Coal is a booming business among communities living in or near Ermelo, the commercial hub of Gert Sibande district municipality in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province. Situated about 200km east of Johannesburg, Ermelo is home to Camden coal power station, scheduled to be shut down by 2025.
“Coal is the heritage of this province, it is the backbone of our economy. It’s an undeniable fact,” says Philani Mngomezulu, founder of an established community-based greening project in the municipality called the Khuthala environmental group.
According to Mngomezulu, almost 80% of the more than 80,000 residents working and generating income in Ermelo are employed at Eskom and Transnet, the state-owned energy and transport companies. Camden is one of 12 coal power stations in Mpumalanga scheduled to be decommissioned in the coming years, most of them by 2035.
“As an environmental group, we are clear about the impact of coal on our environment, in particular climate change and pollution. However, as the community of Ermelo we will only be in agreement with the energy transition if it is going to impact positively on the local people,” he says.
Ermelo and other coal-mining regions in Mpumalanga province are at the frontline of South Africa’s Just Energy Transition (JET) process, which aims to repurpose coal power plants and coal-mining lands to greener energy. But coal workers are still hesitant and have said to feel left out of the country’s energy transition.
Lack of consultation
According to Mngomezulu, however, the people of Ermelo are in the dark when it comes to the transition because the government is not bringing consultations to the communities.
“We’ve been saying to the presidential climate commission [PCC] that they must come and do a proper consultation in Ermelo because people here are dependent on coal, so if we are going to shut down the power stations and any other coal mines without informing the community, that’s a bit unfair,” he said.
The PCC is a multi-stakeholder body set up by President Cyril Ramaphosa to “oversee and facilitate a just and equitable transition towards a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy” in South Africa.
Thulani Madlala, a ward councillor in the Msukaligwa municipality, says he is waiting to see how the transition will assist the local poverty-stricken people.
“We are waiting for the JET to be explained to the masses of our people on the ground. We hope that this programme doesn’t negatively affect the unemployment rate that is already here because, if that’s the case, our people are going to be against the transition,” Madlala says.
Meanwhile, Ermelo communities are living in “energy poverty: most of our informal settlements don’t have electricity, so they rely on coal, and some are able to profit from coal sales”, he says.
Data collated by the Oxpeckers’ #MineAlert tool shows that at least 227 government-licensed coal mines surround Ermelo. The area is also home to more than 3,000 small-scale artisanal miners who contribute to the local economy, pay rent, buy clothes and provide jobs.
Given Masina says the downside of phasing out coal is that businesses such as his will have to close. He started a coal yard in Wesselton, Ermelo’s satellite township, in 2011 that sells coal to community members and he employs people from the community.
Masina says they had not heard anything from the government about consultations with the community. “Look, if they decide to phase out coal, this means I will also have to retrench the employees I have so far employed.”
“There is no doubt that this transition is causing havoc in South Africa. At the moment, power stations are being bombed because of this transition that is not being explained properly to the people of the country,” Masina says.
In December, the government deployed troops to at least four Eskom power stations after a series of incidents of theft and sabotage.
The JET plan, released in 2022, states that more than half the youth in Mpumalanga communities are unemployed and the coal value chain decline will further narrow employment opportunities as the sector downscales.
It shows that the coal sector provides direct jobs to almost 90,000 people in mines and power plants in the province, and indirect jobs for people who provide goods and services to the coal sector, which supports a significant portion of induced jobs and other economic activities.
Power utility Eskom says the implementation of JET is envisaged to create some 300,000 jobs in the renewables value chain. “This represents a net jobs gain,” said an Eskom spokesperson in response to Oxpeckers’ questions.
Research by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies published in 2022 indicates that in South Africa as a whole, job creation through renewables could exceed anticipated job losses in the coal sector.
However, in Mpumalanga, not all job losses in the fossil fuel sector can be replaced by clean energy jobs. Under an ambitious decarbonisation scenario, these net losses can be minimised.
The report states the two most important technologies for the energy transition in Mpumalanga will be wind and solar PV energy, which will also make the largest contributions to job creation: up to 43,000 jobs in solar PV and 28,900 jobs in wind energy by 2030.
While people on the ground who spoke to Oxpeckers are unaware of reskilling programmes, Eskom says people employed at power stations due to be decommissioned are “being trained to obtain skills in the renewable industry so they may be able to manufacture, install and service the renewable energy components required to operate the repurposed power stations.”
“To achieve this end, and in partnership with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s South African Renewables Energy Technology Centre and recognised labour unions represented at Eskom, Eskom has established an accredited training centre at the Komati power station,” an Eskom spokesperson who asked not to be named said in response to Oxpeckers questions.
“Those whose skills are required at other coal-fired power stations get transferred to those stations to meet the staffing requirements there. As part of the shutdown plan, extensive socio-economic studies were conducted which included widespread consultation with all communities around the affected power stations.”
And most importantly, he said, Eskom assures all its employees that “no Eskom employee will lose their jobs because of the JET”.
The spokesperson said employees who no longer work at Komati had either resigned, retired, or were transferred to other stations.
“Eskom plans to use its limited funding to catalyse the construction of renewables plants across the country,” the spokesperson said. “This is demonstrated by the leasing of land at Eskom power stations to allow private participants to rapidly bring online new generating capacity, inter alia.”
Michelle Cruywagen, the just transition and coal campaign manager at environmental justice NGO Groundwork, says unions set out processes for a just transition in 2018, “but the business and mining sectors didn’t really come on board in assisting with facilitating the transition, even though they are obliged to do so legally through the social and labour plans”.
“This can be coordinated through the minerals council [a mining industry employers organisation], and the unions who generally negotiate wages and retirement plans should have been leading the way forward,” she says.
Cruywagen maintains that the consequences now are that the transition is not being managed properly, and the job losses aren’t being mitigated because of a lack of management and political will, which puts communities in a vulnerable position.
“It’s fine to reskill people, but employment is actually the thing that people need,” she says. “Part of what we’re pushing for is to get local government involved so that they drive the message, raise awareness and facilitate engagement on the issues of a just transition at a local level.”
Thabo Molelekwa is a freelance health and environmental journalist, and an Associate of Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism. This investigation was originally published in Oxpeckers and was supported by the African Climate Foundation’s New Economy Campaigns Hub.