South Africa was ranked the seventh largest producer of coal by the Beyond Fossil Fuel Fiscal Transition in Brics (2019 report). Many communities in South Africa use coal as a source of energy. As a whole, the country depends on coal for 90% of its energy supply. Daveyton, a township East of Johannesburg, is amongst one of the communities that rely on coal for personal and private use by local businesses and street vendors.
I learnt how to make a fire when I was 13 years old. Back then we used the coal stove daily at home to lessen the electricity bill at the end of the month. The coal stove was used for cooking, heating, and to heat water for evening and morning baths. Nowadays, we use the coal stove sparingly, thanks to a prepaid electricity meter. Occasionally, it saves our day during unexpected power cuts from the Eskom power stations. But there also seems to be a difference in thoughts between the old and the young on the use of coal stoves in today’s society.
My grandmother, for instance, says she will not stop burning coal as it is cheaper than electricity. Moreover, for other families cooking on an open fire outside their homes is inevitable as they have no other source of energy available to them or simply cannot afford electricity. Not forgetting that coal also preserves the tradition of having “braais”, the South African equivalent of a barbeque where wood and charcoal is used to cook the meat. Coal is the cheapest form of power energy and it is easily accessible since it can be bought in a bucket or bag by suppliers in the township.
The effects of climate change are exposing many communities to a variety of challenges. It becomes evident that the burning or use of coal will one day be a thing of the past. Where many will be left jobless, with no income giving rise to their cost of living, especially for those who still don’t have adequate electricity in their homes. Consequently, the Daveyton community is facing the facts of climate change and realising just how damaging the use of coal has been on the environment as well as to their own health.
Coal is used by many local businesses and street vendors who sell “chesa nyama” (charcoal meat), “chicken dust” (charcoal chicken), “umbila” (corn braai or cooked in a pot water ) and “amagwinya” (vetkoek or doughnut in a ball). I interviewed several business owners and employees to discuss the possible effects of climate change on their businesses and employment come 2030.
First, I spoke to Bra Paul, the owner of “Esihlahleni Butchery”, who admitted to knowing about the causes of climate change and how the businesses on his precinct are implicated in the burning of coal and wood. But he unashamedly pointed out that it is the customers who want chicken that is cooked on the coal. Furthermore, he stressed that the price of gas is expensive, due to continuous corruption and looting of funds by some officials of the South African government; he does not trust the policies that will ensure business subsidies to adapt to gas usage.
During another visit in the neighborhood , I met Musa, an employee at “Makhoya Chicken Dust”. He had been working for the business for eight years. “Coal makes the chicken”, Musa says. “Without coal, it does not have the ‘Dust’ in the end, you know.” At the same time, preparing chicken with gas could be very challenging, he adds. “It takes hours for the chicken to be well cooked. And in the end, a lot of oil remains, and the chicken ends up dry anyway.”
Just a stone’s throw away, Mam’ Gcinapi, the owner of “Chicken Spot”, another chicken restaurant, was standing in front of her immense barbecue with several well-roasted chicken on top of the grill. She had been operating for six years. “If I was forced to stop using coal today, I would have to dismiss some of my employees”, she says.
Lastly, I spoke to Mamani Violet Nxumalo, who had been cooking and roasting corn on the side of the road for three years. She confessed that she suffers from different illnesses due to inhaling the smog from making the fire to cook. However, she continues to use coal, as “I can’t find employment”, she said.
There are industrial hubs around Daveyton, emitting high levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the air. Still there seems to be no education about pollution, and ways to prevent health problems resulting from it. Duduzile Mthethwa is an operations manager at the Daveyton Clinic , observes that the use of masks due to COVID-19 regulations has diminished the number of respiratory and nasal illnesses such as asthma and sinusitis . “These respiratory symptoms are a result of poor air quality”, she added. “It’s just a coincidence that we’re experiencing a decrease thanks to the pandemic.”
It is a struggle to educate communities in the townships about climate change, and its effects on the environment and public health. For many people in Daveyton, coal is a way of life, and it remains the most used source of energy in the community. Even with the limited knowledge on climate change that they have, most of the people I spoke to were well aware of the harmful effects of fossil fuel energy. Consequently, for as long as they have to decide between hunger/ job loss or coal, they would rather live with the consequences.