Best of SACSIS: SA's Energy Crisis - Public Misinformed by State in Cahoots with Fossil Fuel Industry

29 May 2015

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** For coverage of the entire event including the Q&A session, click on the podcast link above.

In the face of extremely compelling evidence against coal and nuclear energy, our government’s response to South Africa’s electricity crisis is to continue building coal-fired power stations and a very expensive nuclear power plant, argued Fazila Farouk, executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) in her opening remarks at a panel discussion that focused on South Africa’s energy crisis and government’s response and the public’s reaction to it.

The panel discussion that was co-hosted by SACSIS and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung South Africa Office (FES) interrogated the question: “Why is public opinion indifferent to renewable energy as a solution to South Africa’s electricity crisis?”

Speakers on the panel included Tasneem Essop, low carbon advocate at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-SA) and a commissioner on South Africa’s National Planning Commission (NPC); Ferrial Adam, Africa and Arab region team leader at the environmental NGO,; Dr. David Fig, an environmental sociologist that has written a book about nuclear energy in South Africa; and Renate Tenbusch, a political scientist who heads up FES’ South Africa office.

South Africa’s Electricity Crisis Provides the Perfect Opportunity to Review Our Energy Programme

In setting the context, Farouk posed the following question: Given what we already know about the dangers of climate change, our current energy crisis presents the perfect opportunity to ask how we can do things differently; so how can South Africa produce the additional energy that we need in a more responsible and sustainable manner?

Instead, the question, which is foremost in South African minds right now is: “When are the two new coal fired power stations, Kusile and Medupi, going to come on line so that we stop experiencing power outages?” It’s an extremely selfish position for an entire nation to be taking.

Thus, Farouk argued that public opinion and public will are extremely important phenomena to be focusing on in the struggle for cleaner and safer energy solutions for South Africa.

South Africa’s Energy Solutions Buck International Trends

NPC commissioner, Tasneem Essop of WWF-SA, kicked off the panel’s inputs by talking about the promising international trend toward renewable energy. Quoting Bloomberg, she said that the race for renewable energy has passed its tipping point globally. The price of wind and solar is dropping, making both these sources of energy more competitive.

The other exciting international trend linked to citizens' action, noted Essop, is a growing global move toward divestment from fossil fuels linked to climate activism.

Increasing numbers of formal financial institutions have signalled that they will not invest in coal, Essop reported.

The world is experiencing key moments in the renewable energy sector and these are linked to a growing momentum on the issue. “Obama is suddenly traipsing around the world talking to emerging economies; talking about climate action and bilaterals on climate action and putting renewables front and centre of that climate action,” Essop said.

“So why are we not seeing that positive trend towards renewable energy globally reflecting itself back home?”

In answering the question, Essop said that South Africa has a long history of the control of the minerals-energy-complex (MEC), which predates our democracy. Since the advent of our democracy in 1994, we have not seen an end to the entrenched vested interests in the MEC. And neither have we engaged with how to restructure our economy to move away from dependence on minerals and an energy intensive economy.

A crisis is one of the best ways to catalyse short-termism as we search for “quick fixes”, argued Essop. Unfortunately, the quick fix on our government’s mind is gas, she said. While government has invested some money in its Independent Power Producers’ (IPP) programme for renewable energy, this is not at scale and doesn’t compare to what will be spent on fracking or on the nuclear power plant.

Talking about the National Development Plan (NDP), Essop argued that while the NDP talks about a transition to a low carbon economy in one part of the plan to ensure that South Africa meets its Copenhagen commitments, the plan is in actual fact contradictory because it promotes investment in coal infrastructure in another part of the plan.

The biggest threat that South Africa faces at the moment is that climate change is seen as an environmental issue and not an economic or social issue, argued Essop.

** Watch Tasneem Essop’s individual input on You Tube or listen to a podcast.

We Cannot Continue Mining!

Ferrial Adam of argued that South Africa is living with class divisions of struggle. The push for renewable energy came out of the climate change struggle, but for a long time it was about “climate change at a scientific level” far from the lives of ordinary people on the ground even though grassroots communities experience the most direct impacts of climate change.

To stop catastrophic global warming, we have to keep 80% of our fossil fuels in the ground. “We cannot keep mining,” argued Adam. But South Africa plans 24 new coalmines in the Waterburg region alone, which also happens to be a UNESCO protected biosphere reserve.

According to Adam, the standard information that we get from the fossil fuel industry and from our government is that fossil fuels are cheap and that we need them for development. “This narrative has been the hegemonic belief of the South African and global society because it has been backed by the politically and financially powerful industries who have an interest in fossil fuels,” she said.

It remains an important blockage to the renewable energy industry, she said.

The second blockage the renewable energy sector faces is that government is very close to people in the mining industry and this affects national policy. Even though South Africa talks up its renewable energy targets, by the year 2030, only 8% of our energy will be sourced from renewables. South Africa will still be dominated by coal and nuclear, Adam argued.

Adam, who has worked as an anti-nuclear campaigner, argued that South Africa simply cannot afford to build the proposed new nuclear power plant. “If a foreign country comes to you and says, we will build it, as the Russians are doing via the build/operate/own (BOO) model, we need to ask why would a foreign country want to build something so expensive and so dangerous?”

Part of the reason that we are stuck with coal mining, said Adam, is because mining is a heavily subsidised industry globally. Quoting the IMF, Adam reported that globally the subsidies for fossil fuel companies amount to US$5.3 trillion per annum. That’s equivalent to US$10 million per minute, every day.

In South Africa we have additional subsidies. For example, cheap water for the industry.

Adam argued that one of the biggest problems facing South Africa is that there’s a great deal of climate denialism linked to fossil fuel industry propaganda. This propaganda argues that renewable energy cannot meet our base load demand and that renewable energy is too expensive.

These things are constantly being disproven, she said. However, the one argument that our government is holding onto is that “development and job creation” are dependent on fossil fuel extraction. This argument is invalid because, as Adam also reported, Bangladesh, a developing nation, has created 114,000 jobs via its renewable energy programme in a very short space of time.

So why isn’t the South African public out on the streets demanding change?

The problem is that its far easier for people to buy diesel generators than it is for them to buy solar geysers. As long as government places negative controls on the renewable energy industry, for example, not offering subsidies like it does to the coal mining industry, it block access to renewable energy for ordinary people.

** Watch Ferial Adam’s individual input on You Tube or listen to a podcast.

South Africa’s Electricity Crisis is a Managerial Crisis

South Africa’s electricity crisis is a managerial crisis, said environmental sociologist, Dr. David Fig. “I don’t think demand for electricity has ever really exceeded installed capacity – the amount theoretically available if all sources are functioning properly. Therefore the crisis arises from how our electricity resources have been managed.”

Managerial failures have also been manifested around a decent timetable for maintenance, Fig said. They have not been able to stop demand eating into the safety margins.

Our solution is to bring new electricity sources onto the grid as fast as possible. This points to the fact that we should be more reliant on renewables because unquestionably, renewables are the fastest way to install new capacity, Fig argued.

Why do South Africans embrace more coal, more nuclear and shale gas?

Part of the answer is what the late Jamaican sociologist, Stewart Hall, termed a moral panic, Fig argued. This is a kind of panic engendered by a particular interest group usually wanting to push forward an unscientific or irrational position. Our moral panic is around how we can combat what is euphemistically called “load shedding” to return us to 24-hour electricity provision.

Eskom, government and the media do not interrogate the means for delivering more energy. Whichever source will deliver they argue, bring it on. People are so panicked that they mostly go along with this, Fig said.

The most rapid form of developing new energy is the multiplication of renewable energy solutions, Fig said. So why is the public not pushing for this?

Depending on our definition of "Who is the public?", we need to say that those sections of the public concerned with energy and ecological justice have certainly been advocating for renewable solutions very strongly -- for example, the active advocacy by Numsa, the metalworkers’ union, for renewable energy. Numsa questions the state’s model of introducing renewables by giving contracts to the most experienced global players rather than keeping production local and socially owned. Sadly, most of civil society is not yet on the same page as Numsa, argued Fig.

