In the battle to clean up the ANC, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe is often portrayed to be on the right side of history – as an anti-corruption force who stood by President Cyril Ramaphosa as they worked to root out the corrupt “radical economic transformation” faction led by Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma.

This gives the false impression that Mantashe is on the side of an ANC faction fighting against kleptocratic politics. It ignores the extent to which the rot runs throughout the ANC and how Mantashe is implicated in a string of corruption scandals that outweigh even Magashule’s grim record.

If Magashule deserves to step aside, why then is Mantashe still considered a minister in good standing?

It is worth considering the extent of Mantashe’s implication in corruption to see why he deserves just as much scrutiny as those he works to purge from the party.

Mantashe’s daughter received R1 million in illicit Eskom money. His wife’s business received a R600 million catering contract for the still incomplete Kusile coal power plant project that has been riddled with corruption and cost overruns. His foundation is also embroiled in corruption scandals over millions in irregular payments.

It is also important to recall that during Zuma’s presidency, Mantashe was a key figure in the project to shield him from accountability. As secretary general of the ANC, he instructed members of Parliament to always side with Zuma or face discipline. As such, he was a key enabler of corruption during the Zuma years.

A dodgy department

Mantashe’s department is also plagued by corruption scandals. For example, it has wasted hundreds of millions on storage costs for solar water geysers that are not being installed. Just this waste of taxpayers’ money has cost South Africans more than Magashule’s entire asbestos tender.

Under Mantashe, the department also rigged the country’s electricity plan to favour expensive coal projects. In response, the environmental justice group groundWork launched court proceedings demanding the reasons for Mantashe’s department choosing an energy future that even its own modelling showed would be tens of billions of rands more expensive and more polluting than cleaner alternatives.

The department is also in court facing charges of “corruption and procedurally unfair procurement processes”, which resulted in the scandal-ridden R200 billion powership programme. A bidder was called to a meeting with a business partner of Mantashe’s wife, the department’s director general and deputy director general in which they reportedly tried to solicit a bribe from the bidder.

In addition, experts have revealed how the procurement programme was rigged again and again to favour the powerships over more sensible, less polluting and less expensive energy options. Rather than building clean energy at home, the programme was rigged to favour importing energy solutions and gas. It is a missed opportunity. This was a chance to develop the rapidly deindustrialising South African economy and create jobs.

The powership company also failed to do proper public consultation and environmental impact assessments. As a result, its environmental authorisation was rejected, possibly saving South Africa over R200 billion, which would have gone to the corruption-riddled Karpowership company.

Mantashe’s flagship “solution” to load shedding is flailing. Yet, instead of coming up with plan B, he says he aims to force it through anyway – despite the project being mired in corruption and it not meeting environmental requirements. To quote Mantashe: “If it’s emergency procurement, we must behave as [if] it’s an emergency and not deal with it like it’s any other contract.”

Energy incompetence

Perhaps worse than the corruption scandals, though, is how Mantashe has helped run South Africa’s energy system into the ground. Ramaphosa put Mantashe in charge of the energy department in 2018. Since then, Mantashe’s actions, quite likely more than anyone else’s, have helped lock South Africa into a deepening load-shedding crisis.

It has been clear for years that Eskom was facing a shortfall in energy supply that would lead to unending load-shedding episodes. What was also clear was that renewable energy was the fastest and most affordable way to bring on new supply and address that crisis.

A recent study by auditing firm EY showed that there is a backlog of over 100 renewable energy projects trying to secure government permissions. Together, this pipeline of projects could plug the load-shedding gap, create over 100 000 jobs and reduce energy costs.

Yet for years Mantashe’s department has stifled renewable energy through red tape, delays, bureaucracy and sabotage. At a time when countries like Vietnam were able to build solar energy capacity equivalent to six coal power plants in 2020 alone, the department has not allowed a single new grid-scale renewable project since 2015.

Mantashe’s actions to slow renewable energy were likely not just incompetent, but rather the intentional creation of a crisis. He is using this crisis to push through a slate of corrupt energy projects like the powerships and a broader move towards gas, from which connected cadres are likely to profit handsomely.

A more privatised vision

Eventually, though, the outrage from business against Mantashe’s inaction was too much. In June, Ramaphosa overruled Mantashe to lift the licensing requirements for energy projects below 100MW to allow new ones to enter the system.

The shift in policy will suit businesses like mines that have been wanting to install larger-scale renewable energy projects to escape the unreliability of Eskom and reduce their energy costs. It will also help reduce demand from Eskom, thus reducing the need for load shedding.

Yet, while the doors are finally opening to new renewable energy projects, not all will be able to participate equally. That’s in large part because Mantashe’s department has failed to put in place policies to support a more socially owned renewable energy future.

A more socially owned future means communities, households, cooperatives, municipalities and state-owned entities can own and benefit from renewables. In other countries, the right policies have meant that social ownership has thrived, providing broad benefits across society.

Without such policies in place here, lifting the licence threshold will likely benefit business and private interests that have the capital and resources to take advantage. As such, while Ramaphosa’s move will unlock new renewable energy, it threatens to drive a more corporate-dominated energy future.

Mantashe’s actions are not just creating crises in the present, they are also condemning the future to deepening ecological and climate problems. Mantashe the “coal fundamentalist” has been trying to push new coal with the lie that it can be clean. However, no one wants to fund new coal because it is simply uneconomic and polluting. Despite this, the minister insists on rigging South Africa’s energy plans to include the fantasy of new coal power plants.

The biggest future source of pollution, however, might come from Mantashe’s love of gas. As energy experts have highlighted, the powerships are being used to kickstart a local supply-and-demand chain for gas. That will help launch a massive new push for gas power that Mantashe is trying to orchestrate.

He and the department are also working to open vast swathes of South Africa’s oceans and land to coal, oil and gas exploration. This includes water-intensive and polluting fracking in the drought-stricken Karoo, sea drilling in marine-protected areas off the coast and rolling back protected strategic water basins for coal mines. These are just some of the new projects on the horizon.

No new fossil fuels

On 18 May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a vital report showing the steps the world needs to take to transform its energy in line with the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement’s goal of keeping warming from rising above 1.5°C.

Running counter to Mantashe’s gas strategy, the IEA report showed that “for emerging economies heavily dependent on coal power generation … the bulk of their transition will be straight from coal to clean energy”, not coal to gas. The reality is that gas, once considered a bridge fuel, is a bridge to nowhere.

Gas is also expensive, such that in other parts of the world they are shutting and mothballing gas plants. Unlike Mantashe, much of the international community realises that gas projects are likely to become stranded assets in the face of climate action and more affordable renewable energy and storage.

The IEA report reached another conclusion that climate activists and scientists have long pointed out. If we are to avert a climate crisis, we cannot afford new fossil fuel extraction. To keep global warming from exceeding the vital threshold of 1.5ºC, we should not be building any new coal mines, fracking sites or oil wells.

Fortunately, as another vital report from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia detailed, the world has more than enough renewable energy potential to replace fossil fuels. Every region on Earth can replace fossil fuels with renewable energy fast enough to keep warming below 1.5ºC and provide reliable energy access to all.

This is especially true in sunny and windy South Africa, where renewable energy is the most affordable, job-creating and reliable new energy source. It’s the fastest way to address load shedding too. Yet, Mantashe’s department is trying to force the country into a polluting, expensive and outdated energy agenda better suited to the 20th century than the 21st.

Neo-apartheid extractivism

Communities that resist Mantashe’s polluting agenda are being met with repression. For example, grandmother and community activist Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down in her home in Ophondweni, KwaZulu-Natal, last year for daring to resist Tendele Coal Mining’s expansion plans. It is an area Tendele has for years tried to acquire to extend its mining operations. This forms part of a systematic attempt to strip communities of their rights to say no to projects that will harm them and the ecosystems they depend on.

It is worth recalling that on the first day of South Africa’s initial hard lockdown, Mantashe took advantage of a moment of crisis, when everyone was deeply distracted, to put forward an amendment to the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act that worked to strip communities of their right to say no to mining projects.

The amendment tried to sidestep a vital precedent-setting court victory that the Amadiba Crisis Committee in the Eastern Cape won against Mantashe. The high court in Pretoria ruled against Mantashe in favour of residents’ right to say no to an Australian corporation’s titanium project. The court held that the government must get the full and informed consent of mining-affected communities.

Not one to take no for an answer, Mantashe has sought to quash the rights of communities through amending the regulations. That amendment was just the latest chapter in a continuing effort by the ANC to undermine the rights of communities.

Fossil-fuelled false consciousness

Rural communities are not the only ones being left behind by Mantashe and the energy department. While he promises a new dawn for mining and coal, the reality is that workers are losing jobs and being retrenched, especially as the coal industry begins its sunset.

Just ask the devastated coal workers and communities in Hendrina who have seen their livelihoods disappear with no plan to protect them as coal mines and power stations are shut down. Hendrina is a portent of what could happen across Mpumalanga if we pretend that coal is a sunrise industry and do not plan for the impending wide-scale transition from it.

Other countries provide robust social safety nets and retraining programmes for fossil fuel workers. Doing so helps smooth their clean energy transition by taking care of those who might otherwise be left behind. In South Africa, keeping workers in a state of precarity seems to be used as a way to spur resistance to the needed transition as workers desperately hold on to their jobs in a society mutilated by systemic mass unemployment.

While other governments move forward with implementing just transition plans, the energy department offers nothing but hot air and empty promises from Mantashe. He has nothing in place to ensure a just transition, except a policy position that promises to eventually put together a team to create a plan.

Mantashe appears to be stoking a fossil-fuelled “false consciousness”. Its aim is to trick the working class into thinking that its interests are aligned with fossil fuel corporations, even as those corporations devastate communities, abandon workers and drive the world into cataclysmic ecological crises.

Trade unions, grassroots organisations and non-governmental organisations have long called for a just transition to a more socially owned renewable energy future. What they seem to be getting instead is a more privatised and liberalised energy future with little by way of labour, community and environmental protections.

Uprooting systems of exploitation

Despite all his transgressions, Mantashe survived Ramaphosa’s recent Cabinet reshuffle. It seems that Ramaphosa needs to keep him on his side in the interests of sustaining his authority against factional party opposition.

It is also important to recall that both Mantashe and Ramaphosa are, after all, part of a predatory elite who have amassed their wealth from the deeply unequal, corrupt and exploitative minerals-energy complex that defined apartheid’s economy and still dominates today.

Given how entrenched that predatory elite is, it is not enough to simply remove individuals. Rather, systemic transformation is required. Otherwise, we will spend our days trying to pick off bad apples without addressing the fact that the soil we are growing them in is poisoned.

As the recent turmoil ripping across South Africa painfully demonstrates, those profiteering from our corrupted status quo will not give up their access to power and the opportunities for accumulation that comes with it.

As such, it will be no easy task to challenge Mantashe’s department and its harmful and corrupt agenda. To win a more just future will require a forceful, sustained and mass-based campaign to uproot the powers preventing change.

Alex Lenferna serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and as a campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington.