The Future Is Here, but South Africa Is Stuck in the Past

Our dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy will prevent us from engaging with the rapidly changing economies of the North, as the 21st century unfolds.

By Fazila Farouk · 2 Jun 2015

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Picture: Urbee Hybrid - the world
Picture: Urbee Hybrid - the world's first 3D printed car, courtesy Print Monthly
Some parts of our world are already being delivered into a new industrial revolution, but this revolution is one that will likely pass by South Africa due to our continued reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Embracing the forward-thinking technological advancements of the 21st century, the economies of Northern Europe are realigning completely to adapt to new modes of production based on renewable energy. Clean technology is integrating into the digital economy to produce a new industrial model being described as the “third industrial revolution”.

Meanwhile South Africa intends to pursue coal, as the primary source of energy to drive our country’s industrial and economic development. This promises to trap our country in an outmoded model of development harking back to the second industrial revolution of the early 20th century. We are, in fact, being forced into an industrial development model that will struggle to engage with the economies of the North, as this century unfolds. It foreshadows a damning future not just for our economy, but also for our society already lagging behind in skills that will be further out of touch with the demands of the 21st century.

The new economies of the North are completely changing the ways in which people are starting to work and live. You may think I’m referring to the green economy, but the notion of the green economy lacks the conceptual flexibility to completely cover the scope, depth and complexity of this new economy. It’s the green economy and then some.

Author of a book with the same title, Jeremy Rifkin, refers to it as the “Third Industrial Revolution”. It’s about a growing democratisation of the economy brought about by decentralised manufacturing processes driven by Internet technologies and smart software organised around lateral networks of interest.

At the same time, a report in The Economist argues that smart software and new materials, such as carbon fibre, are changing the way things are being manufactured in the first world. Whereas “identical products” rolled off factory assembly lines in the 20th century, the hallmark of the 21st century’s third industrial revolution is “mass customisation”.

According to The Economist, smaller numbers of tailor-made products are being produced in distributed artisanal industries staffed by a few highly skilled people, such as engineers, IT specialists, designers, and logistics experts using clean manufacturing technologies such as 3D printers.

It’s a decentralised manufacturing environment that is becoming smaller, smarter and more sustainable.

As our world is changing, manufacturing jobs are moving away from the factory floor. The Economist indicates that repetitive low-wage and low-skilled jobs are unsuitable for the third industrial revolution. “Offshore production is increasingly moving back to rich countries not because Chinese wages are rising, but because companies now want to be closer to their customers so that they can respond more quickly to changes in demand,” the publication contends.

American entrepreneur, John B. Rogers describes this new industrial revolution as ecosystems developing around specialised entrepreneurial activities.

Add to this, the changing nature of human interaction. Facilitated by the social media technologies of the Internet, “collaboration” not consumption is the new order of the day. Designers and engineers work collaboratively with customers who make direct inputs towards the development of customised products in what is being described as the “Internet of things”. In this world, 3D printing is upheld as the new frontier of high-skilled clean tech manufacturing.

Renewable energy is a key driver behind the third industrial revolution. And just as manufacturing is becoming decentralised, so too are sources of renewable energy. In stark contrast to centralised utility companies that control access to energy, the revolution is being driven by small producers creating energy that feeds into the grid.

There are multitudes of renewable energy co-ops popping up all over the northern hemisphere where members are not just consumers, but also own the companies that generate their electricity. Another decentralised model involves municipal level companies controlled by citizens. According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Germany has in the region of 900 energy stadtwerke, which are municipal level utility companies. Sixty-percent of Germany’s energy stadtwerke provide renewable energy because that’s what citizens want.

Germany is in fact being billed as the first serious contender in the third industrial revolution because of its decentralised renewable energy sector and economy built on highly skilled small-scale manufacturers.

Clean and digital technologies are disruptive. The traditional manufacturing sector is not the only one at risk. Forbes magazine reports that the banking sector is also at risk of becoming obsolete in this revolution. New finance is making an appearance on the Internet through initiatives such as Google Wallet and Apple Pay, leading to the tech companies now registering as financial institutions, as they have access to millions of subscribers.

South Africa is falling far behind the third industrial revolution because of our government’s stubborn support for the fossil fuel industry. Speaking at a panel discussion hosted by SACSIS and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) on May 25, commissioner on the National Planning Commission (NPC), Tasneem Essop, a low carbon advocate at the World Wildlife Fund candidly pointed out that South Africa’s energy policy is driven by vested interests in the minerals-energy-complex. She reported that South Africa is spending very little on renewable energy compared to planned expenditure on fossil fuels such as coal and gas -- not to mention the fact that our nation is being plunged into the nightmare of perpetual debt with our government’s plan to build a new nuclear power plant.

To remain globally relevant, many in this country already agree that we need a highly skilled workforce, but where consensus still lacks is on the significance of building a new economy based on renewable energy and clean technologies. This requires a nationwide commitment to renewable energy. And as the public we must be careful that the solutions being presented to us are genuine and not just “greenwash” emanating from official sources. On May 29, minister in the presidency, Jeff Radebe reportedly said, "Our independent power producer programme (IPP) is the most exciting and biggest in the world." While the minister may be excited, the barriers to entry into the renewable energy sector are extremely high for independent, especially small producers.

The IPP programme supports independent power producers, including but not limited to those with an interest in renewable energy. Not only are IPPs required to bid for projects in South Africa’s renewable energy sector, they must also hold significant funds as surety, argued Ferrial Adam, energy expert from the NGO who also spoke at the panel discussion hosted by SACSIS and FES. Adam argued further that as a consequence of government’s poor commitment, just 8% of South Africa’s energy would come from renewable sources by the year 2030.

Compare this to a country like Denmark, which presently already generates 43% of its energy from renewable sources.

Notwithstanding the need to keep abreast of international development trends, the South African government is simply ignoring the memo on the impact of fossil fuels on climate change.

Whilst SACSIS learned last Monday that South Africa is planning to build 28 new coal fired power stations in the Waterberg region alone, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund was getting ready to announce its plan to divest US$900 billion from coal, due to the fossil fuel’s impact on climate change. Earlier this year, the fund also announced that it had divested from 51 coal companies in 2014.

It is clear that the energy policy developed by our government is not driven by any moral imperative to take care of the people of South Africa.

Environmental sociologist Dr. David Fig argues:

“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.”

South Africa is standing at a fork in the road. But we’re facing the wrong direction. This time we won’t be able to blame our misfortune on slavery, colonialism or apartheid.
Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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Rory Verified user
5 Jun

Energy Policy

It is clear that the government's behaviour on the energy front is driven by the self interests of those involved not morality or concern for the people.

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