Coal workers demand a just energy transition

A move to renewable energy is inevitable, and necessary, but workers are insisting that they should not be the ones to carry the social costs of the transition.

On a blazing hot Saturday in mid-November, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) marched on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to hand over a memorandum to energy minister Jeff Radebe.

The memorandum was drafted to express the unions’ demands regarding South Africa’s energy transition. But, angered by the minister, who sent two department officials to receive the memorandum instead of receiving it himself, the unions refused to hand it over.

They said government was not taking their issues seriously.

Numsa leader Irvin Jim argued that renewable energy independent power producers (IPPs) would destroy Eskom, resulting in the loss of 100 000 jobs. Jim has often insisted that while the union supports a just transition workers should not carry the cost for this, and that IPPs should not enable a form of privatisation by stealth. For some years now Numas has been calling for a not for profit ‘socially owned renewable sector’.

At the march he railed against the government: “Eskom was a victim of gross mismanagement and looting by some senior executive managers and the Board. But instead of them taking responsibility, Eskom management, together with the government, are punishing workers for their failures.”

Numsa’s memorandum states that the union is not against an energy mix, which includes the introduction of renewable energy to South Africa’s national grid. “We are very firm that there must be a just transition,” it reads. The NUM, however,  refers to renewable energy IPPs as being part of “a forced privatisation strategy”.

“The NUM is not against renewable energy or IPPs,” said David Sipunzi, the union’s general secretary. “We are extremely worried about the thousands of jobs that are going to be destroyed in Mpumalanga.”

Coal currently supplies 73% of South Africa’s primary energy demand, and 91% of its electricity supply. But more than 80% of coal infrastructure, in the form of mines and power stations, are located in Mpumalanga, a province where nearly half of all households live below the poverty line.

Mpumalanga’s economy is inextricably linked to coal.

Transition has already begun

A recent report released by the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre, Coal Transitions in South Africa, argues that the national debate regarding the country’s energy future has been deliberately framed as a battle between coal-fired power and renewable energy.

When Eskom announced in March last year that it would shut down five old coal-fired power stations, it blamed the action on renewable energy projects having gone online.

Unions responded with anger and threatened strikes, with Numsa even going to court to prevent Radebe from signing procurement agreements with renewable energy IPPs. The Coal Transporters Forum reacted by blockading parts of Tshwane with their trucks, while threats were even made to plunge the country into darkness.

But, as the report points out, Eskom’s shutting down of old coal-fired power stations is a direct result of the power utility’s overestimation of demand. This overestimation, the report suggests, resulted in the building of the Medupi and Kusile mega coal-fired power stations, which will replace many older, much smaller power stations.

It also argues that interests in the coal sector and Eskom are using the risk to workers and local economies in Mpumalanga as leverage to block the transition to renewables even though, in most cases, coal is replacing coal.

Mpumalanga’s coal mining sector reportedly employs 77 000 workers, almost half of whom on a contract basis. This in the context of a province with a shrinking overall mining sector that shed 42 000 jobs between 2008 and 2015.

According to the report, employment in coal mining peaked in 1981 and has since declined significantly as operations have become increasingly mechanised. The report suggests that close to 50 000 more jobs could be lost in the Mpumalanga coal mining sector by 2050.

The report says that it is not a question whether coal mines and power plants will close, but when. “South Africa is already facing a coal transition,” reads the report, and argues that unless it is well managed, the energy transition will have a “serious” impact on the coal workforce in Mpumalanga and surrounding areas.

“Eskom faces plants closing and a financial crisis that already means that retrenchments are likely to happen in the coming years, but it has no plan for decommissioning plants or for retraining, reskilling, and supporting workers to migrate to other stations or new industries,” says the report.

A just energy transition

Not everyone is convinced that coal is on its way out in South Africa, but everyone agrees that if it is the consequences for Mpumalanga could be very serious. Xavier Prevost, a senior coal analyst at XMP Consulting, is more optimistic about the future of coal.

He argues that new technologies to burn coal cleaner are what we should be looking at. “The coal industry is not going to die, it’s just changing,” he said, emphasising that if South Africa were to stop using coal, it would create havoc in Mpumalanga and the local economies there would be destroyed.

Jesse Burton, one of the authors of Coal Transitions in South Africa, told New Frame that government still seems to believe it can stop the transition, even though it’s inevitable. “They don’t want to deal with the magnitude of this problem, but a lot of people are going to lose their jobs,” she said.

“If we don’t manage this transition away from this regional concentration of coal in Mpumalanga carefully, the province may never recover socioeconomically. Just because it doesn’t make economic sense to keep a coal-fired power station going, doesn’t mean you abandon people.”

According to Burton, government and coal mines desperately need a plan to migrate workers to new jobs, including retraining them for those jobs. “What is the future of Mpumalanga? How do we diversify the province’s economy?” she said.

Makgale Pokwane, an activist who works with the Middelburg branch of groundWork, an environmental justice NGO,  says that with so many people in Mpumalanga depending on the coal sector, either directly or indirectly, the mines have a responsibility to be part of the transition.

“There needs to be a commitment from our leaders,” he said, pointing out that the renewable energy projects that are set to replace coal-fired power are not in Mpumalanga.

“They’re all in Northern Cape and Western Cape,” he said, adding that if government and mines move without a plan, it would lead to a crisis. “We have to create alternatives.”

Nicole Loser, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said government is in desperate need of a plan for the energy transition because it was not doing enough.

According to her, many potential jobs could be created through the decommissioning and rehabilitation of old coal-fired power stations and mines. But this conversation isn’t happening yet. “There are many options, we need to start talking about them and evaluating them,” said Loser.

Government, she said, remains contradictory on energy policy. On the one hand, it is moving towards renewable energy, but on the other it insists on subsidising coal energy projects.

Loser said the social costs created by coal energy, such as health care and environmental taxes, mean that government should stop subsidising dirty coal. The air quality in Mpumalanga, according to her, was declared a priority area more than a decade ago, but government has no plan to deal with this crisis. “Things have just gotten worse since then,” she said.

Unions call for IPP ban

Back on the streets of Pretoria, marching workers were adamant that the renewable energy IPPs were the main reason for their march. One Eskom worker said he was marching because “Eskom was not for sale and workers had to protect their jobs”.

Their banners made it clear who they see as behind this push towards privatised energy. One Numsa member’s banner read: “Cyril, Motsepe, Jeff and your friends, hands off! IPP’s for who?”. Another banner proclaimed Eskom chairperson Jabu Mabuza as the “taxi driver of privatisation”.

The members of Numsa and the NUM who spoke to New Frame insisted that the Eskom executives and management, and not the workers, are the ones who must carry the can for bad decisions and corruption.

This is the second in a two-part series on the energy transition. Read part one here: Middelburg, a town in decline

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