Speaking at the Hendrik Johannes van der Bijl memorial lecture on 17 August 2021, Eskom’s chief executive, Andre de Ruyter, argued that South Africa’s opening to global market forces in the 1990s was premature and exposed the lack of competitiveness in the country’s manufacturing base. He fell short, however, of acknowledging that the apartheid project was unjust and left behind an unequal and impoverished society whose scars are defined by race.
Sam Ashman goes some way to filling these historical gaps, laying bare the minerals and energy foundations on which our unequal society was built. Historically, energy infrastructure in South Africa – an intervention by Afrikaners in a political economy dominated by foreign-owned mining companies – has been at the centre of injustices against the Black majority.
But what should South Africa’s move out of the past and into the future – our just energy transition – look like?
A growing economy requires energy. And that energy mix should be in the interest of all. Our ambitions cannot begin and end with the reduction of environmental degradation. They must also include the impoverished and unemployed in a grossly unequal society.
South Africa’s just transition should be about justice – a fair and equitable transformation of the energy sector to a low-carbon economy using a variety of sources in the energy mix, from renewables, hydrogen, battery storage and waste to nuclear and thermal energy.
Currently, the limited scaffolding of the energy transition consists of 2019’s integrated resource plan, which introduces other forms of electricity capacity beyond fossil fuels as well as a restructured Eskom.
The road map we have
Eskom’s road map includes the creation of an inclusive economy based on the cheapest energy available that attracts the largest amount of investment and creates jobs at scale. It stresses the protection and growth of jobs on the back of low‐cost energy, particularly in the downstream value chain.
The reform process will apparently provide retraining and bridging opportunities for Eskom, its power station and all coal sector workers that will be supported by a massive energy‐related industrialisation programme, centred around Mpumalanga, with very high export potential, especially to Africa.
The power utility also hopes to enable energy access and security for all South Africans, particularly impoverished communities. The proposed construction of decentralised energy grid infrastructure in small towns such as Upington and De Aar in the Northern Cape and Alice in the Eastern Cape is designed to have a positive impact on spatial inequality. Finally, the plans lay out a social safety net for those who are not able to transition to these new opportunities.
A just transition, however, cannot be the prerogative of the state, business, unions, professionals and interest groups alone. It must accommodate everyone.
Just like the struggle against apartheid, a just energy transition will require a broad alliance of interest groups with a shared vision of the future to act politically for a labour-absorptive, sustainable economy away from the minerals and energy complex. Although this is just the beginning of a long walk to a just energy transition, developing a new industry must be South Africa’s first step.
The process that resulted in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) perhaps comes closest to what a process leading to a just transition should entail.
A new political settlement
The RDP was the end of one process and the beginning of another. The policy was the result of many months of consultation among the ANC, its alliance partners and other mass organisations in wider society. It went through six drafts, incorporating numerous comments and proposals arising from the Conference on Reconstruction and Strategy in January 1994. In the process, there was much public comment – both favourable and critical – that made valuable contributions and led to the rethinking of earlier recommendations. This process was long, but it created convergence on what needed to be done.
There are, however, limitations to such an extensive consultative process. External events could unsettle it. And, more alarmingly, researchers from Earthlife Africa, groundWork, Life After Coal and the Energy Research Centre have shown that local authorities are unaware of the upcoming challenges associated with moving away from coal and are ill-prepared to face them.
Our transition, then, requires citizens to state their demands clearly. It requires marches on Eskom, on the departments of public enterprises and mineral resources. It requires digital campaigns and civil disobedience demanding urgent action from policy makers to inform and educate the broader South African community. Failure to do so would leave the country equipped with little more than the Eskom road map and the integrated resource plan, which would leave us at the beginning of an unnecessarily long walk to a just transition.
A new political settlement for industrialisation in a low-carbon economy must be championed. It should mobilise key Black constituencies, including industrial trades unions, through effective skills upgrading and investment, and productive Black entrepreneurs, through the opening up of economic opportunities. It should speak to their aspirations, especially in urban areas, where the majority now live and where industrial agglomerations are built. It must reach and sustain a shared and binding commitment that will, through shared growth and investment, lead to a reversal of the growing inequality in wealth and access to economic opportunities.
Finally, the settlement needs agreement around the expectations for large firms. Long-term domestic fixed investment, innovation and dynamic competitive rivalry must be rewarded. These must go hand in hand with effective government policies regarding infrastructure, procurement, skills development, technology and opening regional and international markets. All of this must be captured in a national agenda, designed and delivered locally, where people have a strong sense of identity and a stake in the outcomes.