"Just look around, there isn’t much in this town,” says Gadifeli Bhuiyan, the owner of the Aqua Shopping Centre in Dipaleseng, near Eskom’s Grootvlei power station in Mpumalanga.
Bhuiyan says she has built a life here with her family, but she’s watching it fade away.
“I have children, my husband and I have a home here. Sometimes we wonder if coming here all those years ago was a good idea,” she says.
The future of small businesses in the country’s coal belt is uncertain. Many of South Africa’s predominantly coal-fired power stations are aging and the government wants to reduce carbon and other emissions that contribute to climate change. This means power stations such as Grootvlei are marked to produce renewable energy.
Grootvlei was built in 1969 and was meant to be shut down in 2019, after 50 years’ service, but because of the electricity crisis, its life expectancy was extended to 2027. It currently provides 1,200 megawatts to the national grid.
The government remains tight-lipped about whether it will close the Grootvlei plant in four years’ time.
Bhuiyan has always been a hardworking businesswoman.
“When I left North West [in 2016] to come to Grootvlei, I knew that failure was not an option. A lot was riding on my future and that of my family. I worked hard until I managed to buy the shopping center and employ locals. What breaks my heart is that I might have to pack my ambition away and go back to North West with nothing,” she said.
Grootvlei is a small piece of the puzzle, but for people’s livelihoods here, it’s potentially life-changing. They feel in limbo while they wait to hear whether the plant will be shut down and repurposed, or if it will be kept open as Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa wants.
In pursuit of a greener future, many jobs and livelihoods are at stake as South Africa forges ahead with plans to decommission 10 of its coal plants, which employ more than 100,000 people.
In 2015, South Africa joined the 195 countries that committed to the United Nations Paris Agreement which binds them to targets that will result in a neutral balance of carbon pollution, or net zero, by 2050.
Net zero, according to the United Nations, means cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions re-absorbed from the atmosphere, by oceans and forests, for instance.
Although South Africa is responsible for what looks like a small 1.06% of the world’s total carbon emissions, it is the world’s 14th-biggest emitter, and the largest in Africa.
To reach its Paris Agreement goals, South Africa has committed to closing 10 coal-fired power stations by 2036.
As part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership announced at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in 2021, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the European Union pledged $8.5 billion in the form of loans, grants and investments to help South Africa achieve its net zero objectives, some of which could go toward refurbishing coal-fired power stations in the Mpumalanga coal belt.
Last October, Eskom decommissioned the Komati power station in Mpumalanga as a litmus test for South Africa’s transition away from coal, calling the closure “just and equitable, leaving no one behind”.
In the country’s investment plan presented at the United Nations climate negotiations, COP27, held in Egypt last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa wanted to reduce carbon emissions but it had to ensure that it was done in a just manner.
He said the investment plan aims to place South Africa on the right side of history concerning climate change, yet it must also try to solve other interrelated crises: addressing the electricity crisis in the country, which has increased the levels of load-shedding, which contributes to growing unemployment and poverty.
To ensure the transition to cleaner energy was just, Ramaphosa created the Presidential Climate Commission to ensure citizens and Eskom workers were consulted.
The commission was also tasked with finding alternative solutions to the energy crisis and how Eskom workers and others could be reskilled to work in the renewable energy sector.
When state-owned entity Eskom announced the planned closure of 10 coal-fired power stations, it faced a backlash from residents, small business owners and employees who saw that they faced job losses and fewer work opportunities.
People in the Komati area and those working in the power station said they weren’t thoroughly consulted about the closures and were not given alternative solutions to keep their businesses open. Grootvlei residents echoed the same worries, threatening to strike to keep Dipaleseng from becoming a ghost town.
Like Bhuiyan, many people rely on the Grootvlei power station. “We saw what happened in Komati and we know that that is inevitable in our town,” she says.
Noyi Mthabela, 21, and Noluthando Ngcobo, 20, run a vetkoek stall outside Grootvlei. They have heard the rumors about the power station’s possible closure, but nothing official.
“We hear it all the time, that the station will stop operating one day and people will be without jobs. I think this is going to cause more problems in the community. You can just look around and see that unemployment is a real thing here in Grootvlei. What more when the power station shuts down?” says Ngcobo.
In June, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe told the Presidential Climate Commission’s 2023 quarterly meeting that Komati has become a ghost town and that the power station’s move to renewable energy had not been “just”.
“It is an energy transition. ‘Just’ doesn’t qualify at Komati in terms of the number of jobs destroyed and the number of jobs created, the megawatts destroyed and those created. In all aspects, it is not a just transition. It is an energy transition,” Mantashe said.
The plan for Komati power station is to transform it into a wind and solar energy production site. The plant will include a micro-grid assembly line and agri-voltaic plant, which could contribute to job creation in the area.
It would also act as a training facility in partnership with the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre.
Eskom has secured a R180 million grant from German development bank KfW to establish a renewable energy training facility at Grootvlei and “discussions are underway”.
The delay in providing people with training has created doubt for workers and residents about the government’s plan.
People living in the area are uncertain about how to plan for their future. They say the government has not been able to provide jobs and people continue to leave the town to find better opportunities.
Ramokgopa has previously said that extending the lives of aging coal-fired power stations in the short term was not deviating from longer-term goals to cut carbon emissions, and it addresses the electricity shortage that’s plunged the country into darkness and harmed the economy.
In March this year, Ramokgopa visited the Grootvlei power station and told workers that the plant’s megawatts were needed to get the country out of its current electricity crisis.
Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said it would be “counterintuitive” to shut down coal-fired power stations amid an energy crisis. Responding to questions from the National Council of Provinces in May, Creecy said although the country planned to decommission the plants, they are reconsidering the timeframes.
The Presidential Climate Commission, tasked with finding solutions to the energy crisis, said in its latest report that extending the life of Eskom’s coal plants was unsustainable.
Executive director Crispian Olver added that it would be detrimental financially, especially with partner groups pledging money to South Africa for clean energy.
What really matters
Mthabela paints a grim picture of what might happen should Grootvlei power station shut down.
“If it happens that the power station shuts down and does not employ people, the crime in the community is going to increase drastically. Most people that are here, came here to work, so if they are not given jobs they will turn to crime to survive,” says Mthabela.
Early in the morning, Ngcobo prepares her first batch of vetkoek outside the Grootvlei power station, for workers and job seekers making their way to the plant.
“People that are waiting here for jobs as well as those who are working inside the station buy from me all the time. With that money, I am able to do a lot for myself and my family. It really helps," she said.
Ngcobo says the uncertainty about the future of the power station weighs heavily on everyone. She thinks that one day, it will come crumbling down and all that will be left are buildings that once carried people’s hopes and dreams.
This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Mail and Guardian on 23 June 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner Image: Uncertainty: People fear the decommissioning of Grootvlei will result in further unemployment and the closure of businesses. Daily people wait outside the power station in the hope of getting work / Credit: Guillem Sartorio/AFP.