Green energy transitions in South Africa: on what terms?

by Deborah Potts, King’s College London.

An energy transition in South Africa which achieves improvements related to environmental problems like climate change and does this at the same time as furthering the aims of social and economic justice – i.e. a ‘just transition’ – can probably safely be described as a ‘wicked problem’. As my colleague Federico Caprotti has discussed in a previous post, wicked problems are understood to be very difficult to solve for various reasons. These can include lack of information, the large number of different groups of people involved all of whom have different vested interests, the size of the economic cost of addressing the problem, and the way in which solving the problem interconnects with and may have deleterious effects on other problems.

Energy transitions (leaving aside the ‘justice’ angle for the moment) are evidently proving very hard to effect all over the world, partly because private sector interests in most countries are organized in such a way that short-term factors (such as profits) are vastly overvalued in any cost-benefit evaluations of investments and strategies compared to long-term factors. It is thus of limited use informing investors in energy-related activities that their current and planned activities may well lead to a situation a few decades away whereby neither they, nor anyone else, will be able to maintain their profitability due to the huge costs awaiting us all of unabated climate change and pollution more generally.

It is not that all relevant private sector interests are in denial (although some are) but that, given the nature of the world’s hegemonic mode of production, most are stuck with keeping an eye on the competition, which generally means that any added costs derived from ‘cleaner’ operations means they may lose market share and share value. There are of course some significant shifts in the mix of energy production in various parts of the world, and some ‘green’ technologies like solar panels have become very much cheaper. But generally these big changes have come from really significant state investment, incentives and regulation as in China and Germany.

Booms and busts in the economic cycle also have an effect, so that some of the ‘green’ energy improvements in the Global North seen since the financial crash of 2008 were due to less economic activity or growth in general, and falling real incomes. The recent resurgence in SUV (gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles) sales in the USA, as employment levels have regained their former position there, after a dramatic earlier shift to smaller, more efficient cars, is a case in point.

In one way, therefore, assessments about ‘just transitions’ must squarely consider precisely who will bear the added costs of greener energy. This is a political (and ideological) issue – not a technocratic or environmental one. These costs are short-term and absolutely necessary for society as a whole, in South Africa, as elsewhere. But even in societies massively wealthier than South Africa, such as the UK, party politics and ideology clearly determine what sorts of energy changes the government of the moment will tolerate, and the record there of backtracking on ‘green’ strategies over the past few years is worrying. In South Africa, where the distribution of income (which is more relevant than the average amount per capita) is so unequal, the added element for the ‘wicked problem’ is the millions of households in urban (and of course, rural) areas whose incomes are so low, and/or irregular, that even small increases in payments for energy are very difficult for them to pay.

Impressive government policies to improve connections to water and electricity across South Africa since 1994 are well known (eg Bowes and Pennington 2002) and were desperately needed after the deliberately exclusive practices of apartheid (eg see Annecke, 2002, specifically on energy provision). However, so are the difficulties that so many urban households have in meeting their service bills (water, electricity, rates) and these are well documented (eg Mcdonald and Pape 2003; Mcdonald 2003). This is even with the free basic electricity of 50 kWh per month and some free water allowance per household.

This leads to two other well documented elements of the ‘wicked problem’: hundreds of thousands of low-income households in the townships and newer Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) housing areas are all too frequently cut off from these services due to non-payment (Khunou 2003), and there are widespread illegal hook-ups to electricity. This situation is sometimes ascribed to the ‘culture of non-payment’ which was part of the struggle against apartheid in its latter years. While this may play some part, South Africa is no different in terms of difficulties paying for such services and illegal hook-ups than the rest of Africa, Asia or Latin America where no such specific history pertains. In the end,the fundamental issue in South Africa is insufficient incomes (see Koelble and LiPuma 2010), which is why the problem is ‘wicked’ – any rise in prices from very much needed, greener, energy supplies will make this particular set of problems worse.

However where South Africa does differ is in having a far more collective and activist approach to ‘service delivery’ issues which probably really is rooted in the apartheid struggle. For those familiar with other African countries the readiness of South Africa’s urban poor to come together and protest – loudly and vigorously and publicly – about material conditions such as lack of, or rising prices of, services (Bond et al 2012), is quite extraordinary (and rather heartening even if there are some obvious downsides).

And they sometimes achieve some of the objectives that more temperate ‘negotiations’ have failed to achieve. For these reasons the South African government may be particularly sensitive to the cost implications for ordinary urban people of its energy transition. This is good – but it may mean that we need to have more detailed knowledge of household budgets of those in the lower quartiles of South Africa’s income distribution to understand the impact of price changes in energy (both electricity and transport), and the cost for the state of mitigating very negative outcomes for people’s welfare.


Alexander, P. (2010). Rebellion of the poor: South Africa’s service delivery protests – a preliminary analysis. Review of African Political Economy 37(123): 25-40.
Annecke, Wendy The apartheid of basic facility provision in the city of Durban with a focus on energy in Freund, B.; Padayachee, V., eds. (D)urban vortex : South African city in transition. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press; 2002.
Bond, P, Ashwin Desai, A and Ngwane, T 2012, Uneven and combined Marxism’ within South Africa’s urban social movements, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, February 2012,
Khunou, G. 2003. “Massive cutoffs”: cost recovery and delivery service in Diepkloof, Soweto. In McDonald, D. and Pape, J. (eds) Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa, London: Zed Press; South Africa, HSRC Publishers
Koelble, T. and E. LiPuma (2010). Institutional obstacles to service delivery in South Africa. Social Dynamics 36(3): 565-589.
Mcdonald, D., 2003. “The bell tolls for thee”: cost recovery, cutoffs, and the affordability of municipal services in South Africa, In McDonald, D. and Pape, J. (eds) Cost Recovery and the Crisis of Service Delivery in South Africa, London: Zed Press; South Africa, HSRC Publishers