In the face of an emergency, we need swift and decisive leadership. As such, when the immense threat of COVID-19 became evident in the early months of 2020, the president gained applause for his initial decision to act quickly and show decisive leadership.
When it comes to another grave crisis facing South Africa, however, the president has dangerously delayed. Unlike COVID-19 which came upon us abruptly, we have known about this crisis for decades and still have not meaningfully acted.
That crisis threatens to condemn us and future generations to irreversible harm and to take many more lives than COVID-19 could imagine – it has already taken many more.
The crisis I am talking about is climate change. In the face of that crisis, the president has offered elegant words, but little action. Rather some of his actions are worsening the crisis, such as spearheading a corrupt Chinese-controlled, coal-powered economic zone in Limpopo.
It’s not as if the president does not know about the climate crisis either. Last year on June 16th, I was among the young people who marched in over a dozen places across the country demanding climate justice. In his state of the nation address, the president responded saying he had heard the voices of the youth and recognised the urgent need to act.
It has been over a year since we marched, and still we see no action. It has been nearly a decade since unions and civil society launched the One Million Climate Jobs campaign calling for a just transition and socially owned renewable energy, and still we see no action. It has been decades since climate science made clear we must act, and still we see no meaningful action.
The action we do see is from environmental criminals like Gwede Mantashe who want to lock South Africa deep into climate chaos. Often against the will of communities, Mantashe is moving forward with his plans to burn and extract as much fossil fuels as possible, when science says we must go in the opposite direction. When it’s clear that renewables are our most affordable, job creating and sustainable future, instead Mantashe promotes coal and nuclear.
It’s not like the government has been too busy dealing with COVID-19 to deal with climate change and energy issues either. During the first month of lockdown, Mantashe managed to move forward regulations overriding communities’ right to say no to harmful mining projects. Minister Creecy also managed to move forward on weakening our clean air regulations.
The president’s climate rhetoric feels empty in the face of this reality. The president once promised to put together a Presidential Climate Change Commission to drive forward climate action, yet the committee has not surfaced. The president promised action on a just transition to renewable energy, and yet South Africa has little by way of plans for a just transition.
In 2019, the National Planning Commission concluded its national social dialogue, which outlined an economy-wide vision for a transformative and just transition to a zero carbon South Africa by 2050. Yet that vision sits idle, gathering dust. Meanwhile we are moving in the opposite direction as the country’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) artificially limited renewable energy in order to force new polluting coal and fossil gas into the mix.
Time to lift limitations on renewable energy
The IRP did say, in Decision 5, that if just transition plans are put in place, then the limitations on renewable energy could be lifted. Thus, a just transition is the key to climate justice, both morally and policy wise. However, rather than unlocking our clean energy future with the key of a just transition, we are being locked into inaction by vested interests and state capture.
We are locked into climate chaos by those who would rather see Eskom saddled with more unaffordable coal, than give up their profiteering. They’d rather see communities choking on toxic air than clean up our energy system. They’d rather see load-shedding for years to come then bring on board renewable energy – the fastest way to secure a new supply.
We have had enough. Our polluting and expensive energy system is killing us now and condemning future generations to climate devastation. We cannot afford any more delay.
That’s why the Climate Justice Coalition and over 30 union, civil society and community organisations launched the Green New Eskom campaign. We are calling for a rapid and just transition to a more socially-owned, renewable energy powered economy, providing clean, safe and affordable energy for all, with no worker and community left behind in the transition.
Making a Green New Eskom a reality
On July 20th, the coalition met with the Eskom CEO, Executives and Management where we discussed how to make a Green New Eskom a reality. We are calling for deep reform at Eskom so it can be part of a broader renewable transition. We have also sent our demands to President Ramaphosa and Gwede Mantashe who have responded with a deafening silence.
As we work to recover from the impacts of COVID-19, we cannot afford to simply go back to our socially and ecologically unjust, extractive and exploitative economy. Instead, we need a just recovery that puts people and planet over polluters and profiteering – that puts social and ecological justice at the heart of our recovery. In the words of Geoff Tily, senior economist at the Trades Union Congress, “the transition from lockdown should begin a just transition.”
With time to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis rapidly slipping away, any further delay condemns us to further ravages of climate chaos. Failure to implement a just transition condemns more workers to unemployment and prevents us from building a more job creating, affordable and sustainable energy future. A just transition delayed is climate justice denied.
- This piece was originally published in the Sunday Times.