Nomonde Nkosi stood before the door of her small, cement-block home, gesturing toward a plume of black smoke rising in the distance. “The air is smoky,” she said, “and when they blast, I can feel it from where I am. The house shakes.” Nkosi’s province of Mpumalunga accounts for 83% of South Africa’s coal production, with 12 mining companies and numerous coal-fired power plants, one of them approaching 100 years old. We South Africans instinctively associate the region with chemical-laden air, so much so that visitors invariably complain of scratchy throats and soot-dusted skin. Meanwhile, communities in Mpumalanga lack even the most basic necessities, with electricity so expensive few can afford it, and local streams that run brown thanks to contamination from the mines.
These days, though, Nkosi, a committed community activist, entertains a wary hope that a brighter future might lie ahead. Like the rest of the world, South Africa is looking to transition from a fossil-fueled economy to one that’s driven by clean, renewable forms of energy. We know it won’t be easy: My country is home to no fewer than 90 mines, and we rely on coal for 87% of our electricity. (Even that doesn’t cut it. Poor management and corruption at Eskom, the state-run power company, have left us dealing with power cuts for the last several years. Those of us on the grid often have to go without electricity for up to six hours a day.)
But two years ago, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, established a landmark Climate Commission, and he ratcheted up our obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement. Last November, at the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, the government struck a deal with the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union. Known as the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), the agreement—which Foreign Policy called “the most impressive thing to come out of the summit”—is designed to provide $8.5 billion in grants and affordable loans over the next five years. All in an effort to enable South Africa to retire its aging coal plants, construct cleaner energy sources, and support the millions of people living in coal-dependent regions who will need to quickly reimagine their lives.
The question is how we pull off the “just” part of the transition for folks like Nomonde Nkosi, who’ve been left behind for so long. How will we cushion the blow of deindustrialization in a nation that, despite its vast natural treasures, still lags behind in development and traps millions of citizens in poverty? South Africa’s unemployment rate already ranks among the highest in the world, and the Just Energy Transition threatens some 120,000 jobs, most of them among heavily unionized mine and power-plant workers.
Many of the specifics around the loan arrangements remain murky. While the commission has conducted community stakeholder engagements in various parts of the country, these communities, which our grantees work with, express a concern about what’s actually being done to roll out the transition. “Our government talks very passionately about climate change and resource governance,” said Claude Kabemba, who directs the Johannesburg-based Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW). “But there aren't very progressive policies in place, and there's always a gap between policy and implementation. Even where you find great policies, the implementation is not always there. Or if it's there, it's haphazardly done.”
In places like Mpumalanga, life has revolved around coal for as long as anyone can remember. Most people work at the mines and those who don’t labor for company-supported schools, transit operations, or shops that service the mines and their workers. And the fallout from the industry literally flavors—or rather taints—the air they breathe and the water they drink. But as Eskom looks to decommission its plants there, the community will need to change everything about the way it functions.
The few government consultations that have taken place, Kabemba says, have come without advance notice, giving communities no time to gather their thoughts around the transition they’d like to see. It’s a shame, he adds, because the Mpumalanga residents, who have spent decades advocating for themselves in the face of the fossil-fuel industry and developed a strong activist voice, should be an important ally in realizing this transition. It’s for this reason that Kabemba and his team at the Ford-funded SARW have tapped the community, and, in particular, a group called WOMANDLA, founded by Nkosi and other local women, as key partners in ensuring that the government fulfills its promise to implement a just transition.
South Africa’s Climate Commission holds incredible promise not just for the country, but the continent—and the world. With an $8.5 billion commitment, it has the potential to transition the country from coal to clean forms of energy and show other resource-reliant nations a sustainable way forward.
While much hangs in the balance, communities and the organizations that serve them are keeping a sharp eye on every move of this transition and ensuring the voice of the people are part of the conversation. Communities are invested and believe a change is long overdue. As Mashudu Masutha, a senior program officer with SARW, said: “They don’t want to merely get rid of coal, they want a better life.”
Amid it all, concerns remain about how, exactly, the financing will work, whether the loans will actually materialize, and how, in dispersing them, the government can avoid the corruption for which the extractives sector has long been notorious. The agreements entail loans of different sorts, and some worry that the country won’t be able to repay them, particularly if we are slamming the brakes on some of our most lucrative industries. “Part of our role is oversight,” said Fourie, who is among those arguing for an increase in domestic funding to complement the investments from outside the country. “We can’t do that without proper transparency about where this money is coming from.”
“Who’s going to control the money?” asks Kabemba. “The same group of entrenched elites?” It isn’t just the government, but multinational and local corporations, that stand to benefit from a preservation of the status quo. “Our challenge now is how to shift the power in favor of communities.”
In November, representatives from around the world will gather in Egypt for COP27, the first time the global conference will have been held on the continent. Kabemba hopes that as people recognize the critical role that Africa plays in driving a climate-controlled future—not just in supplying the minerals required for securing green energy, but in preserving the vast rainforests and peatlands of its Congo Basin—the global community will recognize its value and support its efforts. Though Africa contributes but a fraction of global emissions and still lags far behind where development is concerned, Kabemba said, “We have committed to address the issue with the same vigor as those who’ve polluted.”
“You go to these community meetings and people are angry, they are furious with the way the government has let them down,” Fourie said. “But they’re still hopeful, and they’re still demanding, and they’re ready to offer their own services to fix things. If they could see the wind farms going up, the solar panels being installed in townships—and people actually having electricity, as opposed to sitting in the dark—that would be huge.”
There is no question that our country has the resources and the infrastructure to get this job done right. Our government must be meticulous both about implementing sound policy and maintaining absolute transparency as it carries out these fundamental reforms. Any missteps could provide fodder for other world leaders looking to drag their feet and provide excuses as to why business should carry on as usual. With war raging on in Ukraine and European countries beginning to sacrifice their ancient forests for heat, the issue of climate is increasingly taking a backseat, with billions in financial commitments hanging in the balance.
If, on the other hand, South Africa succeeds, we will stand as a role model for the world. We have already begun to see other countries in the Global South drawing up blueprints for Just Transitions modeled on our own. Given the backing we’ll require from the global community and the philanthropic sector, South Africans could find ourselves, within a decade, producing and exporting batteries and electric vehicles while at the same time enjoying cleaner air and water, better health outcomes, and a far more equitable distribution of wealth. If a Just Transition can help South Africa reimagine a new economy and evolve into a more just society, imagine the possibilities for the rest of the world.