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Eskom is in crisis. In recent weeks, this has been brought home to SA’s 58-million citizens as major power cuts hit the country. The blackouts have renewed focus on the power utility’s economic and technical problems. But Eskom’s problems point to the much bigger issue of a country struggling to map out a new energy regime — one that reduces its very high levels of dependency on coal in a way that doesn’t devastate people’s lives.

SA is highly dependent on coal — almost 90% of its energy comes from coal-fired power stations. The urgency of change is clear on both global and local levels. Mining and burning coal is one of the most destructive activities on the planet. It represents an immediate threat to all forms of life and to scarce supplies of water, the degradation of arable land and toxic pollution of the air and water with extremely negative health effects.

SA isn’t the only country in the world attempting to adjust its energy mix by moving away from fossil fuels to cleaner power sources. Dozens of countries such as Germany, Austria, Canada, Ghana and the Philippines are attempting to make the change. But, despite policy commitments, SA isn’t doing enough to make these changes through what’s become known as a “just transition”. This is a contested notion with different understandings of the depth and direction of the change involved. At the very minimum it means making provision for vulnerable workers in the energy sector, to make sure that the move towards a low-carbon economy is done in a way that protects jobs as well as the environment. Contradictions in policy Contradictions in the country’s approach to the transition away from coal are evident in the Draft Integrated Resource Plan announced by the energy minister in 2018. But it only mentions the partial decommissioning of Eskom’s 16 coal-fired power plants and of reducing SA’s r...

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