fast running out,”[2] while Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), observes “The pandemic and its aftermath can suppress emissions, but low economic growth is not a low emissions strategy. Only an acceleration in structural changes to the way the world produces and consumes energy can break the emissions trend for good.”[3]

In addition to ravaging health systems, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food and housing insecurity, deepened unemployment, and put a spotlight on existing inequalities. In South Africa, growing awareness of these problems has brought renewed hope in the possibility of a response to the pandemic crisis that could aim for a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy. Like other countries, South Africa is in desperate need of an energy transition. The South African economy remains disproportionately energy intensive[4] (although it is becoming less so), per capita emissions remain high,[5] and the country is the fourteenth largest contributor to global carbon emissions.[6] This energy and emissions profile reflects the historical and continuing dominance of the country’s “minerals-energy complex” (“MEC”)[7] which is supported by cheap electricity generated mostly from low-quality coal, while higher quality coal is exported.

Beyond its detrimental ecological impacts, South Africa’s MEC is deeply intertwined with the legacy of cheap Black labor in the mines and the formation of racialized capitalism. This structure of South Africa’s economy underpins the country’s massive inequality, serious health impacts for many thousands of people in mining affected communities, and the country’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions. This is why the shift to renewable energy (RE) in South Africa must include measures to ensure a just transition that leaves no worker or community behind while working to reverse the legacy of mass unemployment and deep socioeconomic inequalities.

The Political Economy of South Africa’s Energy Crisis

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of apartheid. This commitment has produced a dramatic rise in grid connections, such that more than 80 percent of households were connected to the grid by 2015, up from only 30 percent in 1994. Harder to shift have been the persistent levels of poverty and inequality. South Africa’s “Gini coefficient”— a global measure of inequality—today places the country as the world’s second most unequal, after neighboring Lesotho. With current unemployment at over 40 percent, many households cannot afford electricity, even when they are connected to the grid. The introduction of a provision for free basic electricity in 2004 was a step in the right direction, but at just 50 kWh per month for poor households that is insufficient to meet even basic requirements.

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of Apartheid.

Making matters worse, South Africa’s stateowned power utility, Eskom—which generates over 90 percent of energy consumed in the country—is in deep crisis. Eskom’s crisis has multiple dimensions and various causes, both internal and external, including (1) the 1980s era commercialization of Eskom; (2) postapartheid commitments to provide electricity to the majority of the country previously excluded, under the full cost recovery (FCR) model where the excluded majority are unable to afford rising electricity prices; (3) underinvestment in the utility’s infrastructure, particularly in building new capacity to meet increased demand; (4) conversion of the utility in 2002 to a public corporation, forcing it to pay taxes as well as dividends for the first time since its establishment almost a century earlier; (5) Eskom’s rising debt, dominated by foreign currency borrowed against the weak rand (R); (6) expensive coal contracts with windfall profits, signed in the name of promoting Black ownership in the coal industry; and (7) dramatic increases in the price of low-quality coal, upon which Eskom depends to generate electricity.[8]

Just Transition as a Worker Movement in Global North and South

By various - United Nations Research for Social Development, October 14 2020

As a grounded concept that originated in the North American labour movement, just transition places the well-being and livelihoods of workers and communities at the heart of transitions to sustainability and low-carbon futures. This second webinar in our JTRC series on justice in low-carbon transitions examines how the spread of the concept to the international climate policy arena and around the world has influenced the role of workers in just transition efforts. It highlights the role of both formal and informal workers and their organizations and explores the differences that shape just transitions as a worker movement in global North and South.

Speakers:

  • Jenny Patient, PhD Student, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield
  • Woodrajh (Woody) Aroun, former Education and Parliamentary Officer of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA)
  • Susanita Tesiorna, President, Alliance of Workers in the Informal Economy/Sector (ALLWIES) and Council Member of National Anti-Poverty Commission - Workers in the Informal Sector Council
  • Discussant: David Uzzell, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Psychology at the University of Surrey
  • Moderator: Jo Cutter, Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations, Leeds University Business School

For more information about the series and the work of the Just Transition Research Collaborative, please visit https://www.unrisd.org/jtrc-2020

The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership

By John Treat, Sean Sweeney, and Irene HongPing Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 15, 2019

On September 28, 2019, more than 150 trade union representatives, activists and policy allies from more than a dozen countries came together in New York City for a one-day international conference on “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership.”

The conference took place against the backdrop of the massive “Global Climate Strike” actions led by young people in numerous countries around the world, coinciding with the UN “Climate Week” of talks in New York City. In the weeks before those actions, TUED organized a “Global Web Forum” on the #Strike4Climate, and subsequently compiled a list of union statements and actions in support of the strikes.

Framing and Meeting Highlights

The conference program was framed around a number of issues and concerns that have emerged out of recent union-led struggles to both defend and extend public ownership of energy in key countries and regions. Over the course of the day’s proceedings, a number of key themes and broadly shared conclusions emerged, including:

  • Investor-focused climate policy is not delivering the energy transition
  • Privatization of state-owned electricity utilities has failed—but alternatives exist
  • Defending public ownership of energy requires a reform agenda that can drive “de- marketization”
  • Confidence is rising to reverse electricity privatization where it has happened
  • Defending and reclaiming public energy requires building union power
  • The transition must take into account the real development needs of the global South, while contesting carbon- intensive “development as usual”
  • There is an urgent need for technical, programmatic work to make achieving the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal possible

Read the report (PDF).

Energy Democracy and Just Transition Endorsed at Launch of South Africa’s New Trade Union Federation

By John Treat - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 1, 2017

At a historic launch event held outside Johannesburg on April 21-23, 2017, almost 1,400 voting delegates from two-dozen unions representing 700,000 workers convened to launch the new “South African Federation of Trade Unions” (SAFTU).

In addition to adopting the name, logo and colors — red, black and gold — delegates also endorsed a range of principles adopted at a preparatory “Workers’ Summit” convened by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in April 2016, adopted a new constitution, and approved a report from the Steering Committee proposing a range of campaigning priorities for the next period.

In a recent article, then SAFTU convener Zwelinzima Vavi said:

We’ve got a mix of workers in the private sector, manufacturing, transport, mining and construction. And we’ve got unions in the public sector – the biggest ones are the South African Policing Union and the National Union of Public Servants and Allied Workers.[SAFTU] is independent but not apolitical. It is truly worker controlled and democratic and not ‘sloganising’ over the issues. SAFTU is truly fighting and militant.”

At a TUED strategy meeting in New York in early April, Karl Cloete, NUMSA’s Deputy General Secretary, told union representatives from 12 countries that while the new federation’s campaigning priorities will focus on the many grave and urgent challenges facing South Africa’s highly exploited workers and exceptionally vulnerable poor, SAFTU would also make energy democracy and just transition part of its core agenda.

JOINT PRESS STATEMENT NUM AND NUMSA

By Phakamile Hlubi-Majola and Livuwani Mammburu - NUMSA, June 12, 2018

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) reject Eskom’s wage offer of zero percent. Eskom management and the Eskom board demonstrated that they do not care about workers or their families. On the one hand the state has adopted an austerity budget that is attacking workers through VAT and fuel price increases; whilst on the other hand Eskom is denying workers their well-deserved wage increase.

Workers at Eskom are facing an onslaught from all sides. We are guided by the Marxist slogan “Workers of the world unite you have got nothing to lose except your chains!” The NUM and NUMSA leadership are clear that workers united can never be defeated.

We met yesterday and our revolutionary consciousness makes us to recognize that without the unity of workers we can never achieve our goals. It is for this reason that we have taken the decision to put aside our political differences and to unite against a common enemy whose agenda, is the super exploitation of workers at Eskom. We remain opposed and reject all measures which will lead to the destruction of Eskom through privatization. That is why we are making a clarion call to all workers both black and white to stand together and we remain convinced that it’s not just the unity of NUMSA and NUM alone which is critical and important.

We remain resolute that Solidarity as a union should find the courage to join the resolute fighting ranks of NUM and NUMSA and that collectively as unions that represent workers we must stand together to defend all the hard won gains of workers and to fight to improve benefits and conditions of all workers.

REASONS ESKOM PLEADS POVERTY

It is no secret that Eskom is in serious financial trouble. It has huge debt levels as a result of the build programme; it is owed millions in outstanding municipal debt; it is hemorrhaging money because of the impact of the Independent Power Producer Project (IPP); and it has wasted billions through mismanagement, looting and corruption.

