“People always have been and they always will be the stupid victims of deceit and self-deception in politics, until they learn behind every kind of moral, religious, political, social phrase, declaration and promise to seek out the interests of this or that class or classes. The partisans of reform and betterment will always be fooled by the defenders of the old régime, until they understand that every old institution, no matter how savage and rotten it may seem, is sustained by the forces of this or that dominant class or classes.” - Vladimir Lenin
What Vladimir Lenin meant when he uttered those famous words was that people will always be misled until they learn to discover the class interests of those who are driving a particular agenda.
When the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) rushed to the North Gauteng High Court in order to block the former minister of energy Jeff Radebe from approving the roll out of bids 1-4 of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers (REIPPs) in 2018, it was doing so out of concern that government’s renewable energy programme would fail the test of a Just Energy Transition because it does not serve the interests of the majority of people.
The REIPPs are the South African government’s plan for dealing with climate change, by allowing privately owned renewable energy companies to provide renewable energy to the public, through Eskom’s grid.
One of the key arguments Numsa made to justify stopping the roll out, was that the introduction of REIPPs meant that coal fired power stations were going to be shut down to make way for privately owned renewable energy companies. Every Eskom power station which is shut down will be replaced with a privately owned renewable energy company.
This is how government is privatising energy generation. At that time, the CSIR predicted that at least 100 000 indirect jobs would be lost in the province of Mpumalanga alone, because thousands of families depend on coal mining.
Unfortunately, Numsa lost in court and REIPPs are being rolled out. To date, despite hollow promises made by this government of job creation initiatives to be created by REIPPs, there is still no social plan from the state to replace these jobs and create new industries.
An article which was published in the Daily Investor recently titled South Africa’s $8,5 billion climate deal is 97% loans, shows that the union had good reason to be concerned about government’s plan to transition to renewable energy. It has become glaringly obvious that the true intentions of the climate deal was not to give expression to the principles of a Just Transition.
Nor was its goal to mitigate against job losses, or to find viable long term sustainable solutions for the economic impact of rolling out renewable energy. Through this deal, Western powers are reminding us that their only interest is in advancing their own interests and in generating profits for international banks and financial institutions. Less than 3% of the $8.5 billion climate deal will come in the form of grants. The rest will come in the form of concessional loans, commercial loans, and investment guarantees, as part of a package offered by France, Germany, the US the UK and the European Union to help South Africa move away from its dependence on coal.
The article goes on to say, “Less than 1% of the total is earmarked for social investment meant to cushion communities dependent on the coal-fired power plants that will be closed, while 5% will go toward developing a green hydrogen industry.”
So basically, only a tiny fraction of these funds will be allocated to cushioning the working class of Mpumalanga whose lives will be plunged into permanent unemployment and poverty, as a result of the closure of coal fired power stations.
Numsa has always supported a move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy because we know first-hand how working class communities have been severely affected by the effects of climate change. They suffer the most from the negative effects of air and water pollution and therefore, we accept that dealing with climate change requires that we must change the way we do things.
While we accept that we must move from being more dependent on fossil fuels, we are adamant that such a move must be in line with the principles of a Just Transition. That means the transition must be affordable for us as a country and it must not worsen conditions of the working class and the poor. In terms of these principles, there must be a plan to ensure that the working class, and future generations, must not suffer as a result of the disruptive impact of the move away from coal to renewables.
The ILO user’s manual for a Just Transition says the following: “Workers’ organisations are not passive bystanders, but agents of change able to develop new pathways to sustainability and to ensure that a transition not only delivers on climate policy objectives but incorporates the broader principles of sustainable development and decent work.”
Numsa has always called for a human centred approach to the Just Transition which puts workers and their families first.
The ILO articulates it in the following way, “It is imperative to act with urgency to seize the opportunities and address the challenges to shape a fair, inclusive and secure future of work with full, productive and freely chosen employment and decent work for all. Such a future of work is fundamental for sustainable development that puts an end to poverty and leaves no one behind.” (I A, B and C) The vision of the ILO Guidelines is that: “Managed well, with active involvement of the world of work, the green transition will also contribute to decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication.”
Where possible every job that is lost in the coal sector must be replaced, and the benefits, conditions and wages that workers received must be maintained in the renewable energy sector. The ILO explicitly states that these jobs must contribute to “decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication”.
Numsa believes this can be better achieved through ownership of renewable energy technology by communities or workers co-ops. The union has also been calling for Eskom to be given at least 70% allocation of the renewable energy space. Numsa believes that an effort should be made to future-proof the power utility and ensure that it is a sustainable State Owned Entity (SOE) for the future, which is able to electrify the whole country, utilising the latest technology and do so at an affordable rate.
It is foolish to put the responsibility of a Just Transition in the hands of the private sector. It has no desire and no interest to tackle climate change in a meaningful way. It is mostly privately owned fossil fuel companies which are largely responsible for the global climate change crisis and they have done so in the pursuit of profits.
We must not be naïve, the privately owned renewable energy sector is equally motivated by rampant profiteering, just like the fossil fuel industry. There is no company in the private sector that can drive a developmental agenda for the benefit of society or guarantee affordable electricity for all, whilst ensuring that we reduce our carbon footprint. Only a capable state through a well-run state owned entity, can fulfil and drive a transition which will benefit the working class and the poor.
An SOE does not and should not have a profit motive, its agenda should be development and creating space for growth. China has adopted these principles very successfully and it is benefitting as a result.
Unfortunately, the ANC government has failed to learn lessons from China and the success of its SOEs in driving a people-centric agenda. There are those who argue that because this government has mismanaged the economy for more than two decades, this justifies increasing the involvement of the private sector. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because the ANC is failing does not mean we should destroy SOEs and deny ourselves the benefits we could reap from their existence. The collapse of SOEs should be seen in the context of the ANC government’s determination to advance a neo-liberal agenda, which has failed for more than 28 years to transform the lives of the majority of people. And we must accept once and for all that this ANC has failed and will continue to fail to govern, period.
These SOEs were used by the Apartheid government to benefit the white working class. We need them even more today to help us to improve the lives of the African working class majority. South Africa today is the most unequal society because this government continues to put the interests of wealthy individual capitalists ahead of the interests of the masses, as it has done once again, through this climate change deal.
When we analyse the climate change deal we have to ask, are we not trading our natural endowment, in exchange for perpetual debt in the form of a costly, unreliable energy supply?
Germany is resurrecting coal fired power stations because of dwindling energy supplies caused by the war in Ukraine. It is in the process of bringing back at least 20 moth-balled coal power stations in order to supplement its energy needs. South Africa is suffering under the burden of constant rolling blackouts called loadshedding, which are suffocating the economy, but we are closing power stations which could be useful to ending our power supply crisis.
As of September this year R4 billion has been wiped from the economy because of rolling blackouts according to economist, Isaac Mhlanga.
By signing this deal, which does not benefit the masses in any way, the ANC-led government is reminding us once again where its interests truly lie. It has not just perverted the concept of Just Transition, it has committed the ultimate act of treason by trapping future generations in a permanent cycle of unnecessary debt, which will produce unending poverty and inequality from which it will never escape.
Phakamile Hlubi-Majola is the Numsa national spokesperson and is also a former journalist. She is writing in her personal capacity