By Melissa Fourie and Dr Bongani Mwale
In October 2022, Eskom shut down the last operating unit at Komati Power Station in Mpumalanga, making it the first coal plant closure in South Africa’s transition from coal.
On Friday, the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) adopted an interim report to support a just transition at the Komati power station, and to help guide future coal decommissioning and repurposing projects.
Drawing on evidence and the perspectives of impacted stakeholders and communities, the report provides a factual assessment of the decommissioning process followed at Komati, and recommendations to bring justice to affected workers and communities.
In essence, the commission found that, for those affected by the the closure of Komati, the transition has not yet realised the procedural, distributive and restorative justice adopted as part of the Just Transition Framework.
However, the transition at Komati is not over – Komati provides an extraordinary learning opportunity for the list of coal power station closures that lie ahead over the next decade – not because of any international demands, but because the plants are coming to the end of their technical lifespan.
It is now far more expensive to refurbish and run these ageing and polluting plants than it is to buy clean electricity generated from renewables, with storage.
The first lesson from Komati is the entire life cycle must be conceptualised within the broader local and regional context.
Eskom’s planning for Komati’s closure, which focused on what happens inside the boundaries of the power station, preceded much of work done by the PCC, and was not into such a context.
Since then, the Mpumalanga government, supported by the Climate Commission, has started development of a regional economic diversification strategy and plans focused on new employment opportunities.
Secondly, engagements at Komati before its closure were not inclusive and participatory, as community members and workers were not given the time and agency to impact decision-making processes.
In addition, conflicting messages about Komati about the feasibility of bringing units back online - have led to wholesale confusion. Procedural justice requires honest, open, and consistent communication and engagement based on accurate information.
Thirdly, timing and sequencing during decommissioning are essential. Preparation at Komati started too late. Communities and workers should be informed of the closure years ahead of time, and Eskom and local and provincial governments must develop economic diversification plans for the surrounding district and region, with involvement of workers and the community.
Fourthly, restorative justice requires investment in basic services upgrades and support for community development. Communities and local people have their own ideas for what would work best and be just in the local context, and their ideas should be listened to, and leveraged.
Although the commission’s report does not specifically discuss air pollution and, it is worth mentioning that, from 2020 (when most units at the plant were shut) to 2023, the improvement in air quality as a result of closure is estimated to have avoided 220 deaths, 760 asthma emergency room visits, 190 new cases of asthma in children, 360 preterm births, 200 000 days of work absence, and 260 years lived with disability - of which 120 are due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 110 are due to diabetes, and 30 are due to stroke.
Local people told commissioners who visited Komati about their needs and aspirations, which included: reconnecting the informal settlement to the water supply, along with general improvements to infrastructure and safety in the area; a health clinic; a high school; a library; and other essential infrastructure and services.
They also spoke about repurposing spaces and buildings for community use, and transforming the station’s cooling towers into a people’s coal museum to honour their contribution to the national economy.
Fifth, we need excellent cooperation between a wide range of stakeholders to ensure effective transition projects. What is required is an integrated development strategy for the coal belt in Mpumalanga, which integrates economic, social, environmental, infrastructural and spatial aspects, which provides specific guidance on investments required, and maps and designates specific responsibilities of different actors to ensure accountability.
Finally, significant financial resources are required for decommissioning, repowering, and repurposing projects, as well as for local economic and community development.
To this end, a variety of diverse funding sources and development finance must be leveraged, focusing on repowering and repurposing, and the limited public resources and grants directed towards livelihoods and a “just” outcome.
Despite the shortcomings in the closure of Komati, there is enough agency and will in and around Komati to see real progress, at an imaginable scale.
The Climate Commission will soon go back to Komati to meet with stakeholders about its findings and recommendations and have more detailed discussions and together co-create a new Komati.
Melissa Fourie and Dr Bongani Mwale are PCC Commissioners and Co-Chairpersons of its Working Group on Monitoring and Evaluation.