/ 19 June 2021

Young people call for an end to the terrible legacy of coal

Safrica Environment Mining Poverty
No new coal: Unemployed men such as Bonginkosi Mhlanga scrape a living from abandoned mine shafts. Analysts warn that commodity prices, which have over the years sometimes papered over South Africa’s economic woes, will not keep the country going forever. (Emmanuel Croset/AFP)

As young South Africans, we have a vision for our future — a future where those in power make the health and welfare of all South Africans a priority. The poorest and most vulnerable in our society bear the brunt of our government’s limited actions on climate change and environmental degradation. 

The question is, will our government choose to enable and empower us to make the changes we need, or will it continue to steal from our future by refusing to transition from the corrupt, colonial legacy of coal?

Climate change, caused mainly by burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, is already an economic and humanitarian crisis in South Africa, even though a state of emergency has not been declared. 

Devastating floods and widespread droughts, worsened by climate breakdown, crushes the agricultural sector and leaves towns running out of water. 

But it is not climate change alone that is our concern. It is also the current and historic injustices caused by coal, such as removing people from their land and the health problems caused by polluted air, water and soil. 

The harms and repercussions of burning coal for power, despite the availability of cheaper and cleaner alternatives, are a contravention of our constitutional rights to health and well-being and to have the environment protected to benefit present and future generations. We simply cannot allow any new coal-fired power stations in South Africa. We cannot allow “development” that harms our health, costs us money and destroys our future by exacerbating the climate crisis.

Sabelo Mnguni, head of the youth wing at Mining Affected Communities United in Action, says the living conditions of mining-affected people are very painful. 

“Our air quality is causing health issues that our health facilities are not equipped to deal with. Most of us have no access to clean water or electricity despite the fact that the mine, which uses large quantities of water and produces electricity, is just kilometres away. The mines are also destroying the land, which means we cannot continue with agriculture,” Mnguni says.

South Africa has a youth unemployment rate of 74.7%, a sure sign of the crumbling of our coal-powered capitalist economy. By prioritising a just transition to renewable energy, and implementing equitable nature-based and restorative solutions, millions of new jobs could become available while providing a solution to our climate and ecological problems.

We are not blind to the fact that our leaders are among those benefiting the most from coal investments. But those who have the largest stake also can enable this shift.  

We are not naive and will not be complicit while entire ecosystems fall apart and poor, working-class people and the youth suffer under climate injustice and climate apartheid.

The school generation of 1976 did not fight to end the injustices of apartheid, only for there to be the dawn of a new one. We will not stand for new coal being a part of our energy mix. We will not stand idly by to bear the brunt of today’s climate inaction. 

Our leaders may try to make promises for a green and just future, but we want real, substantive action now. We will do whatever it takes to put an end to new coal and to ensure that the lead up to our future is dedicated to a just, equitable, and resilient transition where, as President Cyril Ramaphosa promised, “no African child is left behind”.