Eskom Transformed: Achieving A Just Energy Transition for South Africa
On the 23rd of July, a new report on Eskom will be released, which presents a compelling case for a modern national power utility – a “Transformed Eskom” that is vertically integrated and publicly owned – while drawing attention to serious problems in the current “unbundling” approach.
The report is titled “Eskom Transformed: Achieving A Just Energy Transition for South Africa”
Working closely with the trade unions involved in organising workers at Eskom – the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the report has been drafted by the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) in Cape Town, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) in New York, and the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam.
In the past few months, we have seen the formation of a mainstream consensus in the South African energy debate. Here the words “Eskom”, “publicly owned”, and “energy monopoly” have become expletives in their own right. At the same time, the push towards unbundling and privately-owned renewable energy has been uncritically praised as a “common sense” way forward for solving the Eskom and electricity crises.
Before Covid-19 replaced Eskom’s crisis as the central issue facing South Africa, it was only unions and their very close allies that held a consistent line both against both this proposed “unbundling” of the utility, as well as the consequent incursions of the independent power producers (IPPs). Many believe that this opposition merely reflects the desire on the part of trade unions to protect coal sector jobs and to do so in a way that is oblivious to the economic, social and ecological problems that come from the continued use of coal.
Similarly, union opposition to the IPP system – including the Renewable Energy IPP program known as “REI4P” – has in some quarters been seen as an opposition to renewable energy and economy-wide decarbonisation more generally.
The Eskom Transformed report sets the record straight. The position of the unions is not simply about protecting jobs in coal, or about preserving Eskom as it currently operates. The unions generally support a move towards both clean energy and economy-wide decarbonisation, but the problem is that the current “unbundling + IPPs” approach will achieve neither. The research contained in the Eskom Transformed report shows why this is the case, and why this approach threatens to seriously compromise the country’s energy sovereignty by making it dependent on technologies and supply chains that are almost invariably located in Asia and Europe.
The report also shows how the current discourse on energy transition in South Africa has, for some years, become distorted by a number of damaging misconceptions. Three misconceptions stand out in particular and are confronted head-on in the report.