Energy democracy and climate justice


South Africa’s Toxic Legacy of Extractivism and Carbon-Intensive Energy

The convergence of social, economic and ecological crises in South Africa takes a uniquely toxic form because of the legacy of Apartheid and the economic dominance of what has been termed the “minerals-energy complex” (MEC): a system of accumulation that has shaped the South African economy into being extremely “extractivist” in nature and carbon intensive. A handful of corporations, located in the minerals, ferrochrome, petrochemical and energy sectors have gained and consolidated power over South Africa’s development policy. By the time of the democratic transition, the MEC was at the core of the economy and sectors without strong linkages to the MEC were left underdeveloped. Another consequence of this legacy of extractivism is that South Africa suffers widespread resource depletion across a wide range of key resource sectors, for instance: (a) estimates of coal reserves have been revised downwards to a mere 20% of original estimates; (b) by 2004, 98% of South Africa’s total water resources had already been allocated; (c) degradation of soil fertility is confirmed on 41% of cultivated land.

Despite the increasing urgency of tackling the global ecological crisis, the South African government remains unable to break away from the unsustainable path demanded by the dominant MEC. While the country has made a number of basically sound policy commitments on paper to address climate change and reduce the carbon intensity of the economy, greenhouse gas emissions have increased 25% over the last 10 years. President Zuma’s recent “State of the Nation” address confirmed the extractivist and energy intensive orientation of his government. The vision outlined in the speech entrenches current neoliberal macroeconomic policy and reinforces the dominance of South Africa’s mining and energy complex; the attempt to offset impacts of the economic crisis through intensified mining undermines stated commitments to mitigate carbon emissions and create decent jobs.

Cheap electricity has been central to South Africa’s industrial expansion strategies throughout its history and was written into the 1928 law that established Eskom as a state-owned power utility. Mining and related industries were built on and became heavily reliant on cheap and abundant electricity with coal as the primary energy source. Over 90 per cent of the electricity generated is from burning coal. South Africa is reported to be the 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world. More disconcerting is that its per capita emissions of CO2 exceeds the world average and is higher than that of China, Brazil and India. Cheap electricity does not just rely on the abundance of coal but also cheap labour, extensive externalities and huge additional historical and current subsidies. Making this situation even worse is the government’s commitment to replace aging coal plants with new coal-based and nuclear generation thereby entrenching and accentuating the centralised, carbon-intensive, capital-intensive and profit-orientated nature of the MEC economy.

As with coal, government’s commitment to hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is completely misguided. Stories of environmental devastation from fracking operations continue to roll in from around the world. The intense use of scarce water resources represents an environmental and social disaster; at the same time, the promise of “job creation” through fracking remains illusory. The enthusiasm for fracking in South Africa is heavily connected with possibilities for enrichment under the guise of black economic empowerment (BEE).

Similarly, the reiterated commitment to nuclear power reflects precisely the wrong approach. As news continues to radiate out of Fukushima about the still-unfolding crisis of the nuclear catastrophe there, we are reminded that the inherent dangers posed by nuclear energy are enormous, and pose massive problems in terms of costs, safety and waste.

South Africa’s own forays into renewable energy are clearly failing to achieve the wider developmental goals that have been set for them. A new report on the: ”Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme” (REI4P) by for the Energy Governance Initiative details evidence that local job creation has fallen dramatically short of projections, while projects have been riven by a litany of failures due to the competitive pressures of privatised ownership of what should be social goods: exaggeration of jobs created; use of “labour brokers”; inadequate consultation with affected communities; and exacerbation of community tensions due to lack of transparency and oversight.

From 2009, the AIDC saw the necessity of integrating the ecological crisis and especially the climate crisis into its programmes and strategies, as a significant dimension of the overall crisis of civilisation which the world was facing.

