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Picture: MASI LOSI
Picture: MASI LOSI

In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell described the horrendous living conditions of miners and the working class in the coal regions of Lancashire and Yorkshire, in an environment of unemployment and inherent industrial ugliness in the north of England.

Visiting the coal locales of Mpumalanga one cannot help but picture Orwell’s insightful work as a premonition of waning industrialisation in SA’s coal heartland. It is a dreary image that will surely materialise and worsen if this region is left to fend for itself in the energy transition.

History is filled with examples of once active coal-mining regions that have faced economic and social erosion by being ignored in the face of calamity. Over time, economic activities decline, people with resources move away, and the huge void left in these regions sinks towns into despair for the people that remain.

Looking ahead, the global aversion to coal is hard to ignore. Every week brings a new development that further pushes coal away from our collective futures. While still volatile in the short term — thermal coal markets got a bump in the latter half of 2021 and early 2022 — the long-term future of coal remains bleak.

SA is in the risky position of still relying heavily on coal. Entire towns, such as Emalahleni and Steve Tshwete in Mpumalanga, depend heavily on coal-based activities. Centred on Eskom and Sasol, SA’s electricity, liquid fuels and other industries, such as petrochemicals, are underpinned by coal.

Coal truckers rely on transporting the mineral for their livelihoods. Coal also travels along Transnet Freight Rail’s North Corridor from Mpumalanga to Richards Bay, where it is chiefly exported to India, Pakistan and South Korea. Furthermore, in the coalfields, retail operations, including supermarkets, spaza shops, personal services and accommodation, and also government operations, all link back to the activities of the coal value chain. What happens to these economies once coal is no more? And what about the people now living in the coalfields?

Encouragingly, a number of processes are under way to deal with SA’s energy transition. They include a just transition lens, to foster an inclusive transformation. SA’s Presidential Climate Commission is finalising a framework for a just transition and is engaging communities in affected regions. The department of forestry, fisheries & the environment is spearheading the development of resilience plans. The departments of mineral resources & energy and public enterprises are devising just transition strategies.

Mpumalanga is formulating policy on economic recovery and diversification for the region. The Mpumalanga Green Economy Cluster has been set up to co-ordinate green economic activities and projects in the region. Eskom and Sasol are considering decarbonisation pathways at their plants that leverage renewable energy and green hydrogen. Local chambers of commerce are also ambitious about creating new economic activities, and are pursuing new ventures. Local municipalities have begun to acknowledge the need for economic diversification in their integrated development plans and local economic development strategies.

Yet progress is slow and attention divided. Many have already lost their livelihoods in the face of the transition with the decommissioning of generation units at power stations such as Hendrina. While efforts are under way to understand the challenges and devise comprehensive policies, just transition policies have not yet been implemented to shield vulnerable groups from the effects of the energy transition.

What the just transition truly stands for is often forgotten. While it can be articulated in a number of ways, core to its understanding is mitigating severe effects on those who are vulnerable in the face of a transition. At a minimum, this means income protection and robust service delivery, but we can do more than the minimum. It is also about participatory justice. It is about redressing the patterns of political and economic exclusion and ecological devastation that emerged alongside our historical energy-industrial development.

On the ground, workers and communities are hungry for information and solutions to the predicament they find themselves in and want their voices heard. This dynamic was most recently echoed in the public engagements in Emalahleni by the Presidential Climate Commission on March 7. Workers and communities identified the effects of mining on health, the need for just transition projects to be demonstrated to them, the difficulties women and children face, and the lack of action on illegal mining, among other issues.

To exercise their agency, those who are at direct risk from this transition are owed more than an explanation of what awaits them, but action on how they can co-create their futures. Local governments need to be capacitated to amplify vulnerable voices and translate their articulated concerns into policies, plans and, most importantly, action. The national government needs to bring its ear closer to the ground, to close the gap between policymaking and implementation, and to allow for learning and adaptation of strategies.

Orwell described a slag heap in Northern England as “at best a hideous thing”. He was not fortunate enough to see one transformed into an adventure bike park that employed displaced workers and attracted tourists to its once bleak slopes. It is a small example, but it is a signal of what is possible. Indeed, opportunities for socioecological rehabilitation and economic diversification abound.

These can be harnessed to rejuvenate and revitalise Mpumalanga. Without doubt, rational discussion and debate are required — more than required, needed urgently — for the process to succeed, while the pressure to implement solutions increases as the risks and fallouts grow.

• Patel and Montmasson-Clair are senior economists at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies. Hermanus is director of Adapt, which leads the Just Urban Transitions project, and Wolpe is an urban energy and climate change practitioner.

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