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Earth, water, wind and fire: Keeping the lights on in Southern Africa

This November, Presidents and Ministers from South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe have all shared one common activity over the last two weeks. They have sat down in front their TVs listening to their counterparts express what their plans are to keep the lights on in their respective countries. The power situation has become unsustainable. The countries all share similar problems of debt and climate change. They also share opportunities of the sun, wind and water which have the potential to attract much needed investment. It is the latter they need to unite on.


The biggest problem by far facing these nations is the high levels of debt they are burdened with. South Africa. South Africa’s electricity company, Eskom, is languishing in a R420 billion (USD28 Billion) debt that is steadily increasing with every flick of a switch turned on. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique all have high debt-GDP ratios. Ironically, these countries are debtors of Eskom owing R690 million (46 million), which is about 0.16% of Eskom debt. This figure is small relative to Eskom’s problems, but both Zambians and Zimbabweans only have their lights on (even if it is for an average 6-10 hours a day) because of Eskom exports. That has been caused by the other headache of the climate crisis.

Climate crisis

Legend has it that during the building of the Kariba Dam, deaths to workers and delays to its completion in the 1960s were signs that the river snake God, Nyami-Nyami was angry with the project. Sixty years later, locals believe that Nyami-Nyami is once again angry, and that is why the Zambezi has failed to adequately provide water to the Kariba Dam. The climate crisis has seen the water levels in the dam drop to dangerous levels, and as a result, little to no power generation has taken place at Kariba. Kariba provides 80% of Zambia’s electricity supply, and more than half of Zimbabwe’s supply.

The rest of the supply primarily comes from coal, which along with South Africa, is a climate crisis affecting all three nations. South Africa’s electricity supply is 95% reliant on coal. The sheer output of that amount of coal (72% of South Africa’s emissions come from fossil fuels) for such a comparatively large economy means that South Africa is one of the largest environmental polluters in the world. The health and communal costs are carried mainly by workers and their families through preventable diseases and early death. Coal-rich nations and fossil fuel corporates generally ignored, lied or side-tracked this problem. The argument has been that economies need to grow and to do that, electricity supply by any means is necessary. This argument has become porous mainly because of the new renewable technologies, but also, the changing nature of international investment into power generation. These trends are vital towards keeping the lights on.

Just transition

So how do we move from being coal addicts? This question is pertinent especially for Zimbabwe and South Africa who are more reliant on coal. The catch phrase thrown around is that of having a “just transition.” Such a transition includes considering the concerns of the workers, environment and community that are intrinsically linked to the current coal mines. A just transition includes re-tooling and retraining workers to have skills that are in line with a green economy. The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) have a report that shows the possibility of workers being part of the transition. This is a fundamental shift from the prevailing views that coal miners are against the closure of mines. They are against losing their jobs.

The recent Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) in South Africa is testament to the acceptance and acknowledgment that coal needs to stay underground as much as possible. From the current 95% of power generation, SA hope coal will contribute 59% of power in 10 years, solar, wind and hydro a combined 32%. This is certainly not enough in divesting from coal, but this has to do with the next section of this piece; what and who will pay for this move away from coal.


Coal investment in the three countries now has a 140-year history. Additionally, this investment goes beyond the coal mines and into the infrastructure of railways, electricity systems etc. towns, cities, the very character of communities are centred around coal mines. As a result, this investment is no longer just financial, it is also historical, emotional and social. For the last twenty years, divestment from coal has been dealing heavily with delinking people from social and emotional investment they have towards coal. This has been based on the environmental and health issues. Now, the money is divesting from coal. International funds that control USD 11 trillion have pledged to leave coal. The most well known in Southern Africa was Nedbank deciding to pull out of coal investment. Government laws have progressively allowed for more investment into green technology and energy.

However, those who still have stakes in coal are not moving as quickly as everyone would like. China and Australia are still leading coal investment not only in their countries, but in Africa too. China is building coal mines in South Africa. In Zimbabwe, the government has outlined twenty solar projects with fiscal incentives but at the same time they are planning on investing ZWL$8.4 billion (USD380 million). These policies highlight two contradictions. Firstly, countries that are stubbornly resisting total green investment are suffering the most from climate change (Australia fires, Southern Africa floods and drought). Secondly, the planned investment into coal by the Zimbabwean government could have garnered 425 MW of electricity within 6 months.


The varying stats, opinions and attitudes towards coal do show the changing reality that people are changing their minds around coal. In the next 50 years, we might be able to look back at these past generations laughing at why were we addicted to coal? For the sake of communities around coal mines, the use of eco-friendly power will make their lives healthier and in the long term create more sustainable forms of power. Breaking the borders and sharing the sun, water and wind will allow for a quicker transition into a better future.

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