Power to the people

2011-10-11 00:00

AFTER decades of struggle, South Africa finally gained its democracy in 1994. This included the delivery of a constitution that guaranteed people a new tomorrow through a Bill of Rights. One of the most progressive of these was people’s right to “an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing”. This was far-reaching as South Africa had emerged from centuries of colonialism and apartheid during which conservation of wildlife was put ahead of local people’s lives and wellbeing. Nearly two decades after the dawn of our democracy, are we better off?

The facts and figures tell a sad and depressing story.

• 42% of Africa’s greenhouse gases are emitted by South Africa. So you would think that South Africa is a fairly developed nation with good employment rates. Not so.

• 41% of South Africa’s potential workforce is employed, according to Advorp Holding’s chief executive Richard Pike.

• 16% is the total amount of energy consumed by South Africa’s residents.

• 44% of South Africa’s energy is used by 36 companies. Industry, mining, agriculture and commerce use more than 70% of all energy produced.

• 11% of South Africa’s energy is used by one company, the Australian multinational BHP Billiton.

• R9,7 billion was the loss that Eskom made because of the provision of cheap electricity to BHP Billiton, according to Eskom’s annual report, March 2010.

• 50% below cost is what BHP Billiton paid for this electricity.

• Four million homes cook without electricity, according to the Citizens United for Renewable Energies and Sustainability (Cures).

• 2,5 million homes do not have electricity.

• 10 million people experienced periodic electricity cut-offs bet­ween 1994 and 2002, according to Queens University researcher David McDonald.

This is a story of a state that has failed to deliver to its people and a state that is managed for the benefit of multinational corporations. It is against this backdrop that people have to take control over their own energy provision. As in the case of the Nyeleni Declaration on food sovereignty, energy sovereignty should put those “who produce, distribute and consume” energy at the heart of the energy systems and policies.

Viewed in a global context, one realises that the underdevelopment of the greater population of South Africa is not a mere hangover from apartheid. It is an active process of the development choices made by the South African government today. This development trajectory is facilitated by global finance and the ongoing extraction of Africa’s resources for consumption in the global north.

It is common knowledge that 80% of the World Bank’s oil extraction investment in Africa is for northern consumption. In South Africa, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank’s £4 billion investment in Eskom’s coal-fired power stations facilitates the same process.

With the lack of energy access by the majority of people in South Africa, the battle to avoid catastrophic climate change is deeply intertwined with the battle to achieve access to clean, affordable energy. People are forced to burn coal indoors and coupling this domestic pollution with heavy industrial pollution is a recipe for disaster.

South Africans need another energy future that ensures decent levels of affordable basic services to be enjoyed by all, not only by consumers who can afford them. An energy future where individuals and families are able to access, at minimum, the most basic necessities of human life. And these necessities must be nurtured by the way people live and work, not undermined by them.

To deliver this, the people of South Africa, not multinational corporations, must be at the centre of energy delivery. People have to start taking ownership of how energy is produced.

The South Africa leadership cannot continue to hoodwink its people and the world. Its Copenhagen offer to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a 34% deviation below baseline by 2020 and 42% below baseline by 2025 is based upon an assumption of growth without constraint. According to the South African Long-Term Mitigation Strategy (LTMS), this will take South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions from 440 million tons in 2003 to 1 600 million tons by 2050. This is an inaccurate claim of carbon rights it does not have. Based upon current figures, South Africa already reached 500 million tons in 2008. Its commitment to 42% renewables in the future energy development mix only translates to nine percent renewables in 2030.

The government throws figures around about how many millions of people have been connected to the electricity grid. It presents the installation of prepaid meters as a panacea, so that people can better manage their consumption. In reality, this means that people can be the agents of their own disconnection when they do not have enough money to pay for the most expensive electricity in the country.

South Africans have to start working on systems that give them independence from big power producers such as Eskom. This would mean getting small local municipalities to start thinking of local energy development for their own needs. It would mean calling for better housing so that in winter people do not lose energy through leaking roofs and poorly constructed state homes. It would mean that individual households get access to affordable energy and don’t have to pay up to seven times more for their electricity than industry does. And it would mean ensuring that industry pays the real price of energy and doesn’t continue to get the cheapest electricity in the world at the expense of the people.


• Bobby Peek is the director and founding member of groundWork, a non-governmental environmental justice organisation in Pietermaritzburg.


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