||Increases in electricity tariffs and the building of more coal-fired generators will hurt South African pockets and our health
YESTERDAY morning, anger against the rudderless parastatal Eskom was
palpable in a large community protest outside the Albert Luthuli
International Convention Centre, and inside too, where the apparently
useless National Energy Regulator of SA (Nersa) was holding court.
People should be very angry indeed, for even Eskom admits that the
monthly bill a typical township household paid a year ago - R360 -
will rise to R1 000 by 2012, and for a typical suburbanite, from R750 to
R2 400 (the free basic electricity supply will rise from 50kWh to
70kWh/month, still a trivial amount).
We're mainly paying for ecologically destructive new coal-fired power
plants, the first of which - Medupi near the increasingly water-stressed
Waterberg in Limpopo - has been hit with a 40 percent cost escalation,
to R120 billion. Dangerous nuclear plants could follow. And unless
opposed by labour and consumers, partial privatisation will put even
more pressure on Eskom to raise tariffs to return profits to its new
But community consciousness is also rising, as leaders of the South
Durban Community Environmental Alliance spent most evenings last week
mobilising in neighbourhood civic halls, and along with the new Climate
Justice Now! South Africa KZN chapter, reported back from the Copenhagen
climate summit on Friday at UKZN.
As the Eskom protest demonstrated, the two groups practise a grassroots
politics linking local and global so as to comprehensively criticise
SA's energy resource abuse, from coal extraction through
pollution-intensive generation to hedonistic consumption.
They view our state and corporate officials as among the world's least
environmentally and socially responsible.
Proof was evident in Copenhagen last month, and will be again in New
Delhi on Sunday when the next generation of world-leading carbon tsotsis
- Brazil, SA, India and China (using the acronym BASIC) - meet to update
their do-nothing emissions strategy.
Recall that on December 18, to the cries of Shame! across the world,
Jacob Zuma and other BASIC leaders signed US president Barack Obama's
non-binding, unambitious and unfair Copenhagen Accord.
With the planet's future at stake, Climate Justice Now! SA activist
Siziwe Khanyile expressed anger in Copenhagen that the Pretoria
delegation helped destroy what was once strong African unity, to promote
self-interest: no emissions cutbacks until the 2030s.
But SA's self-interest looks like the self-interest of multinational
metals and mining corporations based in London and Melbourne, which
consume a vast share of South Africa's electricity.
Khanyile said: This is not a trivial matter. But, in choosing the means
of carbon development, the major Southern powers choose to reproduce the
economy of plunder.
Plunder was extreme during the last years of apartheid, when Eskom
treasurer Mick Davis - now head of the Swiss-based Xstrata coal mining
house, whose hostile takeover bid for Anglo American recently failed,
yet who personally earned R100 million in share sales last year -
signed 40-year special pricing agreements with the likes of BHP Billiton
(the firm Davis moved to after leaving Eskom in 1993). The world's
largest metals and mining firms got the cheapest power in the world,
ever cheaper as minerals prices fall.
Since then, Eskom management has failed to address the contracts'
extreme socio-economic inequity, climate change implications, or
financial volatility created within Eskom's embedded derivatives gambles.
The former leadership of Bobby Godsell and Jacob Maroga oversaw Eskom's
R9.7 billion loss in 2009, due mainly to these derivatives, as aluminium
prices and the currency went haywire during the world economic crisis.
What often goes unmentioned is that when big corporations receive
ultra-cheap electricity - just 11c a kiloWatt hour to BHP Billiton,
compared to 44c a kilowatt hour for Eskom's household customers - their
profits are exported to London, Melbourne and Zurich. In turn, this
amplifies SA's perennial balance of payments deficit - a problem which
last year led The Economist magazine to rank SA as the riskiest of all
This ridiculous situation appears acceptable to Nersa's Thembani Bukula,
who last July defended BHP Billiton's special deals, although a month
later both Godsell and Maroga made an apparently half-hearted effort to
Especially infuriating for environmentalists is that because Eskom ran
out of cash, major renewable solar and wind energy projects are delayed,
and tidal power is not being seriously attempted.
The company's promise to roll out a million solar hot water heaters in
three years is being broken, with only around 1 000 supplied in its
first year, even though 30 000 geysers are replaced annually and though
this is an ideal green job opportunity so as to rehire thousands of
workers laid off last year in the metals and auto sectors.
Another broken Pretoria promise is a meaningful carbon tax that would
force excessive consumers of energy to become more energy efficient.
As finance minister, Trevor Manuel imposed only a tiny tax, with a bias
against ordinary people not big corporations, and his successor Pravin
Gordhan has dropped the baton. If a higher price on carbon doesn't
persuade large corporates to change their behaviour, then direct
regulation must, including the 2004 Air Quality Act.
But as Eskom's last annual report confessed, the state-owned agency has
since 2007 been regularly violating this law: As a result of this
decline in performance, we have applied for over 170 exemptions and had
22 legal contraventions as a result of not meeting limits set out in the
power station emission permits.
Since the Green Scorpions are apparently asleep on the job, Eskom is
passing the costs of its world-leading emissions on to society and nature.
People living near coal-fired power stations pay with their health,
taxpayers will pay for their health costs, and there will be increased
losses for agriculture.
Worse, Eskom's proposed R385bn capital expansion - much for coal-fired
electricity generation - will dramatically increase carbon emissions,
since Eskom wants to double electricity supply by the 2030s. Already
climate change is responsible for Africa's increased droughts and
floods, rising sea levels, decreasing water supply, malaria and other
diseases, and extreme weather events.
The World Bank is the latest villain in the tale, provisionally offering
Eskom $3.75bn in December, but at an ever-higher interest rate as the
rand declines in value, given that the loan must be repaid in hard currency.
NGOs are already mobilising to halt the loan when the Bank's board meets
in March, for it is yet another travesty from the world's largest fossil
This is the institution that, ironically, is also bidding to manage both
the new climate-debt fund promised in Copenhagen (which could amount to
$100bn a year by 2020) and the futile strategy of carbon trading in
which Clean Development Mechanisms are said to offset Northern
Instead of playing dangerous games with the World Bank - as does the
eThekwini municipality with its dubious landfill gas extraction Clean
Development Mechanism - SA should peak greenhouse gas emissions no later
than 2015 and cancel the coal-fired generators. How? First, by following
advice given by Standard Bank chairman Derek Cooper two years ago during
Eskom's load-shedding crisis: cut off supply to the big aluminium
smelters which use so much power, create so few jobs and export so many
That way, as Climate Justice Now! SA puts it, we can start to leave the
coal in the hole and invest in solar, wind and tidal. At the same time,
the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance insists, we can avoid
electricity price hikes caused by new coal-fired power plants. The
future of our species and our low-income neighbours' economic survival
require nothing less.
Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society and musician
Alice Thomson is a Climate Justice Now! KZN activist.