On the coal face: Eskoms maintenance has fallen by the wayside under political pressure. Plant breakdowns and coal supply problems put the grid under strain and necessitate load-shedding. (Paul Botes/M&G)
Last week the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) marched on Eskom demanding an end to load-shedding, unbundling, and privatisation. Many on the left might agree with what the EFF is saying no to. However, looking to their positive vision of how to save Eskom, one finds the EFF sorely lacking the sort of vision required of the 21st century.
Progressive left movements in other parts of the world are pushing for a “Green New Deal” where one marries environmental and economic justice to push forward a renewable energy economy. The EFF, however, seems to be advocating for a “Brown Old Deal”, where one ramps up fossil fuels and nuclear, sacrificing both economic and environmental justice.
The lie of clean coal
During the State of the Nation debate, Floyd Shivambu, EFF deputy president, said that South Africa should be pioneering the use of “clean coal” technologies, so that “we continue to produce dependable energy, which is going to at least create a platform for industrial expansion”.
There’s more than a few problems with the EFF’s embrace of so-called clean coal technology. First, there’s no such thing as clean coal. Coal is always dirty — polluting our air, water, and soil. The limited technologies that can make coal ever so slightly less polluting tend to make coal much more expensive. That’s a problem because coal is already one of our most expensive forms of available energy — and is responsible for much of Eskom’s current debt crisis.
Renewables, on other hand, are South Africa’s cheapest energy source. Expert research shows that a transition to a renewable energy system can lower the cost of energy by 25% compared to sticking with a polluting coal system. It would also make our energy system more reliable (that is, no load-shedding), save 196-billion litres of water a year, and remove our biggest source of air, water and climate pollution.
The world is undergoing a renewable energy revolution with prices of clean technologies such as solar and wind plummeting. In the face of this reality, the EFF’s proposal for so-called “clean coal” will lock us into an uneconomic and polluting power source for decades. What’s more, whereas renewables can be rapidly brought online, coal would take many years, thus leaving us languishing in load-shedding for years to come.
A private nuclear fleet?
Perhaps most peculiar is the EFF’s call for the private sector to lead the way on nuclear energy — a call in stark conflict with their demand to end privatisation. This hypocrisy underlies the fact that the EFF is only against privatisation if it allows the development of renewables, not if it supports their favoured capitalists.
Their demands were not against private coal power just renewables, which they decry as benefiting the “racist financial sector” — conveniently glossing over the fact that the harms of coal pollution disproportionately and negatively affect black and brown people the world over.
Apart from hypocrisy on the question of privatisation, it seems the EFF might also be fighting for freedom from economic reality, too. Nuclear power plants have proven simply too slow and too expensive to compete with new renewable energy.
What’s worse is that, after 25 years, the EFF wants the private sector to hand over the nuclear plants to government ownership. That’s towards the end of the 25 to 40-year lifespan of an average nuclear plant, when hugely expensive upgrading, retirement or decommissioning costs tend to come in. So the government would get stuck with owning aging and deeply uneconomic plants.
An inconsistent vision
While Shivambu has previously called for the government to “massively invest in renewable energy”, it seems like the EFF wants to have its cake and eat it too. Looking back at the EFF manifesto, it’s not clear how the party planned to reconcile its promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by 2024, with its promise of booming nationalised mining, oil, gas and coal sectors. The EFF is simply promising two incompatible worlds.
Looking at the EFF march one sees that they have made allies with a collection of (at times shady) anti-renewable energy, pro-coal and pro-nuclear forces, businessmen, and lobby groups (like Zuma-state capture defenders Transform RSA). Their vision for Eskom, furthermore, seems to be one designed to benefit these vested interests rather than the greater good.
In the end, the EFF’s fossil-fuel-heavy vision of the future for Eskom would not deliver on the promise of “our lands and jobs now”. Rather it would create fewer jobs, less economic growth, and degrade our land through climate change, as well as through the air, water and soil pollution that comes with continued reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power.
When it comes to energy, the EFF’s vision is not really one of radical economic transformation. Rather it repackages an old and harmful colonial extractive model with some redistribution and nationalisation. A truly radical economic transformation would embrace the immense liberatory potential of a Green New Deal to create a more socially and ecologically just South Africa.
Recognising the possibility of a radical renewable economic transformation, a progressive coalition of trade unions, social, health, environmental, gender, human rights and climate justice organisations will be marching on Eskom this Earth Day, April 22nd. We will be marrying environmental and economic justice and calling for a Green New Eskom.
We welcome EFF members and all South Africans to join us. In the face of the climate and electricity crisis we face, we need to stand up for a vision of the future that not only salvages the sinking ship of Eskom, but also ensures that we address the existential and interconnected crises of climate change, unemployment, inequality and poverty.
Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar who holds a PhD on climate justice from the University of Washington and serves as a climate justice campaigner for 350Africa.org