Municipalities under pressure – Energy transitions, the apartheid legacy and South Africa’s fractured urban system

by Jiska de Groot, University of Cape Town.

South Africa’s cities are faced with a central dilemma: how to address historical injustices and advance redress, whilst stimulating energy transitions and low carbon development? What does such a ‘just transition’ look like in a South African urban context? It will be clear that this is no easy challenge to address, in particular because cities in South Africa have been influenced through various forms of socio-spatial engineering. This is for a large part the result of the apartheid, the system of racial segregation and white supremacy which denied rights and services to the black population in South Africa until 1994. Over two decades since the demise of apartheid in 1994, its legacy still affects opportunities to transform South Africa’s society to be just and equal. As Turok (2014: 183) puts it in perspective ‘with the honeymoon of the political transition from apartheid now over, there is greater recognition of the complications of socio-economic transformation’.

One complication is the way in which South African cities have developed over time. Historically, urbanisation was first dominated by industrialisation and extensive government intervention to accelerate temporary rural-urban migration due to a need for cheap labour. This migration pattern was followed by a reversal to maintain the population segregated along racial lines and maintain white dominance. At present, urban areas are growing fast, as many move from rural areas to the cities due to a lack of employment opportunities in the rural areas .

Although some efforts were made to integrate wealthy and poor neighbourhoods, creating a more integrated city, South Africa’s urbanisation process has resulted in a fractured urban form with unequal access to jobs, amenities and public services. There is increased recognition that current efforts toward integration are not sufficient as they reinforce existing segregation of urban populations rather than creating a more equal society. To overcome this, change is needed in the way most South African cities operate and develop. Urban development has also severe consequences for energy transitions and low carbon development in the South African context.

Since the fall of the apartheid administration, the South African Government given high priority to supplying housing and electricity to all its citizens. Access to grid based electricity became one of the figureheads of equality and redress in post-apartheid South Africa, and energy policy remains dominated by a focus on centralised grid electricity. To date, the Herculean effort to supply South African citizens with energy since 1994 has predominantly focused on fossil fuel-driven energy generation at utility-scale.

This is primarily the case because South Africa’s development has thus far been fueled by cheap and abundant supply of electricity generated through low quality coal. The deeply rooted cultural symbolism of grid-based electricity as an act of equality and redress combined with a high dependence on fossil fuels may be problematic for South Africa’s energy transition and low carbon development.

Times are changing, and at present, the country is plagued by insufficient generating capacity and increased service protests, because the supply-focused approach to electrification leaves many of its poorest citizens without access to affordable and reliable energy services. South Africa’s low carbon development is nascent, and efforts towards greening its electricity supply consists of large-scale, grid-connected renewable energy projects, and more recently small-scale embedded generation predominantly installed by wealthy households and enterprises to become less dependent on monopoly utility Eskom.

It seems a “no-brainer” that both renewable energy and a more diversified energy system including decentralised and embedded generation should play an increasing role in providing access to electricity for the remaining un-electrified citizens, securing SA’s energy supply and promote low-carbon development. Yet, in practice, this may directly threaten the ‘just transition’ and urban transformation that is high on the agenda, as implementation of measures to alleviate poverty and provision of services to poor citizens are in part funded by electricity sales. The structure of electricity sales and revenues is such that municipalities cross-subsidize a host of services through the revenues generated by re-selling of electricity.

Greening the energy supply, rather than stimulating South Africa’s low carbon development, may therefore result in the diversion of critical revenue from high-income consumers and consequently the ability of the municipality to provide basic services, including electricity to the poor. There is thus a real danger that such developments affect post-apartheid transformation of cities, undermine the justice aspects of its transition, and deepen the gap between rich and poor.

In response to President Jacob Zuma’s statement in 2010 that ‘the concept of human settlements is not just about building houses: we have to change apartheid spatial patterns’, a new agenda is emerging focused on devolving responsibilities the built environment to city authorities. Although the overall aim may be to better integrate different sectoral policies and planning functions in order to start re-configuring cities to they become more functional and livable, it must be noted that municipalities vary considerable in the amount of resources and level of services they are able to supply (See Janisch et al. 2012), another remnant of the apartheid legacy. As a consequence, electricity revenue and a city’s financial survival are too closely linked for comfort. Furthering devolved responsibilities to the city level for both post-apartheid transformation agendas and energy provision is likely to place an increased burden on already financially stressed municipalities. This can cause problems for the ‘just transition’ unless accompanied by providing cities with the necessary means to execute these additional responsibilities.

Such dynamics cannot be ignored when speaking about energy transitions and urban transformation. Although no easy task, exploring the socio-spatial inequalities and distorted landscape of each city together with the opportunities and challenges of restructuring its energy system will help us, researchers, understand these dynamics and be of better service to municipalities. This may open up spaces for meaningful engagement to discuss pathways for achieving energy transitions that are not solely low carbon, but also fulfill the important justice objectives of equality and redress.



Turok I. (2014). South Africa’s tortured urbanisation and the complications of reconstruction. In: G McGranahan & G Martine (eds) Urban Growth in Emerging Economies. Abingdon: Routledge.

Janisch, A., Euston-Brown, M. & Borchers, M. (2012) ‘The potential impact of efficiency measures and distributed generation on municipal electricity revenue: double whammies and death spirals’, Association of Municipal Energy Utilitites (AMEU): Cape Town. Available from: