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Asinamali: Selective austerity is stealing our future

In South Africa, it is a tragic annual ritual where students have to protest for their right to affordable and accessible education. In response, the state unconstitutionally doles out violence and murder through the police, clearly violating the students’ right to protest.

On both sides of the debate, we will hear the refrain: asinamali; we do not have money. We are broke, so we simply cannot afford what is being asked of us.

Students will say, we cannot afford exorbitant student fees; we are broke. The state, in return, will say it simply cannot afford to make education affordable, nevermind free. They are broke, they cry.

Many students are indeed clearly broke, particularly in the wake of a pandemic that has wreaked economic chaos across the country. However, while the state is also facing budget difficulties, we cannot simply take the government at its word when it says it is broke.

Is the government really broke?

After all, even if the government’s purse strings are tight, it does have money, which it is spending in the trillions every year. The question is: Where does it prioritise spending it?

To see that the state does have the money when it wants to, we can turn to the biggest recipient of state largesse, the energy sector and Eskom.

This week, as student protests erupted over lack of funding for education, Eskom quietly announced that it would spend around R300-billion to try to make its coal power plants a little bit less polluting.

While obviously we want to reduce Eskom’s pollution, there are cheaper ways to do so. We could retire our coal and invest instead in renewable energy. Doing so would be much cheaper, according to studies from the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Centre.

Rather than embracing renewable energy, our most affordable energy option by far, Eskom is propping up aging, unreliable and polluting coal. As a result, hundreds of billions of rand are being spent that could instead fund education, healthcare, or jobs programmes.

We could use that money to invest in a “Green New Eskom” leading the way to a renewable energy future. We could use it to fund transition plans for workers in the coal sector, so that they can enter the renewable energy economy, which creates more jobs than the dying coal sector.

Really the worst place for the state to be pouring its money into is on more coal. It is a dying, uneconomic industry, which is driving pollution and the climate crisis. Education, on the other hand, is one of the best investments in the future of a country the state can make.

Yet the state is funnelling literally trillions of rands to prop up the coal industry, while funding for education dries up in the face of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s selective austerity. Few understand just how massive the scale of our state support of coal is, so it is worth providing examples. 

Consider that due to corruption and delays, Kusile and Medupi, our most recently built coal power plants, have cost South Africa nearly R500-billion. That’s the same amount as President Cyril Ramaphosa claims his stimulus package amounted to, although in reality, the stimulus was much, much less


In the end, this is not a new story. For decades, the tax- and ratepayers have been asked to foot the bill for an increasingly expensive, corrupt, and uneconomic coal sector. Consider a stunning 2019 report by the Special Investigating Unit, which has received strangely little attention.

The report found that the 2008 load-shedding crisis may have been partly engineered by Eskom employees who ignored repeated warnings that coal stocks were running low. The report says that the “self-created” emergency was then used as a pretence to sign on R14-trillion in overpriced coal contracts.

That is arguably the biggest transfer of wealth in South Africa’s democratic history. It has been taking place in slow motion over the past decade as the cost of electricity has risen by more than 400% and we have been asked to bail out Eskom time and time again, to the tune of tens of billions of rands a year.

The transfer has been into the hands of coal companies, many of whom secured their contracts without proper tender processes. Again, R14-trillion in contracts. That’s worth almost 10 times South Africa’s entire 2019-2020 budget of about R1.8-trillion. Imagine the hospitals, schools and clean energy infrastructure that could have been built with that money.

Martin Luther King Jr once decried that the US has socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor. South Africa is enacting a similar vision here. We have tax- and ratepayer funded socialism for the wealthy coal, oil and gas companies polluting our planet, and deepening, harsh austerity for our people. 

The result for our young people is that they are robbed once of access to education, and robbed again of a future free of climate chaos. Perhaps if we stopped subsidising the polluting companies driving the climate crisis, we could better subsidise our youth’s education and a renewable future.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Alex Lenferna
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

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