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The deadly road from GEAR to Climate Change

Apparent ignorance might have saved Zwelinzima Vavi from even greater retribution by his erstwhile COSATU comrades.

Vavi’s critique of the National Development Plan (NDP) as an updated version of the 1996 GEAR might have been even more robust – and, hence, attracted an even harsher response by his detractors – had he known that the NDP’s coverage of climate change is painted in GEAR’s neo-liberal colours.

The similarities between the two documents begin with what Professor Jonathan Jansen aptly describes as symbolic policy. This is policy that, at best, is replete with noble though unrealisable intentions; at worst, it cynically creates the illusion of a strategy with coherent principles and an evidence led plan of action. It both cases, symbolic policy serves to reassure by inducing the belief that leaders are in control.

Like GEAR’s broad objectives (growth, employment, redistribution), the NDP’s general pronouncements on climate change are hard to fault. The NDP accepts that South Africa will be especially hard hit by climate change.
The drift into symbolic policy begins almost as soon as the NDP turns to what must be done to meet the challenge: These steps include
Coordinated planning and investment in infrastructure and services that take account of climate change…;

Provid[ing] South Africans with access to secure housing, clean water and decent sanitation; and affordable and safe energy; (p.190).
Pure fantasy takes over when elucidating its guiding principles for the transition to an ‘environmentally sustainable low carbon economy’. Set against the officially recognised dysfunctional state, are requirements, such as:
Address the structural and systemic flaws of the economy and society with strength of leadership, boldness, visionary thinking and innovative planning.
Develop coherent and aligned policy that provides predictable signals, while being simple, feasible and effective (p.200).
These fantasies and those of GEAR have a common parentage: neo-liberalism that limits the state to create and sustain business-friendly policies and practices.

The NDP does this by:

  • Giving primacy to protecting South African business (while simultaneously claiming to be responding to the urgency demanded by climate change).
  • South Africa needs to remain competitive throughout the transition to a low-carbon future (p169).
  • Making Renewable Energy (RE) the basis of the transition to a low carbon economy but:
  • overlooking the example of, for instance, Sasol, which was established and subsidised by the state for strategic purposes;
  • seeing, instead, RE as little more than a business opportunity; and thus
  • restricting the state to outsourcing RE at the pace set by the profit maximising private sector.

The government must create an investment climate that encourages the private sector (p.327)
The outcome of all this is that by 2030 a mere 9% of South Africa’s energy will be provided by RE, despite the affirmation that

A low-carbon future is the only realistic option, as the world needs to cut emissions per unit of output by a factor of about eight in the next 40 years. (p.91)


  • This need to ‘create an encouraging investment climate’ takes priority over the NDP’s good climate change intentions. Thus, despite the recognition that
  • The pace of change is dangerously slow and deeply worrying (p.93). Threats to the environment are real and growing, driving the world closer to a tipping point. Failure by world leaders to take urgent action to remedy current trends in carbon emissions will lead to dire consequences for future generations (p.95)
  • and the further acknowledgement that
  • To have [no more than] a 50 percent chance of containing the increase to 20C, the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions… (p.91)
  • these acknowledgements vanish when it comes to the Government’s carbon tax proposal (notwithstanding corporate objections).
  • The NDP further reproduces the investor friendliness of GEAR by allowing the Mineral Energy Complex (MEC) to continue socialising its costs in order to maximise its profits.
  • It is this so-called ‘externalisation’ of the enormous climate, environmental and health costs of coal measured on a life-cycle basis that permit the NDP to make the otherwise false claim that
  • Recent local renewable energy bidding rounds attracted solar prices two or three times that of coal-fired electricity.[169]
  • Like in Gear, job creation is a central objective of the NDP’s climate change provisions. However
  • oLabour intensity is not a design requirement built-into RE specifications;
  • oThe local supply of RE components that will at least create some local jobs is between 6% to 9.5% more expensive than imports and therefore likely to be circumvented;
  • oThe primacy bestowed on preserving both the competitiveness of South African business and creating a business-friendly environment consigns job creation to the back seat where it remains firmly super-glued. Much of this is openly acknowledged by the NDP

South Africa’s quest for a lower carbon-emitting power sector needs to be balanced against the potentially higher costs…that come with new and renewable energy. (p.169)
It should also be noted that this ‘balancing’

oeffectively means ignoring everything the NDP also says about the needed gallop to a low carbon economy, and
ocontradicts the firm localisation policy of the DTI’s Industrial Policy Action Plan (IPAP) as well as the Department of Energy’s (DoE’s) Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP).

  • This type of policy incoherence is underscored still further by the Government’s recent decision to build a third mega coal-fired power plant. The NDP’s central commitment to a low-carbon economy, as well as the urgency with which the NDP says this transition must take place, is thus made to look rather silly.
  • Unemployment is a major cause of South Africa’s endemic poverty. The NDP is littered with recognition of how climate change falls unevenly on the poor. But, as detailed above, this recognition never gets beyond its rhetorical role as symbolic policy.
  • Water security is probably the single most referenced issue at threat by climate change in South Africa. Yet the enormous connections between neo-liberalism and municipal dysfunction means that our water supplies are in a state of crisis even before the full impact of climate change makes it considerably worse.

Three recent examples of this crisis should suffice:

  • Some 36.8% of scarce fresh water is lost as leaks, at the cost of some R11 billion per year.
  • The water in our rivers is now so heavily toxic that, besides being potentially fatal to those that drink it, it is threatening fruit and vegetable exports.
  • Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) bears mention not so much because it, too, heavily contaminates water, but rather because it draws attention to the privileged protection given to the mine companies responsible for the disaster. The NDP’s commitment to creating a business friendly environment immunises the mine owners from the ‘polluter pays’ provisions of legislation rich in symbolic policy.

There are limits to the efficacy of symbolic policy. If the gap between the rhetoric and reality is too large, enough people will eventually become aware of the chasm. When this happens, the reassurance that symbolic policy serves to provide gives way to anger, stoked still further by a sense of deception.

It could be said that this anger characterises much of contemporary South Africa. It could even be said that Zwelinzima Vavi’s suspension is punishment for exposing symbolic policy by drawing attention to the irreconcilable contradictions within so much of government policy.

{The full version of this edited article appears in the Progressive Economic Network’s, The National Development Plan: 7 Critical Appraisals (2013). AIDC }

Jeff Rudin
20th August 2013

This article was first published in Mail & Guardian on 20/9/13

Posted in AIDC

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