Our Burning Planet


Green wheels: The future’s electric — but South Africa’s late out of the starting blocks

(Photo: Unsplash / Damir Babacic)

With fewer than 7,000 of the more than 12 million vehicles on South Africa’s road networks being emission-free, the country sorely lags behind this global trend and is unlikely to change to these alternatives to any meaningful degree at any time soon.

The planet is heating. Most major vehicle manufacturers have plans to ameliorate the negative environmental impacts of their products and road users are increasingly being presented with alternatives to internal combustion engines.

With fewer than 7,000 of the more than 12 million vehicles on South Africa’s roads being emission-free, the country sorely lags behind this global trend and is unlikely to change to any of the alternatives to any meaningful degree at any time soon.

In 2018, the Department of Transport published a report that sketched the outlines of what was an envisioned transport renaissance in South Africa. That report, titled Green Transport Strategy for South Africa: (2018-2050), outlined an ambition to address the impact of the country’s second-dirtiest sector. Studies by various organisations have looked into replacing internal combustion engines with electric drivetrains.

Battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) use lithium-ion batteries while fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use hydrogen as fuel sources. Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical process that generates electricity with the only byproduct being water. Both of these methods to power electric vehicles are and have been under consideration in South Africa. 

Part of the long-term vision described in the Green Transport Strategy (GTS) report called for “the replacement of fossil fuels by vehicle technologies with low or zero tailpipe emissions, such as electric and fuel cell vehicles… coupled with a significantly lower national electricity grid emissions factor due to a large scale switch to renewable energy improvements. This will lead to a dramatic reduction in the carbon intensity of motorised transport.” 

On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his weekly newsletter, reaffirmed that vision, writing that the government intended to “pursue ‘green’ industrialisation, such as manufacturing using green technology and a shift to the production of electric vehicles”.

Transport, according to the GTS report, accounted for 10.8% of the country’s total direct greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, with road transport being responsible for 91.2% of transport’s emissions. South Africa, as a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is obliged to reduce its emissions to restrict global warming to values below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.


After this threshold, aspects of climate change become increasingly dangerous. “These risks will have increasingly damaging effects on human health, water availability, food production, infrastructure and migration,” Ramaphosa said in the newsletter. 

“South Africa is a developing country experiencing rapid urbanisation, which is intensifying the need for access to reliable transport systems,” the GTS noted, concluding that “In practice, green transport is integral to society, the economy and the environment.”

Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), an independent economic research institution, in their Harnessing electric vehicles for industrial development in South Africa report, said that as of April 2020, “the number of EVs available in South Africa remains limited, with only two battery electric vehicles, 23 hybrid electric vehicles and 10 plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs). No fuel cell electric vehicles are currently on offer.”

“This contrasts with the existing 162 models available worldwide in 2019 (and set to rise to 263 in 2020). The lack of local supply is particularly striking in the entry- and mid-level market segments, with most available models competing in the high-end to niche segments. Correspondingly, the sales of EVs in South Africa have remained extremely marginal with 6,043 EVs sold over the 2010-2019 period, corresponding to less than 0.1% of new car sales.” 

The TIPS report explains that “despite lower running costs, the high upfront purchasing cost of EVs (linked to higher production costs, mainly related to battery production) has been the main inhibitor to increased EV uptake in South Africa. 

This is exacerbated by the effects of the value-added tax (VAT)… limited product availability; and awareness issues emanating from range anxiety, security of electricity supply and a limited understanding of the technology.”

South Africa’s own foray into the EV manufacturing space was not without its share of problems. According to the GreenCape Electric Vehicles Market Intelligence Report 2020, “Kobus Meiring of Optimal Energy and his team started developing the Joule — a local, all-electric family car. This was funded from the national DST’s Innovation Fund (now the TIA) and the IDC with a combined investment of approximately R300-million.”

The car needed R9-billion for commercialisation. The venture failed to demonstrate any economic merit or sustainability.”

Passenger vehicles, however, don’t present the only opportunity — or challenge. 

According to the GreenCape Electric Vehicles Market Intelligence Report 2020, “Public transport presents the best business case for electrification.” 

Minibus taxis and buses are how most of the population gets around and is particularly important for low-to-middle-income households which cannot afford private vehicles. “The electrification of public transport would contribute to an inclusive rollout of e-mobility,” the TIPS report states. 

It continues that “In South Africa, the electrification of public transport remains in its infancy. South African cities are, however, looking to develop electric public transportation.” 

Gautrain Management Agency (GMA) COO Tshepo Kgobe said in October that his organisation is busy with a feasibility study to investigate the possible future use of alternative drivetrains in the Gautrain bus fleet. They hope to be able to pilot an electric bus by year-end. 

