Low carbon transition in South Africa: the governance and skills gap?

by Stephen Essex, Plymouth University

South Africa’s energy system faces significant generation and distribution challenges over the next few decades. Electricity generation is based heavily on fossil fuels, especially cheap coal, and so contributes to greenhouse gases and climate change. Rolling blackouts are clear signs of the declining reliability of supply because generation and distribution has failed to keep pace with patterns of urbanisation. While middle and upper class areas have the resources to invest in renewable energy technology to overcome energy shortages, there are real effects in terms of energy poverty amongst the poorest societal groups. The modernisation of the energy system must therefore ensure that the low carbon transition to more renewable and decentralised forms of energy is equitable across all groups in society (the so-called ‘just transition’). However, the achievement of these goals goes beyond a simple technological fix.

CAPE TOWN by Rory Williams Source & FutureCapeTown.com

First, the low density and highly fragmented urban form of South African cities creates challenges for the supply of energy. South African cities tend to be characterised by a highly segregated urban form, initially structured on racial lines under Apartheid, but now divided on the basis of income and wealth. Increases in rural to urban migration have continued the importance and growth of townships and informal settlements on the periphery of cities as ‘transition settlements’. Development and planning policy in the post-Apartheid period have tended to reinforce these spatial patterns rather than restructure them. Private developers seek stability in the property markets and land use to reduce their investment risk, which is supported through the planning regimes of the municipalities, who are interested in enhancing their tax base from successful urban developments. The economics of providing and maintaining new grid infrastructure for a dispersed urban form are problematic. Consequently, urban form can also cause lock-in of energy technology as much as the technology itself.

Second, municipalities are recognised by central government in various development frameworks as key players in the reform of the energy system and urban form, yet vary in size, capacity and capabilities to deliver these aspirations. While the large metropolitan cities have established a track-record in energy delivery, many smaller municipalities are constrained by resources, expertise and capacity. Surpluses from electricity sales are used to support social services, which can inhibit reform. Research (based partly on Durban) uses the term ‘bureaucratic siloisation’ (Aylett, 2013), where organisation cultures and ‘trained incapacity’ prevents innovation and change. New problems are formulated within the existing structures, procedures, institutional practices and professionalisation of particular departments (and often of managers), which stifle the utilisation of new information to transform practices. There is a need to build capacity through communication across organisational divisions to increase substantive knowledge, learning, skills/competences, and so create mobilisation capacity for new ways of working (Polk, 2011).

Third, the role of spatial planning as a means of delivering the aspirations for new urban forms, and the integration of more decentralised forms of energy production and distribution, is limited by inexperience with the new system (Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act, 2013, implemented 2014) and the associated capacity and skills gap. Planning in South Africa has tended to be weak and operate as a form of ‘trend planning’, whereby the regulation is based on the neoliberal growth agenda, which gives freer rein to development with minimal constraints. Development frameworks, promoting mixed housing and compact urban forms through densification and along transport corridors, appear to have existed since 2005, but are not statements of government policy and do not necessarily match the viability models of private developers.

These three issues represent important background conditions that require resolution before the central question of an energy transition in South Africa can be addressed fully. It might be suggested that a more interventionist planning approach is required to implement the visions of more compact and mixed use urban forms. Closer working partnerships with the private sector are required to ensure viable projects. There is a need for greater intra-municipality departmental cross-working so that municipality can deliver the expectations of central government. These actions will require substantial skills and capacity programmes to build the competence for delivery. The leadership of the large metropolitan municipalities requires a duty to cooperate with neighbouring authorities or perhaps even a political will to reform local government boundaries.


Aylett, A. (2013) The socio-institutional dynamics of urban climate governance: a comparative analysis of innovation and change in Durban (KZN, South Africa) and Portland (OR, USA). Urban Studies 50(7) 1386-1402 Available: https://doi.org/10.1177/0042098013480968

Polk, M. (2011) Institutional capacity-building in urban planning and policy-making for sustainable development: success or failure? Planning, Practice & Research26 (2), 185-206. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02697459.2011.560461

Note: Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act 16 of 2013. Available: http://www.gov.za/sites/www.gov.za/files/36730_5-8_Act16of20.pdf