If South Africa is serious about ensuring that its transition to a low-carbon economy is a just one, then there is no question that the retraining of coal workers will have to be at the very heart of any social mitigation effort.
Retraining alone, however, will not be sufficient to ensure that vulnerable workers are supported and will, thus, have to be coupled to tangible employment, or self-employment, opportunities where these newly attained skills can be immediately, and profitably, applied.
As Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development senior associate Aaron Cosbey explained recently: “You can’t train people to take jobs that don’t exist.”
Speaking during a recent just-transition webinar organised by the Canadian High Commission, Cosbey stressed that re-training had to be complemented by industrial policies that enabled reskilled workers to be absorbed into new growth sectors.
On that score, South Africa could draw lessons from Germany, which had 600 000 hard-coal workers in 1957 and currently has none after the last mine closed in 2018. To understand the significance of this change, it is worth noting that South Africa’s coal industry currently employs some 104 000 people directly.
The heavy emphasis placed by Germany on education and training can be seen in the fact that the Ruhr region currently has over 20 universities and research institutes, having begun the transition in 1965 with only one.
Germany also did not focus on vocational training alone. It facilitated short-term job placements, implemented job-finding schemes, offered entrepreneurial support and provided coaching on how to deal with change.
Crucially, the transition was framed not merely as a move away from something, being coal, but “towards something else”, which for the Ruhr region became a focus on green energy and environmental remediation. “As a result, the region is now an exporter of those kinds of services and home to some 16 business clusters focused on green technologies,” Cosbey explained.
Naturally, any just transition is highly context-specific.
Nevertheless, the German experience offers important lessons – some of which seem to be reflected in Eskom’s repowering and repurposing proposals for the Komati power station, which will serve as the utility’s just transition pilot site. These range from new renewable and gas power generation options, through to green- economy manufacturing and agricultural proposals.
Without social consensus and union buy-in, however, progress will be difficult, if not impossible, which is where lessons from Poland come in. The 1998 Mining Social Package, negotiated between the Polish government and key trade unions, was key to facilitating the start of the coal-dominant country’s own scale-down.
In South Africa, where the aspiration is to ensure a just transition not only for workers, but also for surrounding communities and businesses, serious and effective consultation and communication are also going to be crucial.
Having a voice in decision-making and the opportunity to own or participate in the new assets being developed is likely to prove crucial in determining the level of community support for the transition.