Trade Unions For Energy Democracy: Asia-Pacific Regional meeting

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 29, 2017

Agenda:

Chair: Lance McCallum (National Campaign Coordinator, Australian Council of Trade Unions)

1. Sean Sweeney (Director, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy) :
A. Keystone USA: Calling from Nebraska: testifying against jobs claims for Keystone pipeline, strong movement in republican state also from first nations and environment groups
B. USA: Positive TUED presence at recent People’s Summit in Chicago – good traction in USA and support from Bernie Sanders supporting unions for TUED – this is against the spilt over energy in unions in the USA
C. UK: Labour party has adopted platform of energy democracy – Corbyn’s excellent result is encouraging–the platform is not straightforward nationalisation rather focused on initiatives like municipal control and procurement. Further movement from the Trade Union Council (UK) through recent motion to split up big power utility companies
D. Europe: Successful first meeting in Geneva that brought together cross section of European unions including – France, UK and Basque region. Resolved to produce framing statement for COP 23 when in Bonn.
E. South Africa: NUMSA and new national centre (SAFTU) undertaking strike action against the closure of coal and adoption of privatised renewable energy. Potential to strike at 6 power stations currently. Potential for NUMSA and SAFTU to embark on campaign for nationwide just transition campaigns (which would be first of such scale)
F. Australia: impressed by latest video on social media by ACTU starting a conversation about nationalising electricity system.
Questions

Colin Long: TUED presence at COP 23: Yes TUED is applying to host side event, have presence as part of union contingent, potential street protests. ITUC contact is Annabel Rosenberg – organising ITUC event.

2. Kate Lee ( Executive Officer: Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA)
a. India trip: End of November, 2017
TNI India is organising conference for unions, academics and state governments to explore climate impacts and energy democracy opportunities in India. Sean Sweeney will attend and speak with good opportunities for more discussion regarding the TUED analysis. There will also be an opportunity to link with a global unions meeting in the region. Following this Sean will be able to visit Nepal to visit TUED unions there for further discussions. Interested unions are welcome to participate – contact Kate for further details
b. Tom Reddington’s position
Tom has recently started working at Union Aid Abroad –APHEDA as the climate justice and energy democracy organiser. He has capacity to support the TUED Asia-Pacific network. He is progressing the mapping exercise from the recent New York meeting and will be distributing a short survey for members to complete soon.
Questions:
Greg Mclean will send Kate Lee contacts re. Energy democracy and unions in India (Prayas and Raman Khan)
Colin Long: interested in bringing Bangladeshi unionist to Australia to discuss new coal projects (e.g. Adani) from their perspective and worker exploitation

Declaration of the Launching Congress of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU)

By staff - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, April 23, 2017

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has been born. We have passed a milestone in the history of the South African trade union movement at this Launching Congress held in Boksburg from 21-23 April 2017.

700,000 workers represented by 1,384 voting delegates from 24 unions and other non-voting unions have taken the first decisive step to building a new, vibrant, independent, and democratic workers’ federation, leading the struggle against exploitation, mass unemployment, poverty, inequality and corruption and taking up the struggle for the total emancipation of the working class from the chains of its capitalist oppressors.

Delegates formally adopted the name, logo and colours of red, black and gold. A constitution was adopted and a Report from the Steering Committee which  spelt out the way forward for the coming period, and endorsed the principles adopted by the Workers Summit on 30 April 2016.

We are building a fundamentally different type of workers’ organisation – independent of political parties and employers but not apolitical, democratic, worker-controlled, militant, socialist-orientated, internationalist, Pan Africanist from a Marxist perspective and inspired by the principles of Marxism-Leninism. 

Our historic mission is to rapidly build a united mass force of workers, which will transform their lives and pave the way for the transformation of society as a whole from one based on the greed of a rapacious capitalist elite to one run for the benefit of the working class and all the people of South Africa and the world.

But time is not on our side. Unless we urgently mobilize our forces to confront the quadruple challenge of unemployment, poverty, inequality and corruption and revive the trade union movement, turn the tide and fight back against their appalling conditions of life, we shall slide into a new age of barbarism, and even worse exploitation of the working class and the poor. 

NUMSA condemns Eskom in Bloemfontein for exposing workers to unsafe working conditions

By Phakamile Hlubi-Majola - NUMSA, February 12, 2018

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) condemns the management of Eskom in Bloemfontein for exposing workers to unsafe working conditions. On Friday our members picketed outside Eskom’s Customer Network Centre (CNC) to hand over a memorandum of demands. One of the key demands is the immediate re-instatement of a female senior store worker to the Eskom Centre. The store worker is anemic and contracted aluminum poisoning whilst working at Eskom’s (CNC). Her doctors have advised that she should not be working at the CNC because the aluminum is making her sick. As a result she was temporarily placed at the Eskom Centre and her condition improved. But the management team have ignored this advice from her doctor. They have refused to pay her salary for January and are victimizing her through a disciplinary process. They insist she must return to the CNC or she will be dismissed.

We condemn this blatant disregard for a workers health and safety. We must remind Eskom that last year another one of their employees, Thembisile Yende was killed at the workplace. She too had been exposed to an unsafe working environment. When she complained to her seniors at the plant about her conditions, they ignored her. She was strangled to death and her body was found locked in her office at the Substation where she worked. Her colleague David Ngwenya, has been arrested and charged for her murder.

