BUSINESS AS USUAL Can coal town Bethal survive the just energy transition?
At the weekend, I visited my hometown Mzinoni, a township in the coal town of Bethal in Mpumalanga.
I needed a break from the hectic Joburg life that SA author Niq Mhlongo calls "Johustleburg". At Kasken Pub & Bar, I chilled with my cousins Yazeed and Oubaas.
From where we were sitting, we could observe the dusty streets of what looks like the biblical Gomorrah or Joburg’s densely populated Alexandra. Over the years, the place has largely remained the same, except for the recently built RDP houses.
Despite the evident poverty in the area, lots of late model cars were parked along the streets opposite the tavern. I also noticed that many of the patrons of Kasken Pub & Bar were mostly workers from Sasol in Secunda, Eskom’s power stations, and more than 20 coal mines around Mzinoni.
As these workers imbibed, danced, and engaged in mindless chatter, I began to wonder if they had any inkling of the just energy transition that the government is planning to implement.
The much mooted plan will take SA away from fossil fuels and towards renewables at an estimated cost of R1.5-trillion. It could take up to five years to produce electricity, new energy vehicles, and green hydrogen.
Estimates are that the electricity sector will have to spend upwards of R1-trillion to cover infrastructure in Mpumalanga, sector-wide, and community support measures.
Despite the impending transition projects, the tavern patrons were spending on booze like their jobs at coal mines and Eskom were guaranteed forever. There was no sign of any concern they could be redundant as early as next year.
Eskom is already repurposing coal-fired Komati Power Station in Middleburg into a renewable generation site powered with 150MW of solar, 70MW of wind and 150MW of storage batteries. More plants around Mpumalanga may be repurposed by Eskom next year, resulting in job losses. Not wanting to disturb the "Dezemba" joy at the tavern, I opted not to broach the subject with the workers.
However, I wondered if the Govan Mbeki, Steve Tshwete, Emalahleni, Gert Sibande, and Pixley Ka Seme municipalities were preparing for the future in terms of creating new jobs for tavern-goers and other community members. Presently, the number of jobless people in Bethal and surrounding coal towns is very high.
Apart from potato and sunflower farms, the main employers are Eskom, Sasol and the coal mines. What is worrying is that those who are likely to be affected negatively by the move away from coal-fired power stations to renewables are not being prepared for the imminent changes.
The communities around Mzinoni are not ready for the transition. The people of Bethal, especially the youth, are at the greatest risk of becoming redundant when SA shifts to a post-fossil fuel era.
Nevertheless, one cannot just throw one’s hands in the air in despair. Local and global companies could do their bit by offering coal-mining communities the opportunity to develop new skills for the future. For example, Huawei launched its Thousand Digital Power Talents programme last month, which has already trained over 100 professionals from the SA solar industry.
This programme could be replicated in Bethal and other coal-mining areas. If such training is encouraged, it could inspire other companies to do the same and tap into the right talent in coal mines and power plants to bring them in as skilled workers for the solar industry.
Imagine a small coal town like Bethal attracting investment from Huawei or IBM to develop a digital skills academy or a solar manufacturing plant. After all, several foreign solar producers have signed contracts with Eskom. These solar energy-producing companies must be encouraged or compelled to train locals that live in coal-mining towns in Mpumalanga, including my hometown, Bethal.
Young people in Bethal could do with digital and renewable energy skills.
It is concerning that Eskom, the municipalities in the coal mining areas, and the national government are yet to roll out any plan to help those who will be affected by the transition.
Perhaps the problem goes beyond that. It is about a society that is ready to embrace the transition but fails to ensure that Kasken’s patrons are either retrained to be part of the renewable revolution or equipped with the necessary digital skills.
Imagine a Piet, who did not know that the transition could plunge him into joblessness, but for whom renewable energy or the digital economy offers a lifeline. Small coal-mining towns in Mpumalanga need all the help they can get if they are to survive the plans.
Lourie is the founder and editor of TechFinancials.