South Africa does not lack for plans. What the country does lack, however, is a big unifying idea around which its plans, policies and programmes can cohere – a vision that shapes and directs not only public-sector resource allocations, but also provide the framework for private investment and entrepreneurial activity, as well as education and training, research and development, health and social welfare.
True, South Africa already has the National Development Plan (NDP), which seeks to unite the country around policies and actions designed to tackle the ‘triple scourge’ of poverty, unemployment and inequality. These remain South Africa’s most pressing problems. Yet, the NDP has not yet been able to ensure policy coherence, let alone become the touchstone for fiscal allocations and private enterprise and investment.
So, what should this big unifying idea be?
As was the case with the anti-apartheid struggle, which provided the basis for decades of united action, the new vision should also seek to confront a genuine existential threat. And there can be no bigger existential threat currently than the one posed by climate change.
Besides the mitigation and adaptation actions required to save lives, the carbon-heavy nature of the South African economy also imperils livelihoods, particularly as countries and blocs move to impose carbon border adjustments.
The science is already pointing to the entirely unfair prospect of South Africa being disproportionately affected by the damaging consequences of climate change, which is likely to further deepen and widen its already too wide and deep socioeconomic fault lines.
All that is required to kick-start this new vision is for South Africa to embrace a modestly more ambitious, but far more strategic, Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) ahead of the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
More ‘ambitious’, by committing the country to slightly faster and deeper carbon cuts than is currently outlined in the country’s updated draft NDC. More ‘strategic’, by leveraging that greater ambition to secure far higher levels of climate finance and by coupling the NDC to a comprehensive, project-rich, implementation strategy for a just, albeit accelerated, transition to a low-carbon society.
Without question, South Africa is in an enviable position to do just that. Its coal fleet is aged and failing, so it is ripe for replacing with cheaper and cleaner solutions, with little stranded asset risk. Its superior solar, wind and land resources will mean that its renewable electricity will be comparatively cheaper, making it the ideal location for traditional and new (green hydrogen and cyber-currency mining) energy-intensive industries. There is, at last, an acknowledgement that rich countries, which contributed disproportionately to the climate crisis, must help fund transitions in developing countries. Then, there is also private finance in desperate search of environmentally acceptable investment propositions.
If South Africa presents a comprehensive climate-resiliency plan, together with a portfolio of bankable projects, inside and outside of the energy sector, investment is sure to follow. And such investment is definitely a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for tackling the triple scourge.