Amid Rolling Blackouts, Energy Workers Fight For Clean Public Power In South

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The lights went out around Johannesburg on a Monday morning in November 2021, not to flicker back on until early that Friday in some areas. It marked the last rolling blackout of a year troubled by more outages than any in recent memory. The fate of Eskom, the beleaguered power utility behind the crisis, is now at the center of South Africa’s struggle for a just energy transition — a break from fossil fuels without leaving behind frontline communities or energy workers.

As a public company, Eskom has a constitutional mandate to guarantee electricity as a basic right. But the utility struggles to meet that mandate with its aging equipment, staggering debt, corruption and rules that require it to break even, which drive exorbitant rate hikes. Moreover, the electricity running through Eskom’s wires comes almost entirely from coal, smothering the country’s eastern coal belt in deadly pollution and adding planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere — and putting the utility at odds with South Africa’s decarbonization commitments and global calls for renewable energy. South Africa, the 26th-largest country by population, ranks 14th in carbon output worldwide and is responsible for 1% of global emissions, because of this reliance on coal.

Few believe Eskom will survive in its current state, and what comes next is the subject of a high-stakes debate — and is about more than the climate. The state-owned company employs 45,000 workers and supports 82,000 coal jobs in a country where more than a third of the population is out of work. Eskom is a union shop, as are South Africa’s biggest coal mines.

The government’s plan, already underway, is to invite private companies into the energy sector on the dubious grounds that clean energy is bound to win in a competitive market. The powerful miners and metalworkers unions oppose privatization, which they worry will hobble their organizations, if not eliminate the jobs they’re entrusted to protect. 

The unions have reason to worry. European multinationals have installed most of South Africa’s wind and solar capacity so far, importing technicians and hardware. The local jobs that come with them are often low-paid and temporary, vanishing once plants get up and running. Workers with permanent jobs, meanwhile, have struggled with for-profit energy companies over the right to strike.

While some union leaders and workers have responded to the threat of privatization by defending coal mines and the union jobs they offer, unions also say they support decarbonization efforts. There are currents within the labor movement organizing for a just transition to turn Eskom into a unionized, public and clean power utility, run by and for the South African people.

This tug-of-war holds lessons for workers everywhere: The South African labor movement has largely succeeded in making the public debate about ownership and power— about who owns energy resources and who decides how they’re used — rather than simply about renewables versus coal. Still, the temptation for labor to double down on coal jobs remains strong as the South African economy flags and unemployment spikes, emblematic of how hard it can be to fight for long-term goals if jobs are under threat.

A shopper browses during an electrical blackout in Johannesburg, a recurring concern as South Africa’s energy crisis deepens. REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

For Jabulani Sokhela, a works coordinator in Eskom’s distribution division who is sometimes directed to cut power to working-class districts, a just transition would mean keeping the lights on for his comrades. Electricity is a basic need,” says Sokhela, 41, an electrical engineer by training and a member of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA). He is from a mining town on the eastern edge of Gauteng Province.

NUMSA members started organizing for a just transition in 2011, as South Africa was gearing up to host the United Nations’ COP17 climate summit in Durban. The union’s energy research and development group held workshops on decarbonization with workers, bringing in scientists to discuss climate change.

While not every member appreciated the significance of climate change at the time, Dinga Sikwebu, a former NUMSA official who led the group, says I know of no other union that … had some of the people in the country who wrote or were involved in or part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,…

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