15/06/2018 10:11 BST | Updated 15/06/2018 10:11 BST

Threatened Strike Action At Eskom Boils Down To Powerplay

'Just how possible is such a shutdown? The truth is, not as easily done as it is said.'

Mike Hutchings/ Reuters

Collective bargaining in the age of #fakenews

The threatened strike action at Eskom has whipped South Africans into a WhatsApp-group frenzy. I receive daily messages from concerned friends, family members and colleagues on a nationwide shutdown that will take weeks to resolve. Just how possible is such a shutdown? The truth is, not as easily done as it is said.

Collective bargaining is a process in which propaganda has a very important role to play. It's a powerplay between parties, in which the person with the better argument does not necessarily hold sway over the party with the better-oiled media machine. But just where lies the line between propaganda and fake news? Can the public distinguish between a well-placed media statement meant to garner sympathy for a cause and blatant disinformation?

At least 26 Eskom sites have been declared national key points. The implication is that in accordance with the National Key Points Act, these sites are carefully guarded, and no picketing will be allowed in or near these sites.

The Minister of Police has far-reaching powers when it comes to keeping National Key Points safe, as was illustrated by the arrest of workers represented by the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu), who were arrested for demonstrating at OR Tambo Airport in 2007.

The question then arises, if these sites are guarded against unlawful entry, sabotage or any other hindrance to their functionality, how will they run if there are no employees, since those employees are on strike?

The right to strike is not absolute, and employees engaged in what the Labour Relations Act terms essential services are not allowed to strike. Eskom is regarded as an essential service. This means that no Eskom employee will be allowed to participate in industrial action such as a strike.

We are all afraid that the lights might go off, and none of us can guarantee that they will not.

This was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal in 2010, when the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and Eskom failed to reach a minimum services agreement, in terms of which the parties agree that a specific minimum level of service must be maintained, and makes allowance for certain employees to be allowed the right to strike.

The SCA referred the matter back to the Essential Services Committee to determine what exactly minimum service at Eskom would be, and there isn't any evidence to show that such an agreementhas been reached. Thus, a strike at Eskom would be unprotected.

How do we marry the WhatsApp frenzy to the legal background? It is important to be informed, and not to spread information unless you are able to verify its correctness. Guard against spreading an unverified message simply because it confirms your personal bias or fear.

South Africans have lived through load-shedding, municipalities being switched off due to nonpayment, and endless service-delivery troubles that have seen suburbs without power for days, never mind the situation in our rural towns and villages.

We are all afraid that the lights might go off, and none of us can guarantee that they will not. The critical point is to distinguish that possibility from well-placed propaganda, designed to put maximum pressure on another party in a collective bargaining situation, to facilitate the most favourable outcome for a specific constituency.

The maintenance of law and order is vital, as is the hope that South Africans place in the parties in this process to remain committed, in maturity, to a process whereby an agreement can be reached, instead of whipping the public into a frenzy. Calmness around the negotiation table is needed, not traditional media or social media headlines.