Contesting the Colour of a Just Transition in South Africa

Jacklyn Cock, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

Reliant on heavy industry and coal-fuelled electricity, South Africa is one of the most carbon intense economies in the world. The Government has made commitments to reduce carbon emissions but is simultaneously promoting the expansion of coal. As resistance to coal is growing, a transformative approach to Just Transition has the potential to overcome differences that currently constrain unified action.

Photo credit: Jan Truter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Two new coal-fired power stations, among the largest in the world, are being built in South Africa. Another 10 smaller ones are planned as well as 40 new coal mines, most of them in Mpumalanga, on some of the most fertile land in South Africa. This adds to the country’s 1,600 existing coal mines. At the same time, resistance to coal is growing, taking new organizational forms, tapping into new sources of power and adopting new innovative strategies and tactics. In this context, a new transformative approach towards the Just Transition has the potential to unify and strengthen a range of different struggles.

Coal power plants planned and constructed in South Africa since 2010, source: CoalSwarm (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Driving a Just Transition: An Incipient Red-Green Alliance

The alliance between the labour and environmental movements, a so-called “red-green” alliance, could form a powerful driver for a transformative Just Transition. In 2010, South African labour — through the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) — and environmental justice groups attempted to establish such an alliance. Over the following five years, and with COSATU backing, efforts were made to educate the public on the social impacts of climate change (such as rising food and electricity prices, water shortages…) and to push through a transformative energy policy. However, too little attention was paid to the interests of workers in the extractive sector who were most exposed to the short-term social effects of coal phase-out. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), a COSATU affiliate, was increasingly on the defensive, arguing that mine closures, falling coal prices, mechanization, demands from environmental activists to “keep the coal in the hole” and the divestment movement were threatening the livelihoods of some 90,000 coal miners. Another COSATU affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), expressed the fear that the notion of a Just Transition is “class-blind”. In contrast to NUM, it strongly promoted the notion of energy democracy as a building block towards an alternative future. This involved reclaiming the energy sector as part of “the commons”, meaning social ownership and democratic control. More generally, those from within COSATU who were involved in the alliance, were criticized for being too focused on the nature, causes and effects of climate change instead of the content and modalities of a Just Transition.

Photo credit: GovernmentZA via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

More recently, differences between labour and environmental activists resurfaced over two issues: the closure of coal-fired power plants and the extension of the privatized renewable energy programme. The labour movement is increasingly adamant that there should be no job losses in the name of a Just Transition, while the environmental movement is increasingly adamant about the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations.

Red-Green Tensions

In March 2018, NUMSA obtained an urgent court interdict to block the public electricity utility Eskom from signing renewable energy contracts with 27 independent power producers. NUMSA argued that the contracts would lead to a rise in electricity prices that would be detrimental to the working class. Furthermore, Eskom would require less coal to produce electricity. In turn, this would lead to the closure of coal-fired power plants, resulting in the loss of some 30,000 jobs.

Environmental groups reacted in a variety of different ways to this, emphasizing the importance of renewable energy — even if privatized — and the negative environmental and health impacts of coal. They also pointed to the high financial costs of the two new coal-fired power plants Medupi and Kusile, which are at least ZAR 180 billion each (USD 152 billion). Greenpeace condemned NUMSA’s decision, stating that it was “a move to sabotage renewable energy in favour of coal [which] stands in the way of progress. [Whereas] the reality is that renewable energy creates new sustainable opportunities that will grow the green economy and enable a just transition away from coal. A just transition is not a nice-to-have, it is imperative”. An editorial in Business Day referred to NUMSA’s court action as “short sighted and futile” and as an “attempt to suppress the growth of renewable energy generation”. NUMSA clarified its position, stating that they were “not against RE [renewable energy]. On the contrary, [they] are fighting for a socially owned RE sector, a sector under public, community or collective ownership and designed to put people before profit”.

Photo credit: Jan Truter via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Constraints on Unified Action

These difficulties in establishing a “red-green” alliance are often presented as highlighting the existence of different — and even conflicting — understandings of what a Just Transition should stand for. These vary from a minimalist, defensive understanding that emphasizes the need to protect vulnerable workers by way of reformist change through green jobs, social dialogue, retraining and consultation, to a more transformative understanding that promotes a radically different production and consumption model, and that paves the way for a new democratic, ethical and ecological brand of socialism.

Yet these two narratives could be a false binary. While addressing the climate crisis is in the long-term interests of labour, extractive industry workers’ immediate needs must be met over the short term. This implies greater attention to strategic rather than principled positions, in other words to the modalities of a Just Transition. The labour movement must own the process, undertake research on alternative job creation and formulate clear demands on the state. It must challenge dominant conceptions of a Just Transition that re-packages capitalism through notions like the “green economy”, or “sustainable” and “green capitalism”, bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction.

In Closing

The critical question is “What would a Just Transition look like?” Effective resistance from below to drive a transformative Just Transition requires a new political imaginary, a clear vision of a world beyond capitalism. This means moving beyond “denunciatory analyses” to ask ourselves “what do we want?”

There is no blueprint for a democratic Just Transition away from fossil fuel capitalism. Such an alternative has to be built from the bottom up in a process of democratic participation led by the labour movement. At present the idea of a Just Transition is an empty space — it is up to us to give it content and strategic direction. Change is inevitable. As Jason Moore writes, “Capitalism will give way to another model — or models — over the next century”. Our challenge is to ensure that the change is just.


Jacklyn Cock is an academic activist, Professor Emerita in Sociology and Honorary Research Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa involved in research on a Just Transition. She has written extensively on environmental, gender and militarization issues. Her latest books are The War Against Ourselves. Nature, Justice and Power (Johannesburg: Wits University Press 2007), and Writing the Ancestral River (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2018).

This think piece is part of the Just Transition(s) Online Forum. Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the JTRC or its partner organizations.