Our Burning Planet

GLOBAL HEATING

‘We are on a cliff edge and should be deeply worried’, says Valli Moosa

Valli Moosa admits that he used to think of the climate crisis as something far away. But that was a mistake. This means that ‘the transition is an imperative’ that can no longer be delayed. (Photo: youmatter.world / Wikipedia)

An in-depth interview with Presidential Climate Commission Chairperson Valli Moosa about how South Africa is rising to the challenge of global heating and all that it portends for our economy, development, human rights and, ultimately, our political system.

In December 2020 former Cabinet minister Valli Moosa was appointed as the deputy chairperson of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC). The PCC is a body with no legal standing (yet), and a relatively small budget. Yet it may become the most important multi-stakeholder body at work in SA today. Its task is gargantuan: to forge a social compact on how South Africa responds to the deepening climate crisis. 

Last week Maverick Citizen conducted an in-depth interview with Moosa about how South Africa is rising to the challenge of global heating and all that it portends for our economy, development, human rights and, ultimately, our political system.

Valli Moosa. (Photo: Supplied)

Moosa started by pointing out that, “The climate crisis in SA will be more serious than in other countries.” He says that because we are already a water-scarce country, “small changes in precipitation will have a major impact” in areas like agriculture and food security. 

This is already evident across much of the Eastern Cape where an extended drought now threatens the viability of major cities like Gqeberha, in Nelson Mandela Bay where Day Zero is a possibility before Christmas.

A flower grows in the dried bottom of the Kouga Dam, Eastern Cape. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Moosa admits that he used to think of the climate crisis as something far away. But that was a mistake. It’s here. We are already experiencing extreme weather events. “We are on a cliff edge and we should be deeply worried.” This means that “the transition is an imperative” that can no longer be delayed.

In response to a question about whether we have done enough up to now, Moosa praises the rolling out of renewable energy thus far, saying that creating 5,000 megawatts of energy is “not to be scoffed at”. He also refers to the recent reform permitting independent generation of power up to 100MW and the “flurry of planning”, noting that “we have proved that renewable energy is cheaper than new coal; it’s now speaking for itself, making sense to the capitalists”.

Moosa says “there is consensus on low emissions” and South Africa is fortunate that, “unlike in other countries” there are no significant climate sceptics: “The big problem is that SA cannot afford to transition.” 

In this context, he is upbeat about the newly minted R131-billion loan from developed countries to the SA government to finance a just transition. Moosa stresses this was not an unexpected windfall or charity but based on a proposal developed by the “Vulindlela team” in the Presidency and PCC, “detailed work we have been working on for many months”. It is important, he believes, that all the social partners have bought into the agreement, naming “labour, business and the NGOs particularly”.

Much of our discussion focused on the work of the PCC, its structure, modus operandi, legitimacy and the challenges of forging consensus between different social partners in South Africa. He ended by inviting civil society to present the Climate Justice Charter, which Parliament has failed to discuss despite being given a year to do so, to the PCC for debate.

Given the interview’s importance, an edited version of the full interview is below.

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Mark Heywood: How serious is global heating and the climate crisis for South Africa? Is it impacting on us already or is it something that is going to become more evident as the years go forward?

Valli Moosa: For South Africa specifically the climate crisis is more serious than for certain other countries. I will tell you why. 

First, of course, is that the change in the weather patterns, we know from the scientific work that has been done, will affect South Africa. 

We are already largely a water-short country. Many people don’t realise that large parts of South Africa are arid. Small changes in the levels of precipitation will have a major impact on the South African economy but particularly in those areas outside the big industrial centres which provide jobs, livelihood and opportunities for people currently. 

You know agriculture is a very big industry in South Africa. 

In fact, in recent times, other than the commodities boom which has boosted the South African economy it’s actually been agriculture, the export of fruit, particularly things like avocado and other stuff, the export of wines etc, has held up the South African economy very well. 

