South Africa faces challenges in transition away from coal


MASAKHANE, South Africa — Living in the shadow of one of South Africa’s largest coal-fired power stations, Masakhane residents fear they will lose their jobs if the facility closes as the country moves towards cleaner energy.

A major polluter because it relies on coal for around 80% of its electricity, South Africa plans to cut it to 59% by 2030 by phasing out some of its 15 coal-fired power plants and increasing its use of renewable energy. Its goal is zero carbon emissions by 2050.

After receiving pledges of $8.5 billion at last year’s world climate summit in Scotland, South Africa’s plan to go coal was widely endorsed at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, where officials signed deals for parts of the funding for the loan.

The passage of coal will be difficult for the most developed economy of the continent. South African homes and businesses are already experiencing scheduled power outages on a daily basis, often for more than seven hours a day, because the state power company, Eskom, is unable to produce adequate supplies of electricity.

But the change has begun. The Komati power station in Mpumalanga province has been shut down and $497 million will be used to convert it into a plant that uses renewable sources and batteries, according to an announcement this month from the World Bank.

Masakhane township, also in Mpumalanga province, sits spectacularly at the base of mountains of coal mined nearby and then burned at the Duvha power station.

Residents say they are concerned that if the coal-fired plant is closed they will lose their jobs, a serious concern in a country where the unemployment rate exceeds 30%.

The 3,600 megawatt Duvha Power Station provides jobs ranging from contract work at the plant to related employment in the transport and food industries.

Selby Mahlalela, 38, moved to Masakhane in 2006 and has held various maintenance jobs as a contract worker for the state-owned electricity company Eskom.

“It’s the one place most people here trust to find job opportunities, even though they’re not permanent workers. This happens a lot, especially when there are shutdowns or maintenance work,” Mahlalela said.

The transition remains a contentious issue, even within the cabinet of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

This week, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told lawmakers that the transition to cleaner energy should not come at the cost of people’s livelihoods and the country’s energy security.

“I am one of the people who say that we can have a transition. But that coal isn’t just about numbers, it’s about human beings. There are (about) 10 villages in Mpumalanga,” Mantashe said.

In one such town, Silindile Kheswa found work on short-term contracts at the Duvha power station and said she fears the transition away from coal.

“Some of our brothers are involved in trucking coal, transporting it to various power plants,” Kheswa said. “So if you say no more coal, that means we can’t put food on the table.”


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