/ 9 June 2023

Communities vital to Mpumalanga’s energy transition — premier

Eskom Getty
Although many might be eager to see Eskom go away, there are valid reasons for questioning how effective government reforms to the energy sector will actually be. Photo: Waldo Swiegers/Getty Images

The “constant refrain” that Mpumalanga premier Refilwe Mtshweni-Tsipane hears as she travels across the province, especially in the coal belt, is that the energy transition “cannot be just if communities are left behind”.

“I will leave the debate to the experts but it is worth noting that many in the province are concerned about the pace of decommissioning and the repurposing of our coal-fired power plants,” she said. “Let us move on this in an informed and consultative manner, bringing all our communities and stakeholders on board.” 

Mtshweni-Tsipane was addressing the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) on her province’s programme for the implementation of just transition initiatives on Friday. 

Mpumalanga, she said, has undertaken “many steps” to address climate change adaptation and implement programmes on just transition. It faces numerous challenges but “we will do more and we will certainly do our country proud as a pilot for many others who are set on this trajectory towards an inclusive, just but low-carbon, economy”.

High unemployment

The province has more than 4.68 million residents — about 7.8% of the national population — and is the fifth-biggest regional economy in the country. 

“We have a diverse and resource-rich economy, which makes it one of the most attractive trade and investment destinations in South Africa.”

But, the province faces many problems, particularly unemployment, poverty and inequality, Mtsweni-Tsipane said. “Just in quarter 1 of 2023, our official unemployment rate was at 38.5%, which then gives us about 49.7% of an unofficial unemployment rate, including those not looking for work. So, as we celebrate this Youth Month, we must also reflect on the lack of opportunities for many young people in the province.” 

About 62.9% of Mpumalanga’s population is below the age of 35. “It is then hardly a surprise and remains a major challenge that youth unemployment is double that of the adults in the labour force.” 

In 2021, about 50.3% of the province’s population lived below the low-bound poverty line of R890 per capita per month. The poorest 40% of households in Mpumalanga earned about 7.4% of income in 2021, which was “better than the national figure of 6.6% for 2021, but lower than the 8.6% share the province achieved in 1996”.

These developmental challenges were compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent negative national and global economic outlook, she said.

Just transition

Climate change and the just transition have become elevated in provincial development discourse and strategies, she said.

“This is hardly surprising because, as the hub of electricity coal-fired generation in South Africa, we are faced with socio-economic and environmental challenges arising from resource-intensive economic activities,” she said.

Mpumalanga is home to over 80% of the country’s coal production by volume and has 12 of Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations. This has resulted in a huge dependency on the exploitation of coal in the Mpumalanga regional economy and its municipalities, Mtsweni-Tsipane said.

In the past two State of the Province Addresses, she had announced proposals for responding to the just transition as a province.

“We are moving speedily on the establishment of the just transition and climate change provincial stakeholder forum, and a related technical working group, under the leadership of the director-general within the office of the premier. 

“This effort has been further supported by our appointment of the resource through the secretariat to support the province as the head just transition for the province, adding more momentum to our efforts and strengthening our partnership and alignment.”

The province is working with the World Bank to do a proper assessment of what needs to be in place to “take the work forward, in creating the necessary institutional mechanisms to deliver on the mandate”. 


Substantial groundwork had already been done in the province, as shown by several strategic initiatives, such as the provincial economic development strategy, the green growth strategy, the infrastructure master plan and the climate mitigation and adaptation strategy, the premier said.

Her government had adopted a climate change adaptation strategy in 2017, which laid out how climate change is expected to affect water availability, agriculture, human health, disaster management, biodiversity, ecosystems, human settlements, livelihoods, mining and forestry. 

This comprehensive analysis, Mtsweni-Tsipane said, was crucial for framing subsequent steps towards the just transition. “To support the just transition, the Mpumalanga Infrastructure Master Plan 2060 is pivotal. The purpose … is to promote comprehensive planning and implementation of infrastructure development in the province, acting as a catalyst for socio-economic development and guiding infrastructure projects up to 2060,” she said.

She explained that it covers sectors such as transport, economy and social infrastructure, along with social service amenities and climate change. 

The province had developed the Mpumalanga green economy development plan, which aims to transition the province’s economy from coal-based energy to renewable energy  by 2030. Part of this was sustainable agriculture and eco-conscious towns. The plan was designed around four pillars: circular economy, smart agriculture, water and energy.

Its journey towards the just transition, the premier said, had been “enriched by the support and involvement” of a number of national and international stakeholders.

Economic losses

Reflecting on the findings of a report on the just transition alignment workshop in Secunda  in May, she said: “We welcome the recommendation around the inclusive approach to the just transition in the province. The involvement of all spheres of government is paramount, together with all sectors of civil society, including our business partners, labour and community groups. No one must be left behind in this instance.”

Mtshweni-Tsipane said “it is well accepted” that there will be economic losses for coal industry-dependent communities. 

“We need to prepare strategies to grow other sectors of local and regional economies in order to create many new jobs for our people. We accept that agriculture, tourism and manufacturing will need to step up and play an even more important role in our province, alongside the new focus on renewables.”

Leave no one behind

“Now, in the next step on our journey to low-carbon emissions in Mpumalanga, we are saying that we don’t want to leave anyone behind because this is important to me and I wish to request the support of the PCC and other partners in improving communication and awareness of climate change and the imperative of just transition in our province … 

“We cannot rest until all our stakeholders are embracing the journey we want to embark upon … As a province, we also need your support to ensure that the negative economic impacts of the move away from fossil fuels, especially coal, do not have a severe impact on the welfare of our communities,” she said, explaining that Mpumalanga is already grappling with “serious development defects and that any sudden economic shocks will only worsen them”. 

She stressed the importance of an industrialisation and economic diversification plan that would work and bring “prosperity to our region in new ways and activities, including across the renewable value chain … As we embrace new economic sectors and productive activities, we need to empower our people with the skills needed to participate in transformed labour markets. 

Communities are our wealth

“We need to be mindful of the necessity to develop a supportive ecosystem for promoting entrepreneurship, especially for our small businesses in both the formal and informal sector of our region. The voice of our communities and the informal sector came through quite clearly during the workshop and we need to change the narrative.” 

The conversations, Mtsweni-Tsipane said, must not be about reskilling but rather empowerment. “Reskilling means nothing, without jobs. We are not implementing just prospects, we are building economies, livelihoods and communities … Communities are our true wealth. 

“How do we shift and use the inherent strength and knowledge in our community to enhance our economy? … We must not do it for them, we must do it with them. How do we also empower our communities and create economies and not just implement projects?”

She noted that social ownership of electricity assets was crucial to energy access and livelihoods. The premier also mentioned the importance of getting communities’ buy-in in terms of jobs, growth and opportunities. 

“If we get this right and on track, I think the initiative of the just transition will be well received by our communities, but in whatever endeavour that we are doing, if it’s thought to leave them behind or disadvantage them somehow, it will be received with resistance.”