The story of SA’s biggest power plant, and its little town

Before Big Coal, Lephalale was a small town with little water and few jobs. Two power plants have changed it. Medupi, one of the largest coal-fired plants in the world, might still not come on stream and is employing fewer people than before. Nathalie Bertrams and Tristen Taylor tell the story of this ode to a world where carbon emissions weren’t a concern.


Smokestacks dominate. The Matimba and Medupi power stations lord over shacks, farms, houses, schools, busy churches, emptying shops and gun stores arming a hunting industry. There’s a McDonald’s. And, underneath the carbon dioxide plume, the coal town of Lephalale roils in anger, racism, corruption and fading hope.

Lephalale, in the Waterberg district of Limpopo, has the harsh dry climate of the bushveld. Temperatures often exceed 35°C and the night brings little relief. Rain, when it comes, does nothing about the heat, except bring humidity and mosquitoes.

Yet while the sun may strip the sky white, the earth is black. The Waterberg Coalfield holds between 50 to 75 billion tons of good quality coal. Carbon is hauling the town out of its rural past.

With more structural steel than the world’s tallest building and an estimated 800 000m2 of concrete, Medupi is big. Massive. A gigantic being breathing in the earth and exhaling tendrils of high-voltage power lines. With an installed capacity of 4.8 gigawatts (GW), Medupi is the world’s largest dry-cooled power station and will last for the next 60 years. There’s a kind of beauty about it, an engineering wonder, albeit an expensive one.


South Africa’s state-owned utility, Eskom, has a virtual monopoly on the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity. Eskom’s installed capacity of 51GW electrifies Africa’s most advanced economy and Medupi is its much delayed, years behind schedule, and way over budget flagship project. Since construction began in 2007, Medupi has cost Eskom $8-billion (R145-billion at today’s rate) and another $1-billion is required to get the plant fully operational.

Ten kilometres from Medupi, there’s another Eskom power station, the 3.9GW Matimba plant, which was completed in 1993. Compared with the national angst about Medupi’s frequent outages and design flaws, Matimba is downright boring: it simply burns coal and produces carbon dioxide, over and over again, and will do so for decades to come.

The black-empowered resource company, Exxaro, runs the nearby Grootegeluk mine, which has long-term contracts to feed both Medupi and Matimba. At the current rate of production, the open pit mine has enough coal for the next 125 years.

The mining is routine — blast, shovel, conveyor belt, rinse and repeat — and Eskom will buy for the next six decades. A dull but profitable business. Exxaro’s net profit last year was about $347-million.

Inside the Grootegeluk Coal Mine, the largest coal mine in South Africa and which produces 18.6 million tonnes per annum of coal.

The construction of Medupi transformed Lephalale. As the boom took off, the ruling ANC proclaimed that sleepy rural town would become South Africa’s first post-apartheid city.

Migrants flooded into and contractors from as far away as Thailand and China drove up rents. Although reliable numbers aren’t available, anecdotal evidence indicates substantial numbers of Zimbabweans arrived both illegally and legally: opportunity pulling, terror and economic collapse pushing.

The town’s road and water infrastructure struggled to cope. A new mall was built: fancy clothing stores, chain restaurants, three supermarkets, wire transfer service, banks and an elite camping store. The Lephalale district municipality experienced a 60% increase in population and the township, Marapong, filled with shacks.

The influx of workers skewed gender balance among the district’s 140 000 people: 12 men for every 10 women. According to local sex workers, 500 women serviced rising demand during the construction boom.

The Waterberg district’s HIV prevalence rate was 27.3% in 2013, the highest in the province. From 2009 to 2014, it was the leading cause of death in Lephalale among the 25 to 64 age bracket and second in the 15 to 24 bracket.

Medupi is almost finished and so is the money. Times are getting rough. Rates for sex used to be between about $10 and $14 during the boom. Now, some are charging as little as $2.

In terms of formal employment, someone over at Eskom must really like George Orwell: 20 000 workers are being “demobilised”. Laid off to thrive in the country’s 38% unemployment rate.

