Blinded by power

Our economy has been built on the labour of people going underground to dig up raw materials. South Africa’s resource blessing/curse — our gold, platinum, coal and other precious metals — has powered the country and given it valuable exports.

But in the century of this practice the workers have not been looked after. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of goldminers lost their jobs. In the 2000s it was the turn of platinum workers.

Now it’s the turn of the coalminers. About 80 000 people work in the industry today, down from 140 000 just three decades ago. By 2045, between 40 000 and 60 000 more coalminers will be without work.

This change is irreversible. South Africa has pledged to lower its carbon emissions. Without following this path, climate change will reverse the progress made in reducing poverty and improving lives. That pledge means most of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants, which burn local coal, will shut down.

But this was going to happen anyway. Plants built in the 1960s and 1970s are already struggling to work properly, while pumping out tonnes of pollutants that are deadly to people. They won’t be replaced with new coal-fired plants, because energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar is already cheaper than that derived from coal.

The government and unions have known about this transition for at least a decade. In the late 2000s, coal unions had the ambitious goal of creating a million jobs related to tackling climate change. These were shelved.

Other countries tackling the exact same crisis are coming up with plans for a just transition from coal to renewable energy. South Africa is not. The government is too afraid to tackle the unions or to talk about job losses in an election year. The unions are focused on maintaining their dwindling political power. It is being left to civil society groups to figure out what happens to the 40 000 to 60 000 workers and their dependents.

This is a betrayal of the workers who continue to risk life and limb to power this country.

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