South Africa: Eskom miners need new jobs for energy transition to succeed

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Thursday, 21 April 2022 06:00

A man walks past electricity pylons, in Soweto
Electricity pylons of the defunct Orlando Power Station in Soweto, South Africa, January 24, 2022. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Finding a future for South Africa’s coal miners will be essential to achieving energy transition, Saliem Fakir, executive director of the Africa Climate Foundation (ACF), tells The Africa Report.

Retraining for miners, which leads to jobs, will be key in persuading unions to buy in to plans to transition away from coal, Fakir says. They could be retrained to mine other minerals, or to work in agriculture or factories, he says. “It needs to be backed by a proper plan and fiscal support.” The ACF, which is based in Cape Town, works with international charities on climate change issues.

A declaration on just energy transition, signed at the COP26 conference in November 2021, included financing of $8.5bn to decarbonize the country’s energy system. Eskom said in March that it is planning to repurpose power stations to be decommissioned “soon”, and “some of the COP26 funding will be used for this purpose.” The company will use some of the money to invest in renewable technologies, including battery storage.

The success or otherwise of the package will be crucial not just for South Africa but for the world’s heavy coal using countries. The reality, Fakir argues, is that it is impossible to separate decarbonization from its wider social context. South Africa has about 90,000 coal miners, and in addition there are truckers who rely on coal for their jobs, Fakir says. A single miner in South Africa, he says, may be supporting up to ten family members.

  • While younger miners are more likely to be able to enter labour markets, older workers will need “stronger transition support” which might include guaranteed jobs, he says.
  • That will apply to many, as the average age of coal miners in South Africa is between 45 and 50, he adds.

Energy transition in South Africa, Fakir says, must involve creating a local benefit. Labour agreements “need to be reoriented to a just transition. You can’t create a public good which disregards the welfare of the local population.” Retraining, he says, needs to be accompanied by loans to set up small businesses, and support for the wider communities that provided the labour.

  • “It is essential to win union support,” Fakir says. “We have the political momentum for that to happen.”

Terms of trade

Scientists have said that southern Africa region is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its geographical location and state of development. Warming in the interior of southern Africa is occurring at about twice the global average. South Africa is the world’s 12th largest emitter of CO2.

Research from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) says that options for reducing coal reliance while protecting workers include funding early retirement for older workers; redeploying workers across assets, such as mines and plants; retraining or redeploying workers and retraining or reskilling for existing or future industries.

  • Still, the SEI notes, “many of these lessons have come from developed countries, and implementation will be even more challenging in a developing country such as South Africa.”

Fakir argues that global climate issues can’t be used as cover for labour injustices. He cautions that corporates which use minerals for purposes which they present as sustainable may not be concerned about the fairness of energy transition. Tesla, for example, is “not necessarily going to give a good deal for workers. Why would Tesla be better than an oil company?”

  • Globally, Fakir says, the key is to have trade rules which encourage low-carbon goods and services. “We need to liberalise the terms of trade and invest more in R&D”, for example in the uses of hydrogen.

Bottom line

Decarbonization projects in South Africa and globally need to address the futures of coalminers and their communities.

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