But more importantly, agriculture is the industry that creates opportunities in the far-flung parts of the country. So “small” changes to the climate will have a huge impact on South Africa’s people. 

When I got involved in environmental issues more than 25 years ago, the climate crisis seemed like a very distant thing that would happen in my grandchildren’s lifetime. Now you can see real extreme weather conditions all around the world. 

What many people don’t understand is that this isn’t just an anecdote. 

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is chaired by Hoesung Lee, the scientist from Korea, was established under the auspices of the United Nations. It is a panel that is made up of the leading scientists from the leading academic and other research institutions around the world, including the leading scientists from South Africa. 

It’s made up of thousands and thousands of scientists working in concert on common research and an academic project to establish whether or not the planet will warm up; whether it is warming up; whether the warming up is caused by human activity; and whether that warming up would result in changes in the climate that would cause devastation for nature and human.

Never in the history of humanity has there been such collaboration among scientists that can come close to this. This has been going on now for decades. So we now know that “proper science” says that it’s going to be a huge setback for South Africa’s natural endowment and the people. 

That’s the first thing.

The second area to mention for South Africa is that we are a small vulnerable economy on the tip of the African continent and it is impossible for South Africa to disassociate itself from the global financial system. 

We are an integral part of it, whether we like it or not and whatever your ideological analysis of that may be, we are. That’s where we are and we are not going anywhere. We are part of the global financial system which is largely controlled by the financial citadels of the world, London, New York etc and financial capital has already decided that it is not going to invest in fossil fuels. So our big banks are going to have no choice whatsoever to do what they’ve started doing, which is to say they are not going to finance anything that’s got to do with coal. 

Coal delivery trucks queue at a weighbridge at the Goedehoop coal mine, operated by Anglo American, in Mpumalanga on Tuesday, 12 January 2021. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

They are already starting to do that and that’s partly because they can’t separate themselves from the global financial system.  And the global financial system cannot separate itself from the big funds. So the Norwegian sovereign fund is beginning to set the pace and then you take big fund managers like BlackRock in New York, they are beginning to set the pace, so South Africa is not going to be able to attract capital for its economy, so that’s the other big challenge that we have. And right now most of our electricity comes from Eskom and generation from coal in one way or another. 

And then the third area is that our real economy will become uncompetitive because, like it or not, you are going to have border adjustments linked to carbon content of goods and services. 

We can say whatever we want to, we can say it’s unfair for Europe to have non-tariff barriers of that sort – and we will say that – but frankly, it’s going to happen, because the workers from another country are going to say, “We are importing stuff that has got a high carbon content.”  

So no government can sustain not doing some kind of border adjustments, so the competitiveness of our goods and services is going to be at stake more and more. 

South African exporters are already being asked to talk about their carbon footprint. This is a big deal for us. 

What makes it bigger is that right now we are still almost completely dependent on coal for our electricity, notwithstanding that we have about 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy, which is nothing to be scoffed at. 

So we are actually on a cliff edge when it comes to this whole thing and we should be deeply worried. 

Future energy options 

Emissions rise from a tower of the Eskom Kusile coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga on 23 December 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

And then from a practical side what should make us worry even more is that many of our coal power stations are reaching the end of life; when they do they will need to be shut down and if we don’t they will just shut themselves. 

Now you could say, “We have got an abundance of coal so we should build a new coal power station.” But whatever your views about the environment and climate change you are not going to be able to do that, because nobody will finance it. So you can’t have a new coal power station. 

So then you can say that you will look at hydro and lay on hydro. But South Africa is a largely arid country where there is no water and there is no possibility of hydro, other than tiny small scale, not moving-the-needle type of projects. 

And then the other option is nuclear. 

‘We have a fabulous track record as far as the one nuclear power station we’ve got [Koeberg] that has been run well and efficiently, extremely safe and cost-effective etc. But new nuclear plants at this stage are unaffordable.’ (Photo by Gallo Images / Shaun Roy)
We have a fabulous track record as far as the one nuclear power station we’ve got [Koeberg], that has been run well and efficiently, extremely safe and cost-effective etc. But new nuclear plants at this stage are unaffordable. So whether you are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear they are just unaffordable, it’s not a practical thing. Nobody anywhere in the world is succeeding in building new nuclear power stations on an affordable basis, it’s just not happening. 