Talking about the nuclear industry, Fig said that it is in denial about its carbon emissions. Measured from cradle to grave, the industry's carbon emissions are considerable and there is also the grave threat presented by radioactive waste when nuclear power plants are decommissioned.

Whilst there is growing uptake of renewables in South Africa, Fig described the attitude of Eskom and government as “a reluctant embrace”.

Why this reluctance?

“Because renewables raise the possibility of decentralised energy, of spreading power, in both senses, out of centralised control, of using the technology to empower many more people on the ground and of offsetting higher bills by consumers returning unused power to the grid.” This is in conflict with a utility like Eskom and with municipalities that want to sell more electricity, not less, Fig said.

** Watch David Fig’s individual input on You Tube or listen to a podcast.

A Lesson from Abroad: Fukushima and Its Social and Political Aftermath in Germany

Germany represents a unique example of surprisingly quick change from a very conservative liberal energy policy towards a progressive, sustainable, alternative political approach, ultimately brought about by a conservative liberal government, said Renate Tenbusch head of FES in South Africa in her presentation that examined the role of the German public in pushing their government toward renewable energy solutions.

Behind the unexpected political shift by a conservative German government in June 2011, is an enduring social, political and technical process, Tenbusch reported. The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan merely triggered this shift, which was actually prepared by a longstanding fight from the bottom led by a coalition of social movements, including trade unions, supported by a network of academics and think tanks as well as the Greens, the Social Democratic Party and the Left Party, which came on board later.

Tenbusch told the story of Fukushima and its social and political aftermath in Germany. After the Fukushima nuclear meltdown brought about by an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Germany experienced an earthquake of a political nature, she said, which marked a turning point in the conservative government’s energy policy.

Only three days after the March 2011 disaster in Japan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced far-reaching changes to the country's energy policy at a press conference. She said, “The events in Japan teach us that the risks which we regarded as totally unlikely were not completely so. And if a highly developed country like Japan with high safety standards and norms cannot prevent such consequences for nuclear power, then it also has consequences for the whole world. It also has consequences for Europe and it has consequences for us in Germany.”

Immediately a three-month moratorium was announced during which the seven oldest German nuclear power plants would be taken off the grid. Shortly afterwards an ethics commission on safe energy supply was established. It was tasked with submitting a proposal for a rigorous turnaround in energy policy.

This turnaround is remarkable especially because just six months earlier, the very same government had reversed the already existing nuclear phase-out strategy of the former SPD-Green coalition government developed in the year 2000. The so-called Renewable Energy Act of 2000 not only called for the phasing out of nuclear energy, but also provided for a far-reaching overall plan on renewable energy.

The coalition government of 2000 was able to negotiate an exit strategy with the nuclear companies due to broad public support. But in 2009, a conservative liberal coalition government came into power and in September 2010, it reversed the country’s progressive renewable energy policy.

The dismantling of the country’s progressive energy policy was a decision that was strongly opposed by the German public, which had seen that renewable energy was safe, reliable and climate friendly due to the fact that 16% of the country’s energy was already generated from renewable sources at the time. Today 26% of Germany’s energy is sourced from renewables.

Ramping up the campaign for nuclear in 2010, the country’s four biggest energy utility companies went on the offensive with a massive advertising campaign promoting nuclear energy as clean (not unlike the way nuclear energy is presented to the South African public today).

The utility companies’ aim was to get the German government to reinstate nuclear -- and they did achieve momentary success. But the German public reacted vehemently. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in an anti-nuclear movement, which swept up people from all social ranks, not just the left.

“Thus, the political decision taken in the aftermath of Fukushima in which major elements of the conservative policy from 2010 were finally reversed in one fell swoop can only be understood against the background of a general and obvious change in the social climate of German society,” Tenbusch argued.

This change started with the rise of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements of the 60’s and 70’s and was consolidated by later successes of the Green party in government, which influenced the adoption of environmentally friendly policies overall, Tenbusch said.

** Watch Renate Tenbusch’s individual input on You Tube or listen to a podcast.

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