13 December 2022

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Power Poverty: Energy Injustice in South Africa


Informal settlement - Enkanini with mountain and blue sky.
Listen to Jane Carruthers reading her article. The audio version of this article may differ from the written version. We would like to thank Solid Gold Podcast Studios, Randburg, South Africa, for recording the article for free.

Reflecting on his arrival in Johannesburg from the Eastern Cape in 1941, Nelson Mandela recalled, “We saw before us, glinting in the distance, a maze of lights that seemed to stretch in all directions. Electricity, to me, had always been a novelty, and a luxury, and here was a vast landscape of electricity, a city of light.”1 His thrill at seeing the brightly lit city reveals a stark contrast between the “landscape of electricity” and the lived reality of Black South Africans then subjected to apartheid.

Segregated into resource-poor and overcrowded parts of the country, Black communities had virtually no access to electricity or to many other state services. The services that were available to them, such as education or health, were designed for a second-class and subjugated population. Injustice and inequality were not only the norm, they were the law.

When apartheid ended in 1994, the new South African Constitution entrenched equality while also addressing restitution and redistribution. Among its benefits, the Constitution promised electricity to those who had previously been denied it. From the mid-1990s, tremendous strides have been made in this regard, raising the proportion of South Africans with access to electricity from just over half in 1996 to over 80 percent currently.2 Some indigent households qualify for 50–100 kWh of free electricity each month (average monthly per capita consumption is around 287 kWh in South Africa).

Generation is insufficient to meet demand, and electricity remains an intermittent luxury for all South Africans, although entrenched injustice affects people’s ability to cope with the faltering supply.

And yet, access has not guaranteed supply. Generation is insufficient to meet demand, and electricity remains an intermittent luxury for all South Africans, although entrenched injustice affects people’s ability to cope with the faltering supply. Recently, a World Bank report reaffirmed that South Africa is the most unequal country in the world; lack of power, which constrains economic growth and opportunities, exacerbates inequality.3 The crime rate is the third highest in the world. Almost half the population survives on state support. Although the creation of employment opportunities is paramount, economic growth is barely discernible. As a consequence, the nation seethes daily with civil unrest—referred to as “service delivery protests.” Many street protests turn violent, with loss of life and damage to property. These issues of social inequality are bound up with concerns of environmental justice due to South Africa’s overreliance on coal and environmental degradation caused by mining.

Electricity supply in South Africa lies in the hands of Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., a centralised state-owned corporation founded in 1923, which absorbed all existing large generating plants in the Republic. Over time, Eskom has constructed its own plants and expanded transmission beyond South Africa to many parts of the African continent. By the late 1990s, Eskom was supplying 95 percent of South Africa’s and 38 percent of the continent’s power consumption.

Working coal fired power station in South Africa. Grass field.
Coal-fired power station in South Africa. © Willem on Adobe Stock. All rights reserved

Along with Eskom’s monopoly over the energy sector, coal—the largest energy source for electricity in South Africa—lies at the heart of the economy. In South Africa, coal is plentiful and cheap, and a high-value export product. Apart from abundant sunshine and unexplored shale gas, no alternative indigenous resources to coal exist. Natural gas, comprising 3 percent of the primary energy supply, comes via pipeline from fields off the Mozambique coast and is dedicated for use in liquid-fuel synthesis. Crude oil, imported mainly from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, is refined to produce petrol, diesel, and other fuels. Thirteen coal-fired power stations produce 80 percent of the Republic’s electricity.

Although South Africa’s coal-fired power infrastructure ought to be able to provide enough electricity for some 60 million people, the country has experienced rolling blackouts since 2007 due to a failure of supply and insufficient reserves. When the grid is at risk and megawatts need to be conserved, Eskom publishes a schedule listing times for outages, staggered for different geographical areas, to reduce consumption and avoid a total blackout. This rationing, euphemistically called “load-shedding,” results in blackouts lasting for 2.5 or 4.5 hours at a time. Power cuts affect every activity that relies on a dependable power supply.

When power is down, cables and other equipment are frequently stolen or vandalised. Switching parts of the system repeatedly off and on creates surges and often damages the aging infrastructure, leading to even more power outages. The poor—and particularly women, who carry the burden of household management—are hit the hardest. Many South Africans despairingly but passively accept blackouts, while others take to the streets in radical protest. Rob Nixon’s “slow violence”4 resonates throughout South Africa’s energy regime. And literal power poverty emerges from the harmful effects of the country’s electricity generation.5

© Jane Carruthers. All rights reserved.

South Africans have developed different ways of coping with this situation. Many middle-class households have made use of inverters or domestic solar supply, while large businesses have often installed backup diesel generators. However, it is illegal to feed any excess energy into the grid. Many urban townships inhabited by poor Black communities display a sea of small solar roof panels that supply hot water. But only electricity from the grid can power technological devices and vital domestic appliances, such as a kettle, a stove, or lighting.