So that’s also out of the question. 

Of course, government says we shouldn’t rule out the nuclear option. I don’t have an ideological problem with not ruling out a nuclear option. If you are talking about climate change it’s a thousand times better than coal or oil. But it’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons in South Africa. So there is no point in thinking it’s going to happen. 

So we need alternatives and this is where the transition from where we are to a low, low emissions economy rapidly is just an imperative that we need to attend to.

Mark Heywood: Listening to you, it strikes me that the impact of the climate crisis is already profound and is going to get worse. People who think that the climate crisis is just about extreme weather events and the humanitarian consequences of extreme weather events are not appreciating these dimensions that are to do with the economy, to do with finance, development and sustainability. 

You said we are on a cliff edge and we should be deeply worried, so that’s my next question. It’s 2021; what have we done so far to prepare for this?  

We talk about ‘adaptation’ and we talk about ‘mitigation’. But am I right in saying that as we sit here today, South Africa is very very vulnerable? 

Over the last 20 years we have had a triple whammy. We have had Aids, which caused enormous disruption and loss. This has been followed by Covid-19, which has cost us several million jobs and 270,000 lives and counting. And now before Covid is even over we have got the climate crisis. You have said that a sudden acceleration of the response to the climate crisis has profound economic implications for us in terms of jobs, livelihoods etc. Have we done anything to protect ourselves so far and what needs to be done going forward?

Valli Moosa: Look, I think that we are on a cliff edge. However, there is reason to believe that we can get out of this. We haven’t been sitting, I think, as a country and doing nothing. 

One of the biggest things that we have done is the rolling out of renewable energy generation, solar and wind generation. South African solar and wind energy has been a huge success. These are licences that were issued by the government and it’s based on a power-purchase agreement: you build a coal-fired power plant, Eskom buys the power that you generate, they agree on the price beforehand and the annual escalations and that is what makes the project viable for you as an investor. You go to the bank with that contract, you raise the money and you build the stuff. 

Over the past 10 years the renewable energy programme has been extremely successful. You know it’s large-scale and it has involved hundreds of millions of rands in investments. It has proven that both the South African and the international financial markets have an appetite to invest in South African renewable energy projects. The projects may have had other challenges, but none of the projects failed to put together a financial package and that shows that there is a huge appetite to fund this kind of thing. 

But it also shows it can be done in a commercially viable manner. So the 5,000 megawatts that has been laid out, it’s not to be scoffed at, this is a lot of renewable energy that we’ve got. All of these projects have been laid out and built in good time frames.

And now what is happening is that the government has just approved a further round of renewable energy projects and it has said that the private sector can build up to 100 megawatts, nobody wants to build more than that anyway, without needing a licence. So right now there is a flurry of planning that is going on for new renewable energy projects. 

So I think that goes a long way. 

What we have been able to prove in the South African economy now is that renewable energy is cheaper than new coal. It’s speaking for itself. It doesn’t need environmental NGOs to go around marching all in favour of solar energy, because it speaks for itself and it’s making sense to capitalists. So those frameworks and all of that is in place.

Growing consensus on low emissions

The second good thing that I think we have in place is that there is already a large degree of consensus in South African society. 

This is not to be taken for granted. We don’t have any significant body of opinion who are climate crisis sceptics. In South Africa, we don’t have that in the private sector or government or anywhere else or among the political parties. Most countries have at least one political party that would represent the climate sceptics, we don’t. So, politically, everybody agrees on the need to act and so that also puts us in a fortunate position. 