Redress

Formerly known as Ellisras, Lephalale wasn’t much more than an agricultural way station before Matimba and Medupi. A small town in the hinterland. Born in the Western Cape and a contract welder at the Matimba power station in the 1980s, Johan Lewin, describes Ellisras as the most racist place in South Africa and how he had to work next to white men with guns. He says, “I want to forget my time there.” 

Hidden away under the front desk of the town’s small library and shoved into a bulging folder, there’s a strange collection of photos and documents from the 1980s. A document from 1990 states that the town had “10 500 whites, +/- 10 000 blacks”. Another calls Marapong swartdorp — black town. There’s a magazine extolling the local commando, the army’s reserve system during apartheid. On the magazine’s cover, a white middle-aged warrior stands at attention on top of a mountain, rifle at his side, and sucks in his beer belly; the whole scene graced with one of the Waterberg’s beautiful sunsets.

Eskom and Exxaro see coal as not only a solution to South Africa’s urgent need for generation capacity but also as part of the country’s transformation agenda. By prioritising affirmative action and black economic empowerment, the companies are seeking to redress apartheid’s segregation and depravation. 

The engineering manager for operations at the Grootegeluk mine, Prince Malatji, was born in a village outside Polokwane in Limpopo. Through an Exxaro training programme he moved through the ranks: artisan, supervisor, management. He’s now adding an MBA to his degree in mechanical engineering. The transformation agenda has created, as he puts it, “an inclusive environment within this diverse context that enabled me and it enables other people as well to become who they can be”.

Mamoloko Lekokotla, an Eskom shift manager, was born dirt poor in a village 85km from Lephalale: in the early 1990s, a family of five surviving on his grandmother’s small pension. At one point, he was sent home simply because his mother couldn’t afford a school uniform. In 2004, a year after graduating high school with distinctions, he received a bursary from Eskom to study electrical engineering at Lephalale’s technical college. Then he started working at Eskom, which he says “was like an injection of adrenalin into one’s heart. That boosted everything about me, my confidence, I could actually relive my dream.”

Today, Lekokotla’s house is in one of the town’s formerly whites-only suburbs: a large flatscreen TV and a kicking sound system define his living room. But, more importantly, work at Matimba has allowed him to look after his siblings and ageing mother, finances that enabled her to consult doctors.

And that is the dream. To turn Malatji and Lekokotla’s success stories into not only the town’s but also the nation’s. During the 2000s and early 2010s, the government aimed to make Lephalale the energy hub of the nation by 2025: another four coal-fired power stations, coal production to quadruple to a 100-million tonnes and railways expanded to feed rising Asian demand. A new Sasol coal-to-liquids plant, turning rock into black gold at the rate of 80 000 barrels a day. The town’s population was to double to a quarter of a million people.

There was method in the ANC’s logic. Since the 1750s, coal has driven industrial development in country after country and has lifted millions out of poverty. The United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany and, most recently, China, used coal to power the smelters, furnaces and factories that created national wealth and alleviated poverty. There’s also a twisted precedent in South Africa.

The Witwatersrand mines have produced 50% of the world’s total gold production to date. Gold funded apartheid’s fearsome military machine and provided the cash to build Johannesburg’s skyscrapers and highways. Coal-fired power stations, foundries and factories serviced the mines, and the black proletariat built it all in draconian misery. For, as the economist Peter Bernstein once said: “The gold at the end of the rainbow is the ultimate happiness, but the gold at the bottom of the mine emerges from hell.”

Currently, coal mining in South Africa employs 87 000 people, of which the Grootegeluk coal mine employs about 3 300. Although coal may provide quality union jobs and part of South Africa’s transformation agenda, it is a dirty business.

As the retired general manager of the mine and one of the architects of Lephalale’s development, Joe Meyer is a big man around town. His house is all Better Homes & Gardens and his photography adorns the walls: wildlife shots next to coal mine stills.

To provide a “balanced” perspective in terms of coal’s effect on the environment, Meyer takes us on a tour in his kitted-out Landcruiser. After first showing us Exxaro’s recently built housing for mine workers — middle-class brick condominiums with a close up view of Matimba — we go through Exxaro land: bushveld surrounds the pit. He points out sable, kudu, roan antelope and waterbuck. Then, it is a cooked breakfast in the veld.

