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South Africa’s energy policy puts profit before people – The Mail & Guardian

Government support for coal power and reluctance to switch to renewables undermine the potential for economic expansion and job creation in the renewable energy sector. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Getty Images

SAfrica’s energy policy is at a turning point, but one thing is clear: the current course of energy policy is unsustainable and unjust.

With Eskom set to raise prices by 44% next year and a new wave of City Power ‘load shedding’ targeting black neighbourhoods, the need for a just and fair energy transition has never been more important. The government’s ‘just transition’ to renewable energy has failed, leaving communities like Orange Farm burdened by corporate and neoliberal policies.

Eskom’s excessive price increases and deliberate disconnections underscore a larger systemic problem: prioritizing profit over people. This approach not only deepens inequality, but also undermines the fabric of South African society. The government continues to intensify corporate pressure, leaving grassroots movements as the last line of defense against these injustices.

City Power recently implemented load shedding due to grid congestion caused by high winter demand and electricity theft, despite suspending load shedding for 104 consecutive days. This inconsistency further highlights the unstable and unreliable nature of the power system, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities.

There are also state-led processes, including the $8.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership process. This initiative was designed to ignore local labour and communities in Mpumalanga, the country’s main coal and power station province. In addition, the Presidential Climate Commission, led by Valli Moosa and Crispian Olvera, is under scrutiny. Moosa has a history of promoting Eskom coal-fired power stations and has been implicated in a corruption case, while Olver has been linked to questionable fundraising for President Ramaphosa’s internal party elections. According to the Climate Justice Charter Movement, the Presidential Climate Commission process embodies a mix of “neo-corporate bargaining” and “stakeholder capitalism.”

YouTube The Great Debate in South Africa The environmental justice episode highlighted the lack of faith in the new cabinet and the prevailing cynicism about state action. Nonhle Mbuthuma from Xolobeni expressed a sentiment shared by many: “Don’t have faith in the new cabinet.” This skepticism is justified, given the ANC-DA regime’s continued inability to meaningfully address climate and energy issues.

The global context further complicates South Africa’s energy problems. Major domestic policy changes do not reflect the international community’s shift to renewable energy. Continued coal exports, particularly to Israel, underscore the hypocrisy of energy policy. Colombia’s coal boycott to Israel underscores the urgent need for a global coalition against fossil fuels. Local and international activism is crucial to transitioning to a more sustainable and equitable future.

The road ahead is fraught with obstacles. Neoliberal government policies continue to undermine efforts for a just transition. But grassroots movements, supported by international solidarity, have the potential to drive significant change. The fight for climate justice in South Africa is far from over, but requires a concerted effort from all sectors of society to demand accountability, equity, and sustainability.

The appointment of the DA’s Dion George as the new environment minister introduces a different set of problems. He has adopted an ideology appropriate to the region and the era, saying: “Promoting local economic growth requires public-private partnerships, liberalisation of markets, strengthening property rights, open trade, improving regulation and cutting red tape, labour laws that encourage job creation, removing currency controls and a visa system that works.”

Like others in the DA, George is flexible. He opposes a minimum wage for 18-35 year-olds and recognises the importance of social welfare, saying: “The government could increase the child benefit to the poverty line (from R530 to R760 per month). The government could increase the basket of zero-rated goods purchased by the most vulnerable 50% of South African households.”

While George’s advocacy of eco-modernization and pro-business sentiment may seem progressive, it often translates into policies that prioritize economic growth over genuine environmental protection. He’ll repeat platitudes if you give him 25 minutes on national television. But his core messages can be summarized in four key ideas:

  • George emphasizes that combating climate change requires implementing technology projects financed by markets and foreign aid. However, he fails to mention that 97% of the Just Energy Transition Partnership’s funding from donors in the EU, UK and US is loans that must be repaid in hard currency.
  • If EU, UK and US funders hit South Africa with a carbon border adjustment mechanism, a tariff on exports using high-carbon energy, George will become non-cooperative because he believes correcting a broken market (which fails to price carbon)2 emissions) through a tariff is “not a good idea.” This means departing from standard environmental-economic theory and becoming a climate denier when it comes to international trade.
  • Given that South Africa has significant coal reserves (53 billion tonnes), a rapid phase-out of coal power is unlikely. George supports extending the life of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, arguing that we need to use its abundant coal resources. “We’re sitting on a pile of coal. That’s what we’ve got here. We’ve been using it. It was inevitable that we’d use it for power. You can’t change that. The fact is, we don’t have enough electricity on our grid.” George also avoids addressing the disproportionate use of energy by 27 multinational corporations.
  • George says he not only values ​​nature, but views it as a commodity. So when asked if “environmental impact studies are being used to block large projects that could have huge economic impacts,” such as offshore oil and gas exploration, which would release huge amounts of scope 3 greenhouse gases, George responded in a way that ignores the climate threat from burning oil and methane. “If you look at exploration, if it’s done offshore, for example, it’s going to have an impact on ocean ecology and communities that depend on fishing. As you know, my background is in finance. If you look at the economy, it’s a system. So if we look at our system, for example, the economy, our natural asset economy, let’s call it that.” But George doesn’t use the $1,056 per ton social cost of carbon that US economists currently use—and instead simply asks us to achieve equilibrium.

In these turbulent times, let us draw inspiration from the resilience and determination of communities like Orange Farm. Their struggle reminds us that fighting for a just and sustainable future is a collective endeavor. Together we can challenge the forces of corporate greed and build a South Africa that puts people before profits.

Thabo Motshweni is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.