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South Africa: Eskom’s next generation crises should be prevented immediately

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Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

by Kershni Ramreddi and Patrick Bond

In addition to promoting social justice and tackling issues such as poverty, inequality and gender gaps, the greening of economies can improve our capacity to manage natural resources sustainably, boost energy efficiency and reduce waste. There are numerous opportunities to accomplish social objectives during a just transition to renewable energy.

In lower, middle and upper-income economies, it has the potential to be a new and sustainable engine of growth. It may also serve as a net producer of credible green jobs that greatly advance social inclusion and the elimination of poverty. Without a just transition to renewable energy, there is also a substantial risk that we won’t develop the low-carbon, environmentally sustainable economy that is necessary for the welfare of future generations.

Economic changes could lead to increasing social inequality, worker disenchantment, strikes or civil unrest, decreased productivity, and less competitive enterprises, sectors, and markets if not carefully managed through just transition policies and processes. Any initiatives aiming to address the difficulties and opportunities to accelerate the transition to a lowcarbon, climate-resilient society, especially in the aftermath of Covid19, must be inclusive, just, and sustainable due to the county’s history of colonial rule and apartheid.

The vulnerability of huge numbers of the black people will be exacerbated by transitional pathways that do not acknowledge and address their historical, current and continuing discrimination, leading to justified resistance. Factors related to the economy, society and environment that will inevitably result in the phasing out of fossil fuels will open up possibilities for the creation of new livelihoods and jobs for present and future people.

Supporting societal groups, which encounter racial, gendered and age prejudice, requires special consideration. Although the transition is inevitable, it will need proactive and deliberate action to ensure that it is fair. In South Africa, which is ranked as the most unequal nation in the world in terms of income and wealth and is also one of the top emitters of CO2, the application of the principles and methods of just transitions is particularly pertinent. The country has continued to rely on an outdated infrastructure of coal-fired power plants to supply more than 80% of its electricity despite the growing availability of less expensive alternatives.

South Africa’s economic development, employment opportunities, and livelihoods have been adversely impacted by the effects of climate change on biodiversity and water supplies. The country will need to concurrently and urgently address climate change if it wants to expedite economic growth and transformation while using its environmental resources sustainably. If we want to ensure long, safe lives for ourselves and future generations, we must move away from fossil fuels.

The plan by President Cyril Ramaphosa to establish a second state-owned utility to address the energy crisis is absurd. Ramaphosa and Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe should concentrate on mending Eskom and proposing solutions on how we can move toward a sustainable just future rather than creating a new state-owned utility, which would involve exorbitant expenses, time and much more corruption.

Apparently, as a distraction technique, to avoid acknowledging real solutions for the energy and climate crises, Ramaphosa has applauded Mantashe’s appeal for a second state-owned energy enterprise. Are they admitting, in effect, that the “dead horse” Eskom – as its CEO Andre de Ruyter has termed the monopoly electricity supplier – might go the way of Denel and SAA, that is into receivership given the burden of repaying R400 billion in debt? If so, the privatisation will continue, but under a new disguise. Since 2018, Mantashe has presided over worse chaos in electricity supply and climate change damage than even his predecessors.

Not only must the main energy parastatal be saved through the “Green New Eskom” campaign launched in civil society last year, but Mantashe’s other ideas for grid gasification should also be halted urgently, in order that all available resources be put into renewable energy and storage. The promised $8.5bn (nearly R150bn) JET-P will begin flowing before the next climate summit, hosted by Egypt in November.

The government’s 2021 “Nationally Determined Contribution” statement to the UN asked for such assistance for “non-fossil fuel development in Mpumalanga” with a rhetorical mandate to close most of Eskom’s dysfunctional coal-fired power plants early.

Can this process be “just”, and truly leave no worker and community behind, while moving the society to 100% renewable energy and adequate storage for cloudy, windless days? Another danger of JET-P is the impression that Eskom’s R400bn debt is potentially being added to, so the company can pay interest on the old debt to the same lenders.

While a genuine just transition is desperately needed, it would be naive to trust the powers that be to deliver. This proposal shows that the government will continue to fester the energy crisis despite its disastrous management of Eskom. The solution is not another Eskom, but to vote for a new and better government.

Ramreddi is the Energy and Just Transition Project Officer at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and Bond is a professor at the University of Johannesburg.