South Africa 2024 - What Are Parties Promising On Energy and Climate?

Meet South Africa's top presidential candidates; African National Congress' President Cyril Ramaphosa, Democratic Alliance's John Steenhuisen, and Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF) Julius Malema.

Some parties' manifestos fall shorter than others. Some fall so far short they would arguably take us backwards.

When voters in South Africa go to the polls for national elections on 29 May, two major interconnected issues that will be on their minds are energy and climate change.

For over a decade, the country has been suffering from rolling power cuts. South Africans have long endured an energy crisis driven by failures of policy and the poorly managed national power utility, Eskom, which has been crippled by corruption, maladministration, and underinvestment.

Due to Eskom's heavy reliance on coal, it is also the biggest climate polluter in Africa, contributing to South Africa's status as one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters. As such, one of the country's most urgent climate priorities is transforming Eskom so it can deliver clean energy in a way that is just and fair.

The energy and climate crises present two major challenges for the next South African government. But fortunately, there are solutions. Economic modelling from the government itself shows that a rapid transition to renewables would not only help tackle the climate crisis but be the most affordable and job-creating way to tackle the energy crisis.

But what do the political parties' manifestos say about these issues?

ANC's marriage to fossil capital

Let us begin by looking at the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since our first democratic elections in 1994.

Its manifesto says it "supports a transition to a low carbon economy and climate resilient society at a pace that is compatible with our development objectives, which includes ensuring that we have a secure supply of energy, which communities can access at an affordable cost".

While this might sound positive at face value, the party's track record tells another story. Indeed, rather than the manifesto, voters would do better to read the energy plan put forwards by the ANC's Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe. That proposal aims to delay the retirement of coal by a decade, drive forward a massive new build-out of polluting gas, and reduce investment in renewable energy.

Mantashe's plan is consistent with decades of the ANC prioritising polluting mega-projects often riddled with corruption over the rollout of renewables. The result of this approach has been a deepening crisis, with energy becoming more expensive, dirty, and unreliable. Those failures are set to cost the ANC dearly at the polls, such that it may lose its majority for the first time.

Despite what its manifesto might suggest - and what climate science and economic modelling recommends - the ANC's actual energy plans show that it is still wedded to the interests of fossil fuel corporations and that it intends to keep South Africa locked into coal while massively ramping up oil and gas.

DA's market driven transition

Let us turn now to South Africa's second biggest political party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

While the DA does not plan to ramp up fossil fuel investments in the same way as the ANC, its commitment to drive forward renewables falls short in terms of urgency, specificity, and ensuring the transition is just.

In its manifesto, there is no concrete commitment to climate action. It mentions climate change only once, in a vague commitment to "achieving net zero carbon emissions to reduce the impact of energy generation on the climate". What's missing is a timeline of when this will be achieved. This year, the next decade, or next century?

What's more, it talks about achieving net zero by "diversifying the energy mix". This vague terminology could mean anything. What's missing again is a clear roadmap and timeline to drive a transition to renewable energy at the speed and scale needed.

Another worrying element of the DA's energy plans is its heavy reliance on the private sector. Their centre-right pro-market stance doesn't grapple with how a market-driven transition might deepen inequalities in South Africa by concentrating its benefits into the hands of those who can afford to invest in renewables.

In the DA's manifesto, the only mentions of "environment" are about enabling a conducive business environment. It's hard not to conclude that the party is more committed to privatisation and the market than environmental justice and delivering a rapid and just transition to renewables.

It is worth noting that the DA and the ANC share a very similar vision of unbundling Eskom into three entities to enable more private sector involvement in the energy market. The difference between the DA and the ANC is more the extent of privatisation and support for fossil fuels, with the DA being more pro-private sector and more pro-renewables than the ANC.

The EFF's fossilised revolution

South Africa's third biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), purport to be driving forwards an agenda of radical economic transformation. The climate science makes clear that a radical economic transformation to a more socially and ecologically just future is indeed what is required. Sadly, though, the EFF's transformation involves keeping South Africa stuck on fossil fuels.

