Abandoning Justice for Power in South Africa

By Michelle Chen Apr 19, 2010

South Africa has been struggling for over a decade to overcome the vestiges of apartheid, and to this day is constantly challenged by racial conflict and socioeconomic inequality. And as if there weren’t enough obstacles strewn in the country’s rocky path to equity, environmental concerns are posing yet another stumbling block. The government’s pending deal with the World Bank to finance a massive coal-fired power plant reflects the cruel paradoxes of “development”: Like many other poor countries, South Africa is pressured not only to mortgage its economic sovereignty to boost industrial development, but to trade away environmental protection to sate an overwhelming hunger for energy. Earlier this month, the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan that will enable South Africa to build the world’s fourth largest power plant. Run by the South African electricity company Eskom, the plan for the Medupi power station has drawn international outcry. But the realities of the global economy trumped the loftier environmental rhetoric of curbing climate change. In an op-ed, South Africa’s Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan defended the move as a short-term measure to boost energy security, stressing South Africa’s long-term commitment to emissions reductions:

We are using every tool at our disposal — legislative, regulatory and fiscal — to promote clean and renewable energy and manage demand. If there were any other way to meet our power needs as quickly or as affordably as our present circumstances demand, or on the required scale, we would obviously prefer technologies — wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear — that leave little or no carbon footprint. But we do not have that luxury if we are to meet our obligations both to our own people and to our broader region whose economic prospects are closely tied to our own. South Africa generates more than 60 percent of all electricity produced in sub-Saharan Africa. Tight supplies are not just a problem for us. Our neighbors Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe all rely on Eskom for their electricity. They face the same growth constraints that we do. Their factories and businesses, hospitals and schools, and their ability to provide basic services all depend on Eskom-generated power.

In a country that has broken so much ground for global human rights, the hurdle of climate justice remains insurmountable. Yet dependence on fossil fuels reflects not only the mechanics of longstanding inequality but invidious corporate blackmail that tethers “development” to the worst forms of resource exploitation. South Africa’s leaders aren’t naïve about the environmental-economic tensions, but their bargain with the fossil fuel industry and its financiers shouldn’t been seen as inevitable. Jesse Jenkins of the Breakthrough Institute frames South Africa’s move as one of many untenable choices imposed on poor countries, which are crushed between the international financial regime and the climate crisis:

Consider that not having access to affordable, modern energy sources, particularly electricity, means no access to potable, running water; it means having to burn dung and wood and other primitive biofuels to provide cooking and indoor heating; and it means sputtering kerosene lamps as the only source of light after the sun goes down. The human toll of such energy poverty is incredible. According to the World Health Organization, solid fuel use causes 1.6 million excess deaths per year globally, especially among women and children, while waterborne disease is one of the leading global killers, ending the lives of over 3 million annually — again, many of them young children — who lack access to clean and safe water supplies.

For the climate justice movement, Jenkins argues, poor countries could only be empowered to take the “high road” out of poverty with international support for full-scale conversion to sustainable energy.

The simple fact is, without access to clean and cheap energy sources, developing nations like South Africa will continue to turn to coal. They must, as the challenges of ending energy poverty and pulling millions of their citizens out of poverty demands it…. Breaking out of this untenable position is the urgent challenge of the century. The only way out of the Development Trap, and the only route to sustainable development and an end to pervasive energy poverty is to make clean energy cheap. On that front, the world can’t afford to delay.

South Africa’s coal quagmire is mirrored in the United States, too. How many times have energy companies peddled promises of jobs to struggling fenceline towns, marginalized by racism and poverty? From Appalachian coal fields to Refinery Row, workers and communities lean toward polluting industries in hopes that economic gains today will offset the environmental fallout tomorrow. The proposed Desert Rock power plant in the Navajo Nation is a stark illustration of the cruel trade-off. Indigenous communities were torn between murky promises of economic growth and activists’ fears that the plant would extend a legacy of corporate predation that has ravaged the region’s natural wealth. The site of the struggle might vary—oil drilling on native lands or smog-filled skies over southern California—but there are always those who refuse to take the bait–the activists who remind neighbors that economic improvement built on environmental devastation is bound to collapse. In the debate over the World Bank loan, advocates with Africa Action see a tragic compromise: Caroline Ntapoane, a representative from a polluted industrial area near Sasolburg, pointed to the real social cost of industrialization: “I know first-hand what the communities have to look forward to, because we experience it every day. We live it in the polluted air we breathe, when our water taps run dry, and when our children get sick. We shouldn’t have to choose between electricity and our health.” Bobby Peek of Groundwork in South Africa argued that the poor would be the last to reap the project’s supposed benefits, since “This project is to secure uninterrupted electricity for large corporations, such as smelters and mining houses under secretive special pricing agreements. It is not for the millions of poor people who cannot afford or do not have access to electricity.” Critics have dismissed green-economy initiatives as unrealistic, seeking material prosperity without ecological consequences. It’s true that environmentalism faces a critical dilemma at the dregs of the global economy. But South Africa’s choice shows that ultimately, the political conflict is not between the goals of social and environmental justice, but between the hegemony of destructive industries and the communities who have always struggled under their grip. Image: USC Annenberg, Neon Tommy (Richie Duchon)