As we work our way through eggs and bacon, he talks about transformation and development. A window into the past. He says, “I think that black people in this whole process of transformation were extremely spoilt. And they are still being spoilt. Their demands are just increasing.”

Then he follows up with, “Who do you think built those houses in Soweto? The blacks? No, the government built them … Before 1994 there were far more black schools than white schools … You look at the people who came into industry, who trained them? No man, to say that the whites got everything and the blacks got nothing, that’s not true.”

With poverty being the number one social ill in South Africa, the ANC continues to see the Waterberg coalfield as a resource, like the gold mines were, that could bring about another wave of industrialisation.

Previously a local politician during the Lephalale’s Medupi boom, Dipuo Moatshe is now an ANC parliamentarian: she is, in the party’s terminology, a leader. Having witnessed the town’s growth from within the ruling political structure, she is a firm believer in more coal and the government’s quest, as she puts it, “to build a vibrant city. We need to enhance the development and services to our people.”

In her view, Eskom should build another 4800 megawatt (MW) coal plant in the area. Moatshe says that an additional coal plant is “part of our economic development, to assist people with employment. Our priority as the ANC is to reduce unemployment in the country.”

But the dream of economic prosperity and a just society could end up as something else entirely. Frans Seanego, the head of the Lephalale Unemployment Forum, is a bitter young man. His fury burns like white phosphorous. “Nothing is good in Lephalale, everything is rotten. If you are not carrying the membership of the ANC, you won’t get employed. If you are an EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] member or DA [Democratic Alliance], just forget. Rather sit at home.”

His anger is not just that of those idling in shacks while the white old guard and the new black elite cavort in fancy BMWs and Ford 4x4s. It is the inevitable product of the contradictions of a country where inequality not just permeates but defines the social fabric. 

Although South Africa is an advanced economy with a complex financial system, universities, tech startups, glitzy skyscrapers, factories, petrochemical complexes and mines, it is a land of dusty, jobless townships. A society where a democratic and progressive Constitution, in which socioeconomic rights are enshrined and every citizen has the right to a clean, safe and healthy environment, is undercut by endemic corruption, unemployment, crime and xenophobia. 

Mamogela, a small informal settlement, is on the north road out of Lephalale, just past the sign welcoming visitors to “A Vibrant City and Energy Hub”. Shacks on one side, an old sand mine on the other, and a bitter taste in the wind. 

A recent migrant from Somalia, Ahmed Yussuf Ali works and sleeps in a small, corrugated iron shop selling basic goods to the settlement’s population. There’s an enduring consistency to each of Ali’s days: he is afraid that when the sun goes down, tsotsis will come and kill him. More than the raw sewage from broken and overloaded pumping stations or the diesel fumes retching out of the ubiquitous coal trucks, mutual frustrated loathing is Lephalale’s real perfume.

Migration 

The Waterberg is old land, the ancient of the old world. The roots of its people go all the way down to humanity’s beginning, multiple footprints cover the land in time and space. 

The first anatomically modern Homo sapiens come from Southern Africa and the original inhabitants of the region, now collectively called the San, were largely displaced by Bantu-speaking agropastoralists moving into the area about 2 000 years ago. San rock art can be found near Lephalale, a matter of kilometres from painting to power station.

A few hours’ drive north of Lephalale lies the archaeological site of the Mapungubwe kingdom (900 to 1300). From the top of a flat mountain, royals ruled over the commoners and participated in a trade network that stretched from East African coastal kingdoms, all the way to India and China. Gold and ivory for porcelain, glass beads and cotton.

Perhaps the most impressive artefact to come from the site is a golden sculpture of a rhino. Mapungubwe

National Park also holds the only known San painting of a rhino: distant condemnations of the current xenocidal wave of rhino poaching in South Africa.

To escape the German Herero and Namaqua genocide (1904 to 1908), Herero refugees arrived in the Lephalale area from 1906 to 1907. Their descendants are still there. 

Danias Urayai, a former Zimbabwean police officer and now a journalist, arrived in Lephalale in 2009. On his second day there, he found a job working in a security company’s control room. He left Zimbabwe because “there was hyperinflation in Zim. Once you got in the queue to buy something, the price would change. It got so bad, you know, to a situation where my wife’s salary and my salary couldn’t buy a two litre of cooking oil.”

He had been able to obtain a Zimbabwean passport, but others struggle. The government has run out of foreign currency to buy the specialised paper needed to print passports and will only be issuing new passports in 2021. As Urayai says: “Some people just end up coming here without a passport and papers, not because of choice but because they don’t have an option.”

The current wave of external migration, primarily from Zimbabwe, into Lephalale is nothing new. People have been walking back and forth across this land for more than a hundred thousand years and, on this long view, the idea that anyone owns the land dissipates as fast as a Lephalale sunrise: soft light to harsh in an instance. What is different is how the town’s growth became a noble dream corrupted and emblematic of humanity’s nihilistic approach to the environment.

Corruption

In 2005, the ANC’s investment arm, Chancellor House, bought a 25% stake in Hitachi Africa. Eskom then awarded Hitachi a contract to build boilers at Medupi: the ANC made a financial investment in a company that a state-owned company (Eskom) subsequently did about R105-billion worth of business with. From 2008 to 2012, Hitachi Africa paid Chancellor House $10.5-million: a 5 000% return on its initial investment of just under $200 000.

A subcontractor to Hitachi Africa supplied and installed an ash handling plant that subsequently failed, causing machine grinding fly ash to spread across the plant. About nine thousand of Hitachi’s welds on the boilers were faulty. According to Eskom, the cost of Hitachi’s design flaws is about $4.9-billion.

Widespread looting of the state defined the administration of then-president Jacob Zuma and Eskom was right in the middle of it. Media reports in April 2019 indicate that South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit is examining cases of theft, totalling $9.7-billion, with regard to the construction of the Medupi and Kusile power stations.

Because of design flaws and construction delays, Medupi is performing nowhere near its theoretical capacity and load-shedding has become all too common. Each day of load-shedding costs the economy an estimated $140-million.

Medupi bleeds money. So much so that Eskom’s debt is now so large that no one has a real idea of how it will ever be paid back: its debt has increased by about $2.8-billion over the past decade while electricity tariffs increased 488% from 2006 to 2017. And, as Eskom is owned by the state, that debt is ultimately the state’s debt. 

Eskom’s credit rating went to junk in 2016.

In 2017, Fitch and Standard & Poor’s rated South Africa’s credit as junk. Moody’s followed earlier this year. Taxes have increased in South Africa yet tax revenue is down. The economy is now in a technical recession. Debt rolls over. Austerity beckons.

In his state of the nation address in June last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a $16-billion bailout for Eskom. The last rating agency to keep the country at an investment grading, Moody’s, junked South Africa on March 27 this year.

One of the immediate casualties of Eskom and the state’s deepening debt trap is the planned, desired, wished for expansion of coal mining and use in and around Lephalale. Despite its name, the Waterberg simply does not have the water for all the planned mines and power stations. The only way to provide the water is to build a $970-million water transfer scheme that includes a 100km pipeline. The project most likely to happen at this stage is Exxaro’s Thabametsi mine and the attached 600MW coal-fired power station: civil society activists are challenging the environmental authorisation for the power station in court.

So the town patiently waits. A few in terror of what could come, of ash dumps covering fields and sulphur flavouring the wind, but most in hope, albeit fading hope. Hope that another big power station will be built, and more mines dug. If the water comes, then so will the machines, union jobs, migrants, and contractors to fleece through overpriced rentals. The two shopping districts will reverse their entropic decline. Money will be made. The view that coal is development is, perhaps, the only common thread in this divided town.

Yet there’s more than coal to Lephalale. They kill animals.

Game

Trophies abound throughout the town. From butchery to hotel, the glass eyes of leopard, buck, zebra, buffalo and warthog gaze down upon humans. After a while, you stop noticing the disembodied heads. One butchery, just outside of Lephalale, had a baby crocodile in the freezer.

Lephalale is an isolated place. The closest city, Pretoria, is a three-hour drive away. The drive into Lephalale goes past game farm after game farm and sometimes feels like a bit of a safari. Sable, eland, oryx, giraffe all drift by. But none of them are wild animals. They are commodities.

Changing rainfall patterns are behind the area’s shift from cattle rearing to game farming. As Marius Kotze, owner of the large game farm Rhinoland Safaris, states: “With the droughts that started in the early Eighties … the droughts started and it’s just never gone back to normal. So people just can’t breed cattle any more, it’s just too dry.”

Hunters pick from menus: about $60 to shoot a warthog, $400 for a zebra, $35 000 for a rhino. Baboons and jackals are often thrown in as freebies. In Limpopo, just under 18 000 people are employed in the hunting industry, and hunting contributes $950-million a year to the economy. Hunters from the US, Europe, Mexico, Argentina and the Far East come to Lephalale to bag their trophies.

Colonel Steve Roets of the South African Police Service’s Stock Theft and Endangered Species Unit, the front line unit combating poaching, states, “I believe there is no such a thing as a wild area. We need to manage it as a big game farm.”

Fenced, patrolled, tagged, medicated, trucked and bartered.

The naturally beautiful biome that lays siege to coal town, the bushveld, is actually one vast technologically advanced field of harvest that transforms animals into money, both legally and illegally. A rhino horn goes for about $70 000 on the black market, pangolin scales are a thousand dollars a kilogramme. Like other animals, rhino and pangolin are currently worth more dead than alive.

Warrant Officer Jurg van Heerden, the Endangered Species Unit’s officer on the ground in Lephalale, points out that the majority of the poachers he catches are from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique and then South Africa and he’s not optimistic about the future. 

A large part of the problem, according to Van Heerden, is the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. He says, “The Zimbabweans have got nothing, it’s life and death for them. You can’t really blame them for trying to get money, it’s just the wrong way. And the rhino, the Chinese are making the market.”

Roets is also pessimistic. In his view as supplies of rhino dwindle, poachers will move increasingly on to elephant, pangolin and lion. And he believes that the only thing left to do to save the rhino is to open up the trade in rhino horn and thus give live rhino value. Farmers would be able to afford to keep and breed rhino and the black market would be repressed through the legal trade.

A leading game farmer in Lephalale, Hardus Steenekamp, echoes this view, “I think they [the government] have to, at the end, also give those endangered species to the farmer himself. When I can earn money from, say a cheetah, for example, I will look after my cheetahs. I don’t harm them in any way because I can hunt. They have value.”

Special agent Ed Newcomer Jr, from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, attached to the US Embassy in Pretoria and assisting the South African police, disagrees. He believes that legalising the trade in rhino horn won’t solve the problem and may exacerbate it. The problem, for Newcomer, is on the demand side. Unless Asian markets, in particular China and Vietnam, reduce their demand for African wildlife, poaching to extinction will continue.

Rising prosperity in Asia has correlated with increased demand for fin, ivory, horn, scale and bone, and coal continues to drive that prosperity.

Carbon

Once Medupi is fully operational, it and Matimba will emit a combined total of about 60 million metric tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide a year. That’s like an individual flying return from London to New York about 61 million times. The possibility that South Africa, especially after Medupi’s long, torturous and expensive construction, would shut down these power stations any time within the next four to six decades is remote.

In 2017, Exxaro signed a 10-year agreement with the state railway that would allow it to increase the coal exports from the Grootegeluk mine sixfold to 6.5Mt. Exxaro recently committed to a $1.4-billion investment in South Africa’s coal sector, including an expansion of the Grootegeluk mine.

With global carbon dioxide emissions hitting a record high in 2018, we have either passed the point of no return for surpassing the 2°C boundary or will do so very soon. This was confirmed in a stark warning from the United Nation’s climate agency in 2018, with its “global warming of 1.5°C” report, which laid out the world’s current emissions trajectory. Three and four degrees of warming by the end of the century are increasingly likely. 

Disaster befalls us and Lephalale is one of the reasons.

This article has been supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society. The views and opinions expressed by the authors are their own 

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Tristen Taylor
Dr. Tristen Taylor is a South African journalist, researcher and academic. He is a National Geographic Explorer and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. https://thanatos.co.za
Nathalie Bertrams
Nathalie Bertrams is an award-winning photographer and journalist who routinely publishes in newspapers such as Süddeutsche Zeitung, Al Jazeera, BBC and The Guardian. She is a National Geographic Explorer, and a fellow at both the Robert Bosch Foundation and the Earth Journalism Network. www.crossingborders.info

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