At the face of it, its manifesto looks quite progressive on the environment. It has 34 points in total on the environment and climate, including commitments to deliver One Million Climate Jobs and build a renewable energy division in Eskom. It also says it "will commit to decarbonising the electricity sector, advancing at a pace, scale, and cost that is feasible and beneficial for South Africa".

Undermining its purported commitment to climate action, however, is the EFF's push for more coal, gas, and oil. The party has called for South Africa's climate commitments to be renegotiated and weakened. Moreover, its deputy president, Floyd Shivambu, has argued that South Africa must continue to use coal for hundreds of years. The EFF's leader, Julius Malema, has said the party would go into coalition with the ANC if Shivambu was made Minister of Finance.

It seems that the EFF's promises on climate are weak, contradictory, and not to be trusted when held up against the actions of its leaders. Indeed, the party leadership have marched hand-in-hand with coal and nuclear lobbyists, spread misinformation about renewable energy, and want to bring back into office corruption-accused officials who helped destroy Eskom and block the roll out of renewables.

Smaller parties

South Africa also has a plethora of smaller parties who are contesting and whose commitments on energy and climate are worth examining.

Rise Mzansi is a new political party, just over a year old, with a youthful leadership team. They are one of the only parties who have made climate change a top priority and are strongly committed to rolling out renewable energy. However, progressive critics argue that Rise's energy plans do not deliver on their promise of social democracy. Rather they are more neoliberal, given their heavy reliance on the private sector - not too dissimilar from the ANC and DA.

Another very new entrant is the Umkhonto We Sizwe Party, backed by former President Jacob Zuma. This party promises to follow in Zuma's worrying legacy, trying to prop up the coal industry and roll back progress on renewables. Indeed, their manifesto explicitly commits to reversing South Africa's already limited progress in terms of a just energy transition. It also promises to dismantle the country's constitutional democracy.

Another youngish party gaining traction is Action SA, which makes mention of climate several times in its manifesto. However, it only commits to building about 20GW of renewables by 2030, which is only one third of what the Presidential Climate Commission says is needed for South Africa to meet its climate targets - targets which are themselves arguably too weak. Action SA's weak climate commitment, very pro-market outlook, and history of xenophobia should make more progressive voters shy away from it.

Finally, there is the Inkatha Freedom Party, the fifth biggest party in South Africa. Its manifesto makes commitments to minor conservation efforts like recycling and stopping poaching. On the energy and climate fronts, it fails woefully. It commits to "maintain coal production" as a key source of energy and favours polluting fossil gas. It also scapegoats "illegal foreigners" and attempts to empower unaccountable traditional leaders, who have often greenlighted fossil fuel extraction over the protest of communities.

A more comprehensive analysis of the manifestos of these and other smaller parties is available here.

Two paths to transformation

As researchers at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies in the University of the Witwatersrand have highlighted "there are two fundamentally different approaches to investing in a just transition, and a climate just economy more broadly".

The first involves lightly greening the current system, "leaving the economy to look fundamentally the same but with new incentives and regulations [to promote renewable energy], hyper scaled-up private investment, and carbon pricing based on a continued scepticism of the role of the state".

The other is a much more radical plan for restructuring the economy with social and ecological justice at its heart. "It is one that wholly reorients our economic priorities while embracing the state's capacity to plan and finance at the scale and pace that is now required".

As the researchers point out, none of the manifestos in South Africa's upcoming election points to a party committed to this second transformative trajectory. While some come closer than others, none have embraced seeing the climate crisis as an opportunity to radically transform South Africa and build a more just future.

Looking forwards, the work of social movements who care about ecological and social justice will be to build political power that can deliver on that more transformative vision. They will need to challenge political parties who are not delivering at the scale, speed, and scope of change that is desperately needed, both to avoid a deepening climate catastrophe and the continuation of a South African economy plagued by deep inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

Dr Alex Lenferna is a post-doctoral research fellow at Nelson Mandela University in the Department of Development Studies - on a National Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences Fellowship. He is also the elected General Secretary and co-founder of the Climate Justice Coalition - a South African coalition of civil society, grassroots, trade union and community-based organisations working together to advance a transformative climate justice agenda. Alex is a first generation South African whose family hails from the small island nation of Mauritius. He has dedicated over fifteen years to research, writing, teaching, and activism on climate justice.

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