As French urbanist Sylvy Jaglin and geographer Alain Dubresson emphasise, many factors have created the current situation of insufficient energy generation, including large new plants that have been inadequately planned or badly constructed.6 Additional causes include incompetent and inefficient management at Eskom due to an acute skills shortage, expertise drain, and lack of maintenance; extensive patronage in employment; complications arising from the transformation of the coal industry from large to smaller suppliers; labour unrest; sabotage; non-payment by consumers (including municipalities); widespread theft; and, importantly, massive corruption.7

On top of that, current environmental crises have further destabilised the supply of electricity in South Africa. Many baseload plants use wet recirculation cooling technologies, which are extremely wasteful of water.8 The Republic is arid, and water security is fragile. With even more intense drought anticipated as a result of climate change, the issue of energy security will become increasingly significant and, of course, even more detrimental to climate justice. For many reasons, the government has given little support to renewable energy. Fearing that any change to the status quo or privatisation will come with diminishing state control and price increases, the role for private enterprise in the industry has also been restricted.9

Widespread illegal “zama-zama” mining—extremely dangerous extraction in abandoned or closed mines—is increasing, aggravating the damaging effects of commercial coal mining.

Coal-mining regions suffer from extreme air pollution, poisonous old mine dumps, long-burning fires, water pollution, and acid mine drainage. There are 19 coalfields in South Africa. Most deposits lie in the northern and eastern parts of the country, where the large power plants are situated. New areas are being mined, and the government often signs contracts for new coal mines or extensions without restrictions, even in environmentally sensitive or conserved areas. Widespread illegal “zama-zama” mining—extremely dangerous extraction in abandoned or closed mines—is increasing, aggravating the damaging effects of commercial coal mining.10

Air pollution detrimentally affects those who are already economically disadvantaged or who live near power plants and coal mines. At times, the power stations in the east even contaminate the air over Johannesburg. The emission of toxic particulates in the southeastern province of Mpumalanga is among the highest in the world. The poor in South Africa, unable to escape these hazardous environments, suffer from sinus ailments, burning eyes, pulmonary infections, and other illnesses.11

Mining also affects the landscape, leaving immense, visible scars. Although by law land must be rehabilitated when mining ceases, the law is rarely obeyed, and defunct mines cannot be made to pay. Section 24(b) of the Constitution provides that “everyone has the right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation [and] promote conservation.” Despite excellent environmental laws—among the best in the world—lack of money, poor human capacity, and widespread corruption often prevent implementation.

Truck transporting coal. © Jane Carruthers. All rights reserved.

Citizens are working to improve the situation in various ways. In addition to social protests in the streets, South African youth are also raising their voices. The “#CancelCoal” campaign to block any new coal mining involves young activists linked to the African Climate Alliance, the Vukani Environmental Movement, the environmental justice organization groundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights.12 Brave activists and some non-governmental organisations have formally held the government to account. In 2017, Earthlife Africa won a significant court case: a challenge to the government decision to build a new coal-fired power station, Thabametsi, in Limpopo province.13 In another victory, a 2019 Constitutional Court ruling prevented the construction of an opencast mine in the Mabola Protected Environment near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga.14 However, protesters run the risk of being persecuted, or even murdered, while recourse to the courts is prohibitively expensive for many activists.15

In addition to social protests in the streets, South African youth are also raising their voices.

International pressure may stimulate a change in South Africa’s energy mix. At COP26, a deal was announced, promising $8.5 billion to help end the country’s reliance on coal. While President Cyril Ramaphosa called it a “watershed moment,” a lack of clarity remains regarding how this assistance will be utilised.16 Additionally, South Africans fear job losses if the energy environment is altered to focus on renewables. Already, a third of the population is officially unemployed, including almost two-thirds of those between the ages of 15 and 24.17

A new COP meeting is underway in November 2022, and although many people inside South Africa are saying that green energy is a colonial plot, it seems that a realistic government plan was unveiled in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.18 However, due to legal hurdles, a lack of technological expertise, and insufficient popular support, it is questionable whether renewable energy can ever be generated on a scale that would bring about a just energy transition for South Africa’s society and its environment.