It seems Eskom is not interested in ensuring that workers are protected and their safety is guaranteed. The victimization of this worker must cease immediately! Furthermore we demand that she be re-instated to the Eskom Centre where she was working. Our memorandum of demands also details a list of grievances which our members have against the firm.

NUMSA repeats the call for Sibanye to shut down for the sake of worker safety

By Phakamile Hlubi-Majola - NUMSA, February 8, 2018

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) is deeply saddened by news that two workers have died at Sibanye-Stillwater’s Kloof operation in Gauteng. According to the mining house a ‘fall of ground’ incident which the company claims may have been the result of a seismic incident caused the accident. The accident occurred at Sibanye’s Ikamva 4 Shaft‚ Kloof Operations in Glenharvie in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

This is the second incident affecting workers safety this month at Sibanye mine. Last week‚ more than 950 employees were left stranded underground at one of its mines in the Free State when a severe storm resulted in electricity supply being cut, trapping the workers underground. To date Sibanye has not properly explained why its generators failed to kick in. This delay meant that the miners were trapped underground for more than12 hours while attempts were made to rescue them.

It is important to note that these deaths are happening as the global elites in the mining industry are gathered at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town, to discuss more ways to exploit workers and pillage the country of its natural resources. The death toll in the South African mining industry remains shockingly high, with at least 81 people killed in 2017 alone. It is a reflection of the industry’s attitude towards the life of an African worker. They continue to shamelessly pursue profits before the well-being of workers. But the Department of Mineral Resources has allowed mining companies to act with impunity when it comes to mining safety.

NUMSA sends its deepest condolences to the families of the workers who lost their lives in this horrific incident. Last week we called for a shut-down of operations at Sibanye in the Free State until workers safety could be guaranteed, but we were ignored by the DMR. We repeat the call that Sibanye-Stillwater should not be allowed to operate until the safety of workers can be guaranteed. We demand a full and detailed investigation into the cause of the accident. It seems evident to us that Sibanye is not taking enough care to guarantee the safety of workers underground.

NUMSA condemns NERSA for granting Eskom a tariff increase

By Irvin Jim - NUMSA, December 18, 2017

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa condemns the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) for granting Eskom a 5.2% tariff increase. Last month NUMSA and the United Front participated in public consultations on Eskom’s request for a 19.9% price increase in the 2018/2019 financial year, where we rejected the request. Below are five reasons why NUMSA rejects any increase in the cost of electricity:

  1. NUMSA is dismayed by NERSA’s decision to grant Eskom an above inflation 5.2% price increase. By doing so the energy regulator is demonstrating it does not act in the interests of the working class majority and the public in general. Most companies big and small simply cannot afford it. The tariff hike is likely to result in plant closures which will lead to more job losses and stifle growth in the economy.
  2. For the working class, access to electricity, like water, is a human right and therefore we demand free electricity for the working class and the poor, and affordable electricity for industry. The working class majority and the poor cannot afford to pay and the state should not commodify this basic human necessity.
  3. Eskom is poorly led and its senior management team is drowning in scandals. The management team has shown that it cannot be trusted to clean up the power utility. The outcome of the disciplinary hearing of Matshela Koko, the suspended acting CEO shows proves this. Koko was disciplined for failing to declare a conflict of interest regarding his step-daughters ownership of shares in a company which was awarded more than a billion rand in contracts by an Eskom division which he led. He was cleared of all charges and the chairperson has reinstated him. This is despite the fact that the hearings have been discredited because of allegations of board interference, and threats of intimidation.
  4. Furthermore in a period of just two years Eskom has had three CEO’s. It’s CFO has been suspended under a cloud of corruption and mismanagement.  Clearly the participation of private companies such as KPMG, Mackenzie and Trillian in the looting of Eskom resources, and the undue influence of the Gupta family in allegations of state capture, is a clear indication that paying more for electricity means endorsing this blatant theft of our country’s resources.
  5. NERSA has demonstrated that it is completely oblivious to the suffering of the working class majority. StatsSA has confirmed that more than half the population lives in abject poverty; more than 36% of the working population is unemployed and the gap between the rich and poor is ever widening. To make matters worse the economy is in junk status and growth prospects are very low. The majority of the working class cannot afford to pay for electricity. Therefore an above inflation increase of 5.2% will compound all these problems and increase the chances of a violent explosion in the country.

NUMSA together with the United Front will be holding regular demonstrations and pickets across the country next year to highlight these issues. What we need is free, safe and accessible energy for the working class and the poor. We reject any price increase because it will put electricity out of economic reach of the majority of people in the country.

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