Getting to grips with South Africa’s energy sector is no easy task. It’s a moving target, with many often-competing interests that need to be delicately balanced. The government has committed to speeding up the pace towards renewable energy, in line with its international commitments and the requirements of a changing economic structure.

A key feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the shift from fossil fuels to smarter, cleaner renewable energy. In South Africa that shift is hindered by the weaknesses of state-owned utility Eskom. Now a new report suggests there may be a way (or several ways) forward…

The elephant in the room is Eskom. No change can happen in isolation of the state’s power utility, which supplies more than 90% of the country’s electricity. But Eskom is in disarray and on top of the billions that are needed to get it running effectively, Parliament this month heard that it will need an additional R187-billion to comply with new emission-reduction laws.

At the same employment and job losses must be considered, as well as the impact on communities that rely on power stations to keep their local economies ticking over, and how serious we are about greening our economy and moving away from being one of the top emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world. A recently released report by non-profit organisation (NPO) Project 90 by 2030 examines many of these factors. The aim of the study, titled Remaking Our Energy Future: Towards a Just Energy Transition (JET) in South Africa, is to stimulate further debate and push the current discourse toward action. It is sponsored by German think tank Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

As the document states: “… there is no coherent strategy in place for how to actually get started.”. However, it maintains that there is enough common ground that has emerged from stakeholder dialogue to start “doing” while the talking continues. The report calls for a just transition as the country shifts towards more environmentally sustainable practices. As advocated by 4IRSA and the Presidential Commission on 4IR, it calls for the eradication of poverty and inequality to be at the centre of the transition.


The researchers don’t pretend to give an exhaustive analysis or to know all the answers for this complex phase in our nation’s history. But they believe that an emphasis is needed on priority areas.

“Practically, this involves setting up a management framework that should initially benefit the most directly affected people, but the process must be designed from the outset to address all the building blocks in parallel,” they say.

The document proposes five pillars as essential building blocks for a just energy transition. These are

  • accessible and affordable electricity
  • corporate and business reform
  • a shift in ownership of energy
  • the empowerment of workers and communities, and
  • environmental restoration and protection.

It says millions of South Africans lack access to electricity, and everyone needs access to affordable, low carbon electricity to provide for their basic needs. It suggests that the country draft t and implement a national low-income household energy strategy, prioritises energy access for those without reliable access to electricity by using renewable energy solutions
which are both more affordable and accessible, and increase electricity subsidies for low-income households.

The report advocates for moving away from business as usual, saying corporations need to prioritise social and environmental issues and must implement tools to reduce emissions, pollution and waste, but also secure decent jobs. It calls for strict legal compliance with all environmental regulations such as air and water pollution, carbon emissions and site
rehabilitation along with workplace and employment standards. The government should monitor and enforce these obligations, while the private sector must have their own transition plans, which protect workers.

It says using renewable energy creates opportunities for more socially or community-owned and less corporate or privately-owned energy generation. This can be done by supporting communities in setting up their own energy projects. South Africa needs to revise it renewable energy programme, and a shift from a centralised system to a decentralised energy system must be supported.

Workers and communities must not shoulder the burden of shifting to a low carbon economy, the document reads. Programmes for worker placement must be established and workers in coal and other impacted sectors should be retrained. It also calls for an investment in infrastructure in areas in need and the promotion of economic diversification and the creation of alternative industries. On the environmental restoration and protection, the researchers say modern agriculture, mining and industrial development have degraded the quality of the country’s soil, air and water resources. These areas must be restored to prevent further damage.

“Apply the polluter pays principle, ensuring polluters pay for restoration of degraded ecosystems… South Africans need to hold government and companies accountable,” the say.

Also, by creating a space for small scale agriculture, the environment can be restored and protected while feeding the population.

By: Amy Musgrave