A major theme of our work was jobs and decent work, given the centrality of SA’s unemployment crisis to the social and economic crisis weighing down SA’s post-Apartheid transition. It was in this context that we developed the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, a strategy for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses through the creation of climate jobs. This brought the energy, especially the electricity, sector into key focus.

Our motivation was manifold:

  1. Decarbonising the electricity sector would make the greatest contribution to the reducing SA’s very high level of greenhouse gas emissions and lower the carbon intensity of the economy;
  2. The crisis of Eskom and the electricity sector is a key factor behind the deindustrialisation and current stagnation of the SA economy, significantly impacting on one of the world’s highest rates of unemployment;
  3. ESKOM and the electricity sector is at the centre of neoliberal reforms targeting SOEs. The liberalisation / privatisation of the electricity sector will serve as a model for what will be pursued with Transnet and other key vehicles for providing essential services on which poor people depend. Hence, realistic and concrete alternatives must be shown to be available and feasible.

One Million Climate Jobs Booklet (2011) & (2017)

A follow up to the first booklet that was produced in 2011. It is based on well-researched solutions for how South Africa can immediately begin a just transition, away from the Minerals-Energy Complex that continues to dominate the South African capitalist economy, to a low carbon economy in which the basic needs of communities are met in an equitable, sustainable and affordable way.

Renewable energy, where are the jobs? 

This review critically examines the current REI4P model of socio-economic development implementation. More specifically, it asks whether the REI4P is creating decent full time jobs to its maximum potential; delivering services to those affected communities, and empowering communities to identify and implement opportunities beyond the renewable energy projects.

Climate change and climate jobs: Easy answers to 56 important questions

Climate jobs (comic booklet)

This booklet sets out what we need to do to fight climate change and mass unemployment at the same time. It seeks to address the real concerns of workers. It argues that, rather than being the victims of unemployment and climate change, workers can organise to do two urgent things at once: through our trade unions, we can plan a Just Transition away from climate change. At the same time, we can force the creation of the hundreds of thousands of climate jobs needed to make sure that our children and grandchildren and their children’s children have a climate-friendly world in which to live. 

Eskom Transformed

This report presents the case for a modern national power utility – a New Eskom. Unfortunately, in the public discourse around energy in South Africa, the word ‘Eskom’ has become an expletive. To suggest that a reformed publicly utility can and must play a new and perhaps expanded role in shaping the country’s energy future as it transitions away from coal sounds ludicrous. But this is exactly what the situation demands, and this report explains why.

A brief history of Eskom

In order to fully understand the problems facing Eskom and the electricity system today, it is important to understand the history of how electricity developed in South Africa, who was responsible and why it was developed; what changes were made and when, and in whose interests. Once we have this full picture, we can better understand what we need to do to transform the current system in order to meet basic social needs.

Why Eskom is in a mess and what to do about it?

In this booklet, we bring together some key arguments, summaries, and sections of the full Eskom Transformed report. We hope to leave you not only with an understanding of why unbundling is a dead end but also with a vision of an alternative that is worth fighting for!

What’s wrong with Eskom and how to fix it: Easy answers to important questions

This booklet packs many of the key points from Eskom Transformed into an accessible questions & answers format, where we address some of the common questions around the energy crisis and climate change.


AIDC statement on the Electricity Regulation Amendment Bill: Let’s keep our energy affordable!

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BEYOND THE COP27 OP-ED | Climate crisis – practical action begins with better understanding of planetary reality

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 09 Jan 2023    Documents that were kept under wraps for 50 years give us insights that help explain why efforts to agree on climate change interventions have failed so far. The scale of the

Taking Back the Just Transition for Climate Protection and Decent Work!

The AIDC, with the support of FES, is inviting you to debate the energy transition in South Africa. This discussion amongst trade unionists, social and environmental justice activists is urgent in light of the crisis of energy and climate policy. There are growing differences

United Front to Address Loadshedding

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How Climate Jobs Can Offer Decent Work to South Africans

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Climate Jobs Booklet (2011)

One Million Climate Jobs