  1. Mark Gevisser, Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014), 135.
  2. For context, information, and statistics on which this article is based, see: John Lang, Power Base: Coal Mining in the Life of South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1995); Bruno G. Pollet, Ian Staffell, and Kerry-Ann Adamson, The Energy Landscape in the Republic of South Africa (Cham, CH: Springer, 2016); and Sylvy Jaglin and Alain Dubresson, ESKOM: Electricity and Technopolitics in South Africa (Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2016). See also Jane Carruthers, “Energy, Environment, and Equity in South Africa,” Environmental Justice 12, no. 3 (2019): 112–17, https://doi.org/10.1089/env.2018.0027.
  3. Victor Sulla, Precious Zikhali, and Pablo Facundo Cuevas, Inequality in Southern Africa: An Assessment of the Southern African Customs Union (Washington, DC: World Bank Group, 2022), https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/099125303072236903/pdf/P1649270c02a1f06b0a3ae02e57eadd7a82.pdf.
  4. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).
  5. Nonophile P. Nkambule and James N. Blignaut, “The External Costs of Coal Mining: The Case of Collieries Supplying Kusile Power Station,” Journal of Energy in South Africa 23, no. 4 (2012): 85–93.
  6. Fhumulani Tshidavhu and Nthatisi Khatleli, “An Assessment of the Causes of Schedule and Cost Overruns in South African Megaprojects: A Case of the Critical Energy Sector Projects of Medupi and Kusile,” Acta Structilia 27, no. 2 (2020): 119–43, http://dx.doi.org/10.18820/24150487/as27i1.5.
  7. Stephen Grootes, “Thirteen Wasted Years Later, our Electricity Network is Crumbling—and South Africa with It,” Daily Maverick, 3 June 2021, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-06-03-thirteen-wasted-years-later-our-electricity-network-is-crumbling-and-south-africa-with-it/.
  8. Roula Inglesi-Lotz and James Blignaut, “Estimating the Opportunity Cost of Water for the Kusile and Medupi Coal-Fired Electricity Plants in South Africa,” Journal of Energy in Southern Africa 23, no. 4 (2012): 76–84.
  9. Hartmut Winkler, “Why South Africa Can’t Make a Massive Shift to Renewables—Yet,” The Conversation, 22 October 2018, https://theconversation.com/why-south-africa-cant-make-a-massive-shift-to-renewables-yet-104734; Iain Todd and Darren McCauley, “Assessing Policy Barriers to the Energy Transition in South Africa,” Energy Policy 158 (2021): 112529.
  10. Alan Martin, “Uncovered: The Dark World of the Zama Zamas,” ENACT, Policy Brief, 8 April 2019, https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ENACT-Policy-Brief-008-Zama-Zama-24Apr1115-WEB.pdf.
  11. Rebecca Garland and Kristy Langerman, “South Africa’s Power Utility Eskom: How Does It Stack Up in the Pollution Stakes?,” The Conversation, 4 November 2021, https://theconversation.com/south-africas-power-utility-eskom-how-does-it-stack-up-in-the-pollution-stakes-170808; David Hallowes, “Foul Air on the Highveld—The Sour Smell of Environmental Racism,” Daily Maverick, 22 January 2018, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-01-22-op-ed-foul-air-on-the-highveld-the-sour-smell-of-environmental-racism/.
  12. “Youth-led #CancelCoal Climate Case Launched against Government’s Plans for New Coal-Fired Power,” Centre for Environmental Rights, 7 November 2021, https://cer.org.za/news/youth-led-cancelcoal-climate-case-launched-against-governments-plans-for-new-coal-fired-power
  13. “Earthlife Africa Wins South Africa’s First Climate Change Case,” Mail & Guardian, 8 March 2017, https://mg.co.za/article/2017-03-08-earthlife-africa-wins-south-africas-first-climate-change-case/.
  14. “Constitutional Court Rules against Coal Mining in Mpumalanga Protected Area,” Centre for Environmental Rights, 18 November 2019, https://cer.org.za/news/constitutional-court-rules-against-coal-mining-in-mpumalanga-protected-area.
  15. See for example, Katharina Rall, “Environmentalists Under Threat in South Africa,” Business Day, 4 November 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/04/environmentalists-under-threat-south-africa; Katharina Rall, “Still No Justice for Killing of South African Mining Activist,” Human Rights Watch, 22 October 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/10/22/still-no-justice-killing-south-african-mining-activist.
  16. Vumani Mkhize, COP26: South Africa Hails Deal to End Reliance on Coal,” BBC News, 2 November 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59135169.
  17. “South Africa’s Youth Continues to Bear the Burden of Unemployment,” Republic of South Africa, Department of Statistics, 1 June 2022, https://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=15407.
  18. Ethan van Dieman, “What the World Is Learning from South Africa’s Nascent Just Energy Transition Investment Plan,” Daily Maverick, 12 November 2022, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2022-11-12-what-the-world-is-learning-from-south-africas-nascent-just-energy-transition-investment-plan/.

Jane Carruthers is professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of South Africa. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge. Jane’s current research interests lie in the history of science in South Africa. Her most recent project is a collection of essays edited with Graeme Wynn and Nancy Jacobs, Environment, Power, and Justice: Southern African Histories (2022). Jane is an Honorary Carson Fellow and was chair of the RCC Advisory Board in 2009–15.

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2022 Jane Carruthers
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Carruthers, Jane. “Power Poverty: Energy Injustice in South Africa.” Springs: The Rachel Carson Center Review, no. 2 (December 2022). https://doi.org/10.5282/rcc-springs-2860.

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