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South Africa: Power to the people

Bobby Peek tells how the struggle for environmental rights is intertwined with the one over access to energy

September 20, 2011
7 min read

After decades of struggle, South Africa finally gained its democracy in 1994. This included the delivery of a constitution that guaranteed people a new tomorrow through a Bill of Rights. One of the most progressive of these was people’s right to ‘an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being’. It put people and their health at the centre of protecting the environment. This was far-reaching as South Africa had emerged from centuries of colonialism and apartheid in which conservation of wildlife was put ahead of local people’s lives and wellbeing. Nearly two decades after the dawn of our democracy, are we better off? Has there been delivery of these rights?

The facts and figures tell a sad and depressing story.

  • 42 per cent of Africa’s greenhouse gases are emitted by South Africa. So you would think that South Africa is a fairly developed nation with good employment rates. Not so.
  • 41 per cent of South Africa’s potential workforce is employed, according to Advorp Holding’s chief executive Richard Pike.
  • 16 per cent is the total amount of energy consumed by South Africa’s residents.
  • 44 per cent of South Africa’s energy is used by 36 companies. Industry, mining, agriculture and commerce use more than 70 per cent of all energy produced.
  • 11 per cent of South Africa’s energy is used by one company, the Australian multinational BHP Billiton.
  • 9.7 billion South African Rand was the loss that Eskom, the South African power utility, made because of the provision of cheap electricity to BHP Billiton, according to Eskom’s annual report, March 2010.
  • 50 per cent below cost is what BHP Billiton paid for this electricity, which is around 1.7 US cents per kWh.
  • Four million homes cook without electricity, according to the Citizens United for Renewable Energies and Sustainability (CURES).
  • 2.5 million homes do not have electricity.
  • Ten million people experienced periodic electricity cut-offs between 1994 and 2002, according to Queens University researcher David McDonald.

This is not a story of a democratic state, but rather of a state that has failed to deliver to its people. It is a state that is managed for the benefit of multinational corporations.

Energy sovereignty

It is against this backdrop that people have to take control over their own energy provision. As in the case of the Nyeleni Declaration on food sovereignty, energy sovereignty should put those ‘who produce, distribute and consume’ energy at the heart of the energy systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.

Viewed in a global context, one realises that the underdevelopment of the greater population of South Africa is not a mere hangover from apartheid. It is an active process of the development choices made by the South African government today. This development trajectory is facilitated by global finance and the ongoing development paradigm of extraction of Africa’s resources for the benefit of consumption in the global North.

It is common knowledge that 80 per cent of the World Bank’s oil extraction investment in Africa is for Northern consumption. In South Africa, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank’s £4 billion investment in Eskom’s coal-fired power stations facilitates the same process.

With the lack of energy access by the majority of people in South Africa, the battle to avoid catastrophic climate change is deeply intertwined with the battle to achieve access to clean, affordable energy. Because people do not have access to energy from Eskom, they are forced to burn coal indoors. Coupling this domestic pollution with heavy industrial pollution is a recipe for disaster.

Consider the fact that from May to August 2010, the South African ambient air pollution standards protecting health were exceeded on 570 occasions in the Highveld. People’s right to an environment that is not harmful to one’s health and wellbeing was therefore broken on 570 occasions. This is not a surprise in this area considering the presence of ten Eskom coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s synfuel plant, which has the dubious distinction of being the highest single source greenhouse gas emitter in the world. So while all this energy production is around people, directly impacting upon their health, they get very little of the energy. Access to energy is a struggle.

It is in this context that South Africans need another energy future. An energy future that ensures decent levels of affordable basic services and infrastructure to be enjoyed by all as a basic human right – not only by ‘consumers’ who can afford them. An energy future where individuals and families are able to access, at minimum, the most basic necessities of human life, starting with nutritious food, clean water, safe and comfortable accommodation, and a clean healthy environment where people live and work. And these necessities must be nurtured by the very way in which people live and work, not undermined by them.

To deliver the above, the people of South Africa, not multinational corporations, must be at the centre of energy delivery. People have to start taking ownership of how energy is produced – not only the physical production but the democratic decisions on how production and distribution is organised.

Hoodwink no more

The South Africa leadership cannot continue to hoodwink its people and the world. Its Copenhagen offer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a 34 per cent ‘deviation’ below baseline by 2020 and 42 per cent below baseline by 2025 is based upon an assumption of growth without constraint. According to the South African Long-Term Mitigation Strategy (LTMS), this will take South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions from 440 million tons in 2003 to 1,600 million tons by 2050. This is an inaccurate and politically naive claim of carbon rights it does not have. Based upon present figures, South Africa already reached 500 million tons in 2008. Its commitment to 42 per cent renewables in the future energy development mix only translates to 9 per cent renewables in 2030.

The government also throws figures around about how many millions of people have been connected to the electricity grid. It presents the installation of prepaid meters as a panacea, so that people can ‘better manage’ their consumption. In reality, this means that people can be the agents of their own disconnection when they do not have enough money to pay for the most expensive electricity in the country.

South Africans have to start challenging this political greenwash and start working on systems that give them independence from big power producers such as Eskom. This would mean getting small local municipalities to start thinking of local energy development for their own needs. It would mean calling for better housing so that in winter people do not lose energy through leaking roofs and poorly constructed state homes. It would mean that individual households get access to affordable energy and don’t have to pay up to seven times more for their electricity than industry does. And it would mean ensuring that industry pays the real price of energy and doesn’t continue to get the cheapest electricity in the world at the expense of the people. n

Bobby Peek is director of the South African environmental justice organisation groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa)

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