/ 12 February 2021

Sona 2021: Ramaphosa accords the climate crisis only a cursory nod

Greenpeace Say South Africa No. 2 Sulfur Dioxide Hotspot
Poor score: Emissions rise from the Kriel power station. It’s South Africa’s support of coal-fired electricity that gives the country a bad climate change name. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

In his State of the Nation address on Thursday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa drew on the resilience of the Cape’s unique fynbos biome, which to be sustainable and to survive, needs fire. “Like the fynbos,” he said, South Africa “will rise again.”

Research has shown that hardy fynbos — one of only six floral kingdoms in the world — is under threat from increasingly hot, dry summers driven by climate change, yet the climate crisis didn’t garner more than a handful of cursory mentions in Ramaphosa’s address.


Meanwhile, the world is burning from record-breaking temperatures, with 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.

Ramaphosa said that, as the government mobilises all of the resources at its disposal to support economic recovery, in the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, “South Africa cannot lose sight of the threat that climate change poses to the country’s environmental health, socioeconomic development and economic growth”.

The country is working to fulfil its commitments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Climate Agreement. Ramaphosa said South Africa’s work on climate change would be guided by the presidential co-ordinating commission on climate change, which would meet for the first time this month, after its appointment in December. 

“The commission will work on a plan for a just transition to a low-carbon economy and climate resilient society,” Ramaphosa said.  

Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, the commission’s work is itself particularly urgent. South Africa remains one of the planet’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. With its heavy reliance on coal, the country’s climate commitments continue to be rated as highly insufficient


In last year’s speech, Ramaphosa promised that the Climate Change Bill would be finalised, but this crucial legislation still has not been passed.

Eskom, said Ramaphosa, as the country’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, “has committed in principle” to net zero emissions by 2050, and to increase its renewable energy capacity.

Systems are being put in place for qualifying municipalities to buy power from independent power producers, and bids for 2 000 megawatts of emergency power will be announced. Experts, however, are concerned that this emergency power-procurement process is skewed towards expensive power ships and gas-to-power projects, excluding competition from renewable projects.

Ramaphosa’s government continues to throw a lifeline to coal. One example, cited in his speech, was how progress is being made on several major water infrastructure projects, including Phase 2A of the Mokolo and Crocodile River Project. 

This project is intended to pump water to the water-scarce Waterberg to enable the development of new polluting coal infrastructure in the region.

Ramaphosa said the government is working to revive the Green Drop and Blue Drop programme to strengthen water quality monitoring. This programme exposed the shameful state of water-treatment infrastructure until the programme was effectively halted in 2013.

A staggering 56% of the country’s 1 150 municipal wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water-treatment works are in a poor or critical condition, with 11% dysfunctional, according to the government’s own Water and Sanitation Master Plan.