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Communities in the cold amidst just transition

The resulting spike of the oil barrel to more than $100 (R1 500), precipitating a fuel price hike, combined with an impending electricity tariff hike after National Energy Regulator of South Africa granted Eskom a 9.61 percent price increase, stole the shine from the finance minister. Photo: REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

The resulting spike of the oil barrel to more than $100 (R1 500), precipitating a fuel price hike, combined with an impending electricity tariff hike after National Energy Regulator of South Africa granted Eskom a 9.61 percent price increase, stole the shine from the finance minister. Photo: REUTERS/Nigel Roddis

Published Feb 27, 2022

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MINISTER Enoch Godongwana’s inaugural speech largely went down well with many sectors of the economy, and had Russian boots not already been trampling Ukrainian borders, it could really have been the talk of the town.

The resulting spike of the oil barrel to more than $100 (R1 500), precipitating a fuel price hike, combined with an impending electricity tariff hike after National Energy Regulator of South Africa granted Eskom a 9.61 percent price increase, stole the shine from the finance minister.

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Particularly unmoved by the showmanship is the energy sector, perennially short circuited by Eskom, as it grapples with eloquence in the new language of the “Just Transition” a new phase in the energy mix, which is yet to be fully fleshed out.

Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaigner Thandile Chinyavanhu said, “Minister Godongwana missed the mark in his first budget address. The minister made infrastructure spending commitments that completely overlooked the development of renewable energy. The speech was flat on commitments to a just energy transition, disappointing considering the R131 billion Just Transition Partnership is still at play.

Chinyavanhu said the best and most immediate solution to South Africa’s problems was a just transition to renewable energy that would not rely on “impotent” market mechanisms such as carbon taxes to mitigate climate catastrophe, arguing that these measures must be met with aggressive decarbonisation strategies and widespread uptake of renewable energy.

According to energy industry discussions across the fossil fuel, nuclear, wind, solar, gas and hydrogen sectors, the just transition is about a rapid changeover from 2030 to 2050 from what fossil conservatives consider near unlimited and readily available coal resources to a heady cocktail of renewable energy mix, which is yet to win an argument on affordability.

The dialect absent this far in the discussions, is that of the The International Trade Union Confederation, which says a just transition is about securing the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy. It is based on social dialogue between workers and their unions, employers, government and communities.

It encompasses a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' rights and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production, primarily combating climate change and protecting biodiversity

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There in lies the rub as organised labour has this far not been visible in the "just transition “taal", meaning the country's understanding of the phase lacks the social embrace needed, which may just tick unions off down the road, especially with the multi-billions the West is throwing into it.

National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa) spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi-Majola said this far, the government has been talking top down to organised labour about the just transition, defying tenements of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that the process needed to be driven by labour and communities in determining an inclusive way forward which would empower them as well.

“Government implementation is a complete opposite of what ILO stipulates, government is taking the topdown approach, simply telling us what to do, yes there is a forum we are part of but its a rubber stamping forum, our ideas are not being taken into account, they are rolling it as it is, the process looks nothing at all like what the ILO just transition should look like. The energy must be affordable, changes made must not result in the next generation being worse off than it is now,” Hlubi-Majola said.

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She said the current disposition was that “green capital” was merely replacing “fossil capital” and there would still be marginalisation of workers and communities in pursuit of profit.

A working paper by Najma Mohamed and Gaylor MontmassonClair, in collaboration with the Maphungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, uncovered that only a small fraction of industrial policy targets the transition to green industrial development, and much more can be done to fully utilise the power of industrial policy to foster an inclusive and green transition.

They note that despite the growth in the adoption of a just transition vision, there is mounting concern that the term is being stripped of its meaning and transformational purpose.

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“In many cases, South Africa’s industrial policy still promotes an economic development model that counteracts the transition to a green economy. The example of the envisaged Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone in Limpopo, which would include numerous industrial, steel and ferrochrome facilities, fed by a coalfired power plant, exemplifies this point,” they said.

They said just transitions must address the needs of the most vulnerable – affected workers, urban and rural poor, women and youth – to ensure that the benefits of transitions are accessible to everyone and that transition risks are borne equitably.

“A deeper application of the distributional dimension of a just transition would require applying the right policy mix – taking into consideration the availability of policy tools such as industrial, social protection, skills and labour market policies.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ and a low carbon transition will impact sectors, industries and places differently,” they said, adding: “Just transitions must shift from managerialist approaches towards structural and transformative just transition ones, which adds meaning to the mantra of ‘leaving no one behind’.”

Lethabo Manamela, the interim chief executive of the South African National Energy Development Institute (Sanedi), has identified energy efficiency, a just energy transition and the development of a green hydrogen industry as issues that are beginning to assert themselves and demand greater attention.

She says Sanedi, in collaboration with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, was supporting a major new study which would be undertaken by experts, who would assess ways in which South Africa could develop a nation-wide cohort of well-qualified energy service companies that specialise in energy efficiency and could provide a full range of services to support measures companies can take to save electricity.

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