What is the history of coal mining in Mpumalanga?

The minerals revolution in South Africa took place in around the 1880s. Coal played an important role because as the handmaid of gold; it provided the power directly, as burning coal, and indirectly, eventually as electricity. Many of the gold magnets owned coal mines at the same time.

Where we are now, there are operating, new and abandoned mines. There are many mines that are in bad condition. The most interesting of them is Coronation, which is now a site of an informal settlement where you can see holes, but people are living on top of those holes. It’s created a dangerous space because it was not properly rehabilitated.

There are two drastic effects of coal mining. One is mine acid drainage that affects that whole area. You get this red water, red from the iron sulphate. The other problem is that is results in very poor air quality. Already in the 1970s, the South African Health Department was aware of the air quality impacts and they wanted to stop the building of more power stations in the area but failed.

South Africa is the largest greenhouse gas emitter on the continent and 14th in the world. According to a Greenpeace report, Mpumalanga is the largest Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) emission hotspot in the world from power generation. What are your views on this?

I would say SO2 pollution is worse than NO2.

We have indications that the soil itself, which is very important agricultural soil, has started acidification because of this air pollution. There are one or two papers indicating that. Mpumalanga Highveld, as opposed to Mpumalanga Lowveld, is a fantastic agricultural area because it is a grassland. Under the grassland, you get a very fertile soil forming because of the fertile grassroots. Secondly, it’s also a very good agricultural area because of the rainfall, which is higher than South African average, as well as the geological formations in the area. These are sandstone layers, in which the coal is also found. These sandstones give a perched water table, which means the water doesn’t drain away but stays close to enough to the surface to be used by the plants, whether agricultural or natural. So, it’s really a precious place in terms of the soil and its ability to provide food. It produces maize even in drought years when the other parts of the maize areas are affected. Maize is a staple for us.

What are the steps which must be taken by the government, mining industry, civil society and individuals to change this?

There are three steps which must be taken. While there is coal mining and burning in the power stations as well as steel and related factories that exist there, there should be proper regulation by the government with participation from civil society.

Point two, coal mining should be phased out. There is a global consensus that this should be done by around 2050. Therefore, steps must be taken now.  [And third] The rehabilitation and the return of resources for other use, which we hope will be used in a green economy. And they must put in various structures to deal with the acid mining drainage.

Lots of things can be done. Some of them are very simple, others expensive.

Is there political will to move away from coal?

The South African government seems committed to coal mining, so that is an obstacle, and a lot of South Africans see coal burning as normal. There is a propensity to think of it as important. People in the community in Highveld, for instance, are coal-affected but also coal-dependent. Coal mine workers are relatively privileged workers. They have higher wages than in other industries around them. They also have advantages like financial arrangements, pensions, houses and so on, especially the more senior people who came through earlier.

There is a perspective, the way people think about coal, that should be changed. There is a lot of attention to climate change that is changing that perception. But there is also an economic reality for people in those communities.

The just transition has at its core an energy transition, but around it a transition of almost everything else. From the side of the government and policy people, trade unions and civil society, you need to agree on an industrial development strategy for renewables. For example, you don’t import everything so that you are able to create jobs by having a whole manufacturing chain for renewables. There is a lot of scope for jobs to be created but it crucially depends on a worked out, agreed industrial strategy that underpins this transition.

There is a lot of work to be done and it is quite clear what that work entails namely to change public perception. The public really needs to understand the reality of climate change and its cost, its future cost.

There must be plans to replace the regional economy with another economy. Part of it will be to investin the energy economy, so renewables, part of it may be releasing land to the agricultural sector, hopefully on a small-scal.. And then there is also very pure water that the power stations use. As they are being closed, the water will become available as an extra asset.

Let us take all those elements and reshuffle them. Take what you can out of the coal economy,fix the damage it has done and then build a green economy in its place.

The government, private sector, and civil society announce initiatives taken to reduce the impact of climate change in South Africa. Are there initiatives you would list as great examples?

In terms of civil society, there is a very strong and growing environmental justice movement. It dates back to the late 80s. It has been responsible for progressive environmental legislation. And ever since that legislation they have been fighting to get it implemented. There have been very active polluted communities that have also got involved in this movement. It is quite a big movement, and it has lately been joined by the extinction rebellion, which has really given it a strong presence in the public opinion in step with international developments.

South Africa is the second biggest economy in Africa but also the biggest carbon emitter. Is this an unavoidable situation?

It’s actually avoidable because we have got wonderful wind and solar resources. We absolutely have the ability. We have a very strong renewable energy industry.

But at the same time there are political and other interest structures that give momentum for coal mining to continue. Coal is not scientifically a necessity; it is more of a political economy.

Some people have suggested moving to renewable energy would reduce jobs, in an economy which is already struggling with high levels of unemployment. What are your views on this?

No. Renewable energy creates more jobs than coal. What I foresee is a big expansion in electricity production and that will be in renewables.

In terms of unemployment, the issue is the transition. We have about 80,000 coal workers now. Some of them are going to retire, so they may take early retirement, some are young, some are midcareer. Some have portable skills, like they would be an electrician or a diesel mechanic, but some don’t, they are general workers.

For the 80,000 workers and the trade unions, the transition politics are very important and sometimes problematic. They cannot necessarily be promised replacement jobs and so on. And we cannot assume that somebody will move from being a coal miner to operating renewable energy, like windmills.

In the big, overall picture, the figures are that we would not reduce jobs.

Some people feel the extreme effects of climate change may not be experienced in our lifetime; others have suggested they are even a myth. What would you say to that?

It’s not a myth. There is extensive scientific evidence. If you look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, they are checked and counterchecked, reviewed by many many other scientists, whose careers depend on the accuracy of what they do there.

Then in terms of people’s everyday experiences, I don’t understand that people have not noticed all the tornadoes and the hurricanes hitting Mozambique, going further inland. I am very surprised that anybody would think it is a myth.

I would say to people, please pay attention and please take it seriously and please prepare for climate change. Part of the preparation is mitigation; anything that we can emit less… let’s do it. And part of it is adaptation because it’s too late to avoid its impacts. They are already coming on the way.

In my work on climate change and coal I have noticed that poor people suffer first and most. But poor people don’t take the decisions. Decisions are taken by a small elite group. However, this elite group, and there is some research as well, actually prepares for climate change, including those who deny that it exists. They build bunkers. They can anticipate places that will be easier to live with in the future and they secure their access to those places. Decision making about climate change is skewed.

And for me, the answer is that ordinary people, driven by public opinion, education, civil society organisation, need to exert a lot more influence on the decision making around climate change issues and around coal than they do at the moment. I think it is feasible. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time. There are things that should have happened already that have not happened yet.