Let’s face it, South Africa relies on coal like we rely on our morning coffee—essential but with a bitter aftertaste. 

As the country is on tenterhooks to see who will be appointed to our seventh administration cabinet, particularly who will be appointed as the new energy minister, the discussion surrounding renewable energy has become even more pressing. 

Outgoing Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, cost the South African economy billions during his five-year reign. His failure to procure new energy and reduce regulatory constraints has resulted in substantial economic losses, including a 1.5 percentage point reduction in GDP growth in 2023.

Coal is the backbone of our energy supply, but it’s also our biggest environmental headache. Amidst the backdrop of a global climate crisis, Thursday’s episode of The Big Debate inevitably circled back to South Africa’s own energy crisis and the country’s long-standing battle with loadshedding.

Coal keeps our lights on (sometimes..), but at a steep cost. The South African government has made a commitment to slowly phase out the country’s use of coal and turn to alternatives such as nuclear power and more renewable energy sources. The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) has been on the political agenda since 2019; however, climate activists have expressed doubt about how committed politicians are to implementing this plan. “I don’t have faith in the new cabinet coming into power,” says environmental activist Nonhle Mbuthuma.

“South Africa is pursuing an energy mix, containing coal, nuclear, and renewable energy,” said Professor Sampson Mamphweli from the South African National Energy Institute. However, this mix is heavily skewed towards coal, leading to severe environmental consequences. According to Greenpeace, South Africa’s economy is carbon-intensive, with fossil fuels accounting for more than 90% of the primary energy demand. The country is the largest emitter of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in Africa, contributing to a dire air pollution crisis.

Mpumalanga, in particular, suffers from deadly air due to coal-fired power generation, leading to health issues like asthma, cancer, and lung ailments. “They say coal is cheap, but we are paying with our lives,” stated a member of the audience, highlighting the human cost of our coal dependency.

Coal isn’t just about energy—it’s about jobs and the economy. Nkateko Chauke, programmes Director at Oxfam South Africa, pointed out, “We need to recognise that coal is the biggest contributor to GDP in the country, and the sector employs at least 100,000 people. People are at the centre.” This economic reality means any move away from coal must consider the livelihoods of thousands.

Dhesigen Naidoo from the Presidential Climate Commission put it bluntly: “The cruellest thing we have done in this country is to force people to choose between a clean environment we can live in and a livelihood.” It’s a heartbreaking dilemma: How does South Africa prioritise immediate survival with jobs and energy while investing in a cleaner, greener future?

There was plenty of talk about renewable energy, but not without scepticism. Chauke critiqued the blind adoption of foreign models. “We take examples from the global North which have no relevance to our economy and context.” It’s clear that any transition must be tailored to South Africa’s unique situation.

However, Victor Munnik from Wits University highlighted the potential for job creation through renewable energy. “There is a possibility for a renewable energy re-industrialisation that can create jobs from mining to manufacturing and recycling,” he noted, suggesting that renewables could offer economic benefits alongside environmental ones.

Sibusiso Mazomba, Cancel Coal Campaigner, emphasised the need for a gradual transition away from coal and the importance of public involvement: “We need to promote public participation, consultation with people on the ground. It has to be bottom-up.”

In Mpumalanga, residents are already taking action into their own hands by installing solar panels to reduce their reliance on the grid. “We want to make the people feel like they own it and can rely on it,” said one resident. It’s a grassroots movement that could be a model for others.

While we continue to debate how to solve our energy crisis, human rights activist Kumi Naidoo warned against treating the climate crisis as a distant problem: “Politicians still act like the climate crisis is a future problem.” The reality is that action is needed now to ensure we have a future at all.

Mazomba summed it up perfectly: “We need to take multiple approaches at once.” Thursday’s debate underscored that the climate crisis, energy crisis, and just transition can’t be treated as separate issues. They are deeply intertwined, and solutions must address them collectively.

So, what’s the takeaway from this episode of The Big Debate? South Africa is standing at a crossroads. The country must balance its dependence on coal with the pressing need for environmental justice. It’s not an easy path, but with inclusive dialogue and a multifaceted approach, there’s hope that we can light the way to a sustainable future.

As Mbuthuma put it, “We need to change now, not tomorrow.”

The Big Debate is a South African current affairs show airing for its 12th season. This town hall debate show has been on air for 15 years, with this season coinciding with the national elections. Explain is thrilled to be partnering with The Big Debate to cover the series as it unpacks these issues.