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Uncertainty over coal jobs ahead of South Africa elections

A truck delivering coal to a power station

Photo by Bloomberg

27th May 2024

By: Reuters

  

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Growing up surrounded by the towering smokestacks of coal-fired power stations, 22-year-old Siya Mokoena's life is inextricably linked to the coal industry that dominates his hometown of Emalahleni in South Africa's eastern province of Mpumalanga.

Like many in Emalahleni, generations of Mokoena's family have worked in the coal sector. His father, a miner, was laid off in March when his mine was shut down.

Now as South Africans vote in May 29 general elections, many in the coal-rich region fear their main concern is being ignored - whether they will still have a job when the country shifts to green energy.

"I think it is fair to say that almost everyone in Emalahleni has a relationship with coal," said Mokoena, a local radio journalist and climate activist.

"Funnily enough, I haven't really seen anything about the green jobs, or any sort of campaign that speaks about how the government plans on addressing (the) just transition."

After 30 years in power, polls suggest the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could lose its majority.

But while political parties focus on job creation, ending power cuts, and curbing violent crime and corruption, largely absent from the debate has been the bold plan towards a just transition that shifts responsibly from coal to renewables.

Mpumalanga is the heart of South Africa's coal industry, with more than 100 mines and 12 coal-fired power stations. It produces 80% of the country's power supply and directly employs more than 90,000 people.

Yet many find themselves unsure of what the green transition entails and fearful of what it means for them.

"Most people in Mpumalanga have no idea what is about to happen to the coal industry," said Zethu Hlatshwayo, spokesperson for the Khuthala Environmental Care Group, a charity based in Mpumalanga's mining town of Ermelo.

"There are no solar or wind farms, no upskilling, no unions consulted. Just silence from government - and this hasn't changed in the build-up to the elections," he said.

JUST TRANSITION WOES
South Africa is the world's 11th biggest greenhouse gas emitter - with around 80% of its carbon emissions coming from coal.

But the government plans to invest nearly $85-billion over the next five years to shift from dirty coal to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power.

The funds will accelerate investment in renewables and the development of new sectors like electric vehicles and green hydrogen, and finance the state utility Eskom to re-purpose decommissioned coal-fired power plants.

The plan also seeks to ensure coal workers are reskilled and provided with opportunities to work in green energy.

As part of the plan, South Africa signed a climate finance deal - the Just Energy Investment Partnership (JETP) - in 2022 in which France, Germany, Britain, the United States and European Union pledged $8.5 billion to support the transition.

But so far, only one coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga's Komati village has been shut down - and almost two years on residents are still waiting for it to be converted into a renewable generation site and for the promised jobs.

Faults at South Africa's ageing coal plants lead to frequent scheduled power cuts, but wary of cutting electricity even more, Eskom said last week it had delayed closing at least three power stations despite commitments it made under the JETP.

Sustainable development experts said progress on the programme had been slow.

"The JETP has not been well managed, there are conflicted policies at play and a lack of political will to implement it with any speed," said Nick Hedley, editor of The Progress Playbook, a Cape Town-based news website focused on sustainable development.

"The risk is that it will become a disorderly 'unjust' transition rather than a well-managed one that protects everyone and creates the opportunities that should be on the table."

Environmentalists say one of the biggest hurdles is that not all government officials are on board.

Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, for example, is a former coal miner and a vocal defender of the sector.

He has resisted closures, instead arguing for expensive repairs to generators and long-term contracts for gas-fired power plants, and ridiculed the JETP as a "foreign concept", saying donors treat South Africans as "guinea pigs".

South Africa's Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has also defended coal, calling the closure of the Komati plant "an injustice".

South Africa's influential trade unions are also unconvinced. The National Union of Mineworkers last year called for the suspension of the JETP, saying it threatened 51,000 jobs.

'MISSED OPPORTUNITY'
Consequently, major political parties have shied away from spotlighting the green transition in their campaigns, apprehensive it might alarm voters.

Siyabonga Myeza, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said this had resulted in affected communities either being misinformed or left out of the just transition debate.

"As we talk to mining communities in Mpumalanga, there is a general feeling that people do not understand or even have a sense of what the just transition is," Myeza said.

"The dominant narrative here is that 'we have coal and we need to burn coal to have electricity' - that's what an ordinary community member knows."

Activists and development economists argue that politicians have failed to reframe decarbonisation as a promising pathway to create new jobs, ensure sustainable power and reduce deadly pollution.

"It is a missed opportunity," said Nokwanda Maseko, senior economist at Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, a Pretoria-based think tank focusing on trade and sustainable development.

"These are people who are responsible for powering the entire country and are the same people who are facing the health impacts of burning coal, so they really do need to be consulted so that they are sure of what is coming."

Back in Emalahleni, Mokoena recognises the importance of his vote - but is disillusioned by politicians' failure to address the energy transition.

"I feel like my vote is my little superpower," said Mokoena. "But as it stands, I'm still not sure who I'm going to vote for."

Edited by Reuters

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