“Just Transition” has become the buzz term used to explain the socioeconomic need to address the jobs and communities built around fossil fuel industries, while still ensuring we transition to more sustainable, cleaner and affordable energy. Coal, gas, nuclear and diesel energy industries, and the unions that protect the workers in them, are having to reckon with an increasingly competitive renewable energy sector and the now highly visible effects of pollution and climate change, as seen in the recent devastation caused by cyclone Idai that swept through Southern Africa and left the Mozambican city of Beira under water.

The shift to renewable energy seems inevitable, but if we are not careful to ensure an inclusive growth framework, we will exacerbate the already high levels of unemployment and poverty in the country. Phakamile Hlubi-Majola, spokesperson for the National Union for Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA) explained their position to The Big Debate,

“We must transition to renewable energy. It’s our members who are affected the most by pollution and climate change. We’re forced to breathe dirty air and drink poisonous water. Where we differ is that we do not believe that the social solution to climate change can be brought by private capitalism... We need a socially owned renewable energy sector.”

Worker unions like Numsa are frustrated with Eskom and the state, and the rushed process to address the current energy crisis. An energy crisis that has had the country experiencing level 4 and 5 load-shedding, five years after we were told the problem would be resolved. Numsa deputy general secretary Karl Cloete wrote in a 2018 Op-Ed: Numsa supports a transition from dirty energy to clean renewable energy, that they have been calling for a socially owned renewable sector and national grid as far back as 2011, and that the depiction of unions and workers as being against an energy transition distorts their issue,

“socially owned renewable energy is a way to resist foreign multinational corporations capturing our energy production and can provide a strong basis to confronting and overcoming energy inequalities.”

In its National Climate Change Response Strategy, the state acknowledged that it is a significant contributor to global climate change, with its energy intensive, fossil-fuel powered economy, that has CO2 emissions almost 4 times the world average.

“Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.” IPCC Synthesis Report 2014

Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that the ANC-led government and Eskom are using “just transition” as magic words in their policies and reports without addressing the serious issues on the ground, that have for example, resulted in workers at the formerly Gupta-owned Optimum Coal Mine not having received pay in up to 6 months. These workers say that they have lost faith in their unions' ability to bring the state and Eskom into fair negotiation, and have taken to organising themselves. Johnrie Gule, has been working as a coal extractor at the Hendrina-based mine for almost 12 years. He says his salary has been paid irregularly for a year now and stopped coming altogether in October 2018. When he went to report this, Gule found out he is an outsourced worker and has little rights to claim against Eskom,

“We started suffering when Glencore arrived. Then the Guptas entered and we were told they have 30 years of operating experience.. Things became worse when I say worse I mean we were working without medical cover. Then we issued a case of why our paycheques were bouncing”

On 20 March, Deputy Secretary General at the National Union for Mineworkers (NUM) told media that the Eskom CEO, Phakamani Hadebe, and board chairman Jabu Mabuza have “zero knowledge in energy,” and the board is continuing to receive board fees despite NUM never having met with Mabuza till that date.

This points to a lack of dialogue between Eskom, unions and the workers they represent. This undemocratic process is leaving workers with contradicting and mixed messages about the closing of plants and mines, and the unbundling of Eskom all of which has a direct impact on their present and future. Just last week Mabuza said they are considering stopping construction at its new power stations, Medupi and Kusile, which keep breaking down despite being Eskom’s grand answer to the energy crisis. These stations are years overdue, Medupi alone is the most expensive coal-fired power station in the world, costing the country R150bn to create. Jim Yong Kim, then president of the World Bank, presented Medupi as a clean coal project, but the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions are projected at 32 million tons per annum. Which is more than the total emissions of 143 countries.

Activists around the world protested for the World Bank to reject this disastrous loan at a time when corruption at Eskom was being exposed by various journalists. Despite all of this the loan went through and the project was publicly supported by Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan and the now Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe. They argued that building these stations, which cost about 3 times what they should have at a time in history when the world is moving away from the fossil-fuel industry, would create jobs and solve the energy crises.

These projects served as a feeding trough for ANC-front companies like Chancellor House Holdings and multinationals like Hitachi to score multi-billion dollar contracts for substandard work that soon resulted in the new plants requiring further funds for regular repairs. The travesty of all of this still remains that poor and working class people are affected the most, the very same people they claimed to build the stations for. The greatest insult is that it is South African citizens that are expected to pay back these corrupt loans through tax and electricity price-inflations.

Despite Eskom being a state owned enterprise (SOE) with the guise of being socially owned, it has used its state-power to invoke policies and practices that allow it to greedily monopolise the energy market with a high-cost coal energy supply chain that is wrought with corruption and inefficiency. It now seems invested powers in Eskom have been maneuvering to monopolise the emerging renewable energy market. Businessman Patrice Motsepe, who became a billionaire off the mining industry and former Eskom CEO, Brian Dames were ahead of the current curve, forming an energy company African Rainbow Energy and Power (Arep) in 2015, that now works with renewable energy.

Coincidentally Motsepe is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s brother-in-law, another mining industry tycoon. Shortly after Ramaphosa became president in 2018, he made his other stepbrother, Jeff Radebe, Minister of Energy in South Africa.

Radebe helped draft the state’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) and create a Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (Reippp) Programme that is signing 27 independent renewable energy independent power producers (IPPs) to add electricity to the national grid over the next five years.

Motsepe’s Arep has a 10% stake in the Reipp (R800 million out of the programmes R8.6 billion outlay) and is being given roles in some of the only 27 IPP contracts with the DOE, these contracts are done through other companies - so Motsepe can legally say that Arep is getting no further contracts from Eskom. The move to take over the emerging energy sector is veiled in corporate and political maneuvering.

On the 21st of March, we remembered the fallen victims of the Sharpeville Massacre and celebrated Human Rights Day because now we live in a democratic rainbow nation. It is this very same rainbow nation that led to the massacre of protesting mineworkers in Marikana, who were protesting for very similar reasons to mineworkers in Mpumalanga - they have been exploited for labour in a toxic industry and now are unable to feed themselves and their families, let alone be afforded the opportunities of a prosperous nation in the 21st Century. If we do not place the well being and rights of people and the planet at the center of our economic and technological growth, then the short term and profit-driven interests of business will capture our future and the transition to renewable energy will be anything but just.

Researcher & Content Producer at The Big Debate & South African History Online

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