In the interim, the lack of a hydrogen refuelling network and the lack of standardised charging infrastructure remains a barrier yet to be overcome. 

South Africa’s national charging infrastructure consists of 92 stations in the major metropolitan areas, according to the Gauteng Provincial Government’s Growing Gauteng Together Through Smart Mobility plan. Gauteng has a total of 67 AC charging stations, the highest concentration of electric mobility in South Africa. 

While passenger vehicles and public transport are the low-hanging fruit in dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, they are not the only sites of vehicular innovation. 

On Friday, the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) released the Hydrogen Valley Feasibility Study Report. That report gave the thumbs up for South Africa to go ahead and develop a Hydrogen Valley.

The DSI explained that the proposed Hydrogen Valley corridor will be an economic industrial project starting in Limpopo where platinum group metals are being mined and extending through the larger region around Johannesburg, leading finally to Durban.

The study concluded that a Durban and Richards Bay hub “is also a large demand hub and technical potential for hydrogen is seen in heavy-duty trucking with a positive business case.” 

It continues that “around 25% of hydrogen demand in [the] Durban hub will be driven by the heavy-duty trucking industry. Fuel cells trucks are expected to reach competitiveness at a total cost of ownership (TCO) basis with diesel trucks before 2030.”

It also found that “the N1 corridor stretching from Durban and Johannesburg presents an opportunity to deploy hydrogen trucks at scale.”

Anglo American also announced at the launch of the report that the Mogalakwena mine in Limpopo will be home to what may be the world’s largest emission-free mining dump truck. The RHyno project is a “demonstration of feasibility” as one of these trucks has CO2 emissions “akin to nearly 700 cars.” 

As TIPS notes in the conclusion of its report, the development of e-mobility is a multi-faceted endeavour. “EVs”, TIPS says, “represent the only platform to a modern, sustainable transport system in the country and globally. Coupled with the transition to renewable energy technologies (from solar and wind energy to green hydrogen), increased connectivity and changes to spatial development, they also are the road to smart cities, inclusive development and a sustainable economy.” OBP/DM

Absa OBP

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 5

  • This is really an area where there needs to be significant development in the transport sector, to enable the automotive sector to continue to be competitive in the future, and as a critical part of South Africa’s approach to address climate change. SA should be the leader for electric transport in the constinent

  • To attract and speed up the presence of EV’s in SA the government needs to (1) scrap the import duty on EV’s, (2) local vehicle manufacturers need to wake-up (fast) and start EV production plans, (3) a reasonably priced EV is possible (R 500K to R 800K). EV’s are much cheaper to maintain. Most of those people who would aquire an EV in the near future already have solar panels and battery backup on their home or office – and more probably work partly from home now anyway. Thus much of the time they would be self-charging. In such cases the hydrocarbon fuel saving can be ~R 3000 per month = 3 tank fulls. Modern EV’s (past 2 years) have a range of ~ 350 to 400 km, or more. If you use such for city use, you would only need to charge it x2 a week, or just top it up each day or night. EV’s charging late at night during Eskom low demand periods would be an advantage to Eskom, by flattening the demand curve. And I haven’t even mentioned the environmental benefits yet. Come on Hyundai and Kia – bring it on – your EV’s rock. As soon as you and Tesla break the ‘SA ICE with a reasonably priced EV, the snowball effect will roll’ – excuse the multiple puns.

    • I totally agree with Ritchie but the problem at present is Eskom. An EV is currently more polluting because of Eskoms dirty electricity. Fuel cells using green hydrogen are the obvious answer but with the Government involved, there won’t be any quick action. The niche for EV’s in SA is currently very small. People who have solar capacity and only use their vehicles for short trips can certainly benefit. Likewise, game reserves where game drive vehicles sit for hours and could be charged during the day.

      • Yes, correct, Eskom is problematic – However, ICE vehicles are very polluting, cost a lot to make, need more servicing, and hydrocarbon fuel prices keep going up and up. If you charge your EV using solar – how good is that ? You will be surprised how many people are switching to solar – especially in rural and peri-urban areas. If you have an EZV and were able to fully charge it during the day, with a smart system its battery supply can be used at night in your house.

  • Changing to EV’s is laudable. However from the (dated) report quoted the greenhouse gasses attributed to transport are only around 14% of the total with industry being by far the greatest polluter, especially when energy consumption is attributed to the end users. This means that to feed more energy into industry to produce EV’s is pure folly. We need to focus on the areas which will have the greatest impact, otherwise we are fooling ourselves for a little bit of feel good.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted