The mood at the media conference hosted in February at the National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM’s) 7 Rissik street head office in downtown Johannesburg was beyond angry. President Joseph Montisetse reported that the union was “bitterly dismayed” at the decision of its former general secretary, President Cyril Ramaphosa, to propose the unbundling of Eskom, and to do so without any prior consultation with workers.
The NUM leadership also expressed deep scepticism about government’s support for the introduction of renewable-energy independent power producer (IPPs), as well as suggestions that the renewables industry could provide more jobs than was the case currently in coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation. So unhappy was general secretary David Sipunzi that he warned that the NUM’s long-standing electoral support for the governing African National Congress (ANC) should not be treated as a “blank cheque”.
Days before the May 8 election, however, the NUM put out a statement that indicated it was willing to set aside its differences with the ANC, notwithstanding ongoing misgivings about the proposed Eskom unbundling. The union confirmed its backing for the ANC, stating the party could be “relied upon to take forward the liberation of this country”.
Even more startling, though, was the NUM’s revised stance regarding IPPs. The national executive committee reported that it would be seeking expert advice on the issue. It also called upon government “not to be only interested in introducing new power-generating technology, but also in the reskilling of the current Eskom workers, so that they can be absorbed into the envisaged clean-energy technology, if indeed it is going to create more jobs, as they claim”.
The significance of this statement should not go unnoticed or unappreciated. It opens the door for genuine engagement on the so-called ‘just energy transition’ with a union whose members are literally at the coalface of the inevitable shift from coal to renewable energy in South Africa. This inevitability arises primarily as a result of the growing economic advantages of technologies such as onshore wind and solar photovoltaic over coal – advantages that are further amplified by the fact that an electricity system based on solar, wind and flexible generators will have major health and environmental advantages over coal in the form of less pollution, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and lower water consumption.
The good news, too, is that this shift will not take place overnight. Unlike other technology disruptions, there is time to react, given the long-life nature of power generation assets. Given the lead times involved, South Africa could, for instance, insert a policy adjustment to the Integrated Resource Plan directing renewables IPPs to build new plants in mining areas, while also offering employment preference for former mineworkers or Eskom employees. Government could also consider creating industrial zones to attract manufacturers of renewables components to regions such as Mpumalanga and the Free State.
Many other opportunities are sure to arise should a forum be created in which the just energy transition can be visualised and commitments can be made to specific implementation plans. It all starts, however, with a willingness to engage. Surely it’s time to do just that.