The wage dispute between Eskom and two major unions representing its workers might significantly slow the power utility's turnaround if it has to find extra money to meet their demands.
The pickets against the 0% wage increase offer were merely the tip of the iceberg and unions would consider mobilising civil society organisations and communities against Eskom, National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) president Andrew Chirwa said.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Numsa have vowed to fight until the bitter end against the offer with lunchtime pickets, which started on Thursday.
Eskom set the cat among the pigeons when it offered workers no wage increase, citing financial difficulties.
Solidarity, NUM and Numsa are involved in the talks. They have 7 200, 15 000 and 10 000 members at Eskom, respectively. All three have rejected the offer.
The pickets came a few hours before Eskom was on Thursday granted a court interdict against alleged intimidation and violence by NUM and Numsa's members.
Eskom spokesperson Khulu Phasiwe said the power utility implemented power cuts late on Thursday following suspected sabotage.
"We have reason to believe it was sabotage because our units were tripped at the same time."
He said that, during the nationwide picket, there had been violence and that protesters intimidated workers who were not taking part.
NUM spokesperson Livhuwani Mammburu said the lunchtime pickets would continue until the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) confirmed when negotiations could resume.
Mammburu denied allegations that the union's members were involved in violence and intimidation.
Eskom said that, as a last resort, it would implement its power system contingencies, including rolling blackouts, to avoid a complete shutdown of the national grid.
The utility has stopped all deliveries of coal by road to its power stations due to security concerns after road blockades, attacks on staff and damage of electricity infrastructure.
The most affected power stations are Hendrina, Camden, Kendal and Arnot, which are all in Mpumalanga.
Eskom CEO Phakamani Hadebe said the decision not to offer employees increases was not made lightly. He said that, as part of the organisation's turnaround strategy, annual capital expenditure was being reduced by R10 billion to R45 billion and its operational budget by 5.4%, in a bid to achieve a R10 billion savings in this financial year.
"To ensure that we continue to keep the lights on, we activated our contingency measures, and currently all power stations and critical facilities continue to operate in line with these measures," he said.
"There were a few isolated incidents where some protesting workers tried to blockade the entrances to our power stations. These were quelled by the presence of public order police. We are disturbed by the threats of industrial action and asset sabotage made against an organisation that is considered to be an essential service for the country. It is in all our interests to ensure that we resolve this matter as professionally and amicably as possible."
Hadebe said Eskom welcomed the fact that the unions had declared a dispute through the CCMA to resolve the deadlock expeditiously.
Energy Intensive User Group of Southern Africa spokesperson Shaun Nel said the industry had not yet felt the impact of Level 1 load-shedding, but if these were prolonged, it would suffer. He said Eskom's status update reports had been helpful.
Meanwhile, the National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) granted Eskom R32.7bn following its regulatory clearing account application for the second, third and fourth years of the multiyear price determination period.
Eskom said it would only comment on the matter once Nersa had made the reasons for its decision known.