The big problem that we have is that South Africa cannot afford to transition from its current coal power station fleet and motor vehicle and truck fleet to low emissions. It cannot afford that and that’s the reason I think that so much emphasis has been put around the announcement made at COP26 and this just energy transaction, a commitment to mobilise R131-billion as the initial tranche in the next three to five years.  That is an enormous amount of money. It will be difficult for anyone to spend money faster than that. 

A young climate activist holds a placard during a protest march on Youth Day at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland on Friday, 5 November 2021. (Photo: Jonne Roriz / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

What makes it extremely significant is that it has been personally endorsed by the presidents of some of the most powerful countries in the world. Joe Biden spoke about it, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Chancellor Merkel and of course President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke about it.

This is a very high level of commitment. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of when you talk about international agreements and it’s not just pie in the sky because it’s based on quite detailed work that has been done around our electricity industry.

Mark Heywood: Am I right to understand that we put a proposal forward to these countries that led to this agreement? For example, I looked a few minutes ago at Cyril Ramaphosa’s October 21 letter about the climate crisis and the importance of financing the transition. 

Has there been work behind the scenes to put a funding proposal together and this is not just something that has popped out of the sky?

Valli Moosa: We have been working on it for many many months and work has been taking place at a number of different levels. 

In the Presidency you have what is called the Vulindlela team, led by Rudi Dicks. They have been working on the thing. They fall directly under the president and they assist and advise the president on doing things that would remove the logjams to economic development. 

Within Eskom they have done a detailed amount of work on it.

In fact at the very first meeting of the PCC I invited André de Ruiter, the CEO of Eskom, to come to the first meeting and he was amongst one of the first speakers. I said: “André, you are the elephant in the room and let’s not wait for a future meeting of the commission to call you and say, what is Eskom going to do? Are you going to become net zero by 2050?”  

He spoke to the commission about Eskom’s plans to become net zero by 2050 and at that stage already we are talking about early this year, made mention of the just energy transition. And in all of the subsequent meetings of the commission it has been a standing item of the agenda. We have had detailed briefings with everybody. At the last meeting we had a briefing from the Presidency’s team. 

The point about doing that is that this is such a big multi-year, multi-governmental, probably multi-generational project that it doesn’t make sense to do it in a manner that will not have the support of all the social partners in South Africa. 

So the commission is the place where we were able to discuss it and make sure that all the social partners buy into it: business, labour, the NGO community, government and the different ministries in the government are on board. As you know, the different ministries in government have slightly different views on this matter because they have different mandates. 

So at the last meeting we were able to say very clearly that the PCC is fully behind this thing.

Then there have been research institutes and NGOs that have been doing work on this matter. So quite a lot of work has gone into it and it has been thought through very carefully. And so this thing will hit the ground running.

It’s premised on the following.

You know that we as South Africa and even myself personally over the years have been saying to the offending rich countries, “Pay up; you have messed up the atmosphere, you have appropriated common property for private gain by messing up the atmosphere.” The United States has been responsible for a quarter of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere currently. They are only 4% of the world’s population and have used up almost everyone’s atmosphere without paying for it. “You owe us”. When I say us, I mean developing countries. 

That hasn’t just been ideological and political, it has been a question of fairness.  So we have been saying they gotta pay up. 

At every COP the rich countries have been saying, yes we agree and we are going to finance low emissions work in the developing countries, but they don’t do it. And it hasn’t been happening, so we attack them.

And so developing countries politically have a need to fund, to do some financing work. That’s the first thing. 

The second thing is that the world needs to desperately reduce CO2 emissions. Wherever in the world you reduce CO2 emissions you are reducing CO2 emissions. So it doesn’t matter where, whether it’s on the west coast of the United States, Philippines or in South Africa, it means the exact same thing. 

If you look at it as a product, we have got this product of high CO2 emissions to sell. You need emissions to be able to reduce the emissions. And it just so happens that there is a neatness to our emissions. Our big emissions come from a handful of big power stations and from Sasol. Those power stations all fall under one management, one entity which is Eskom, so you can be the CEO of Eskom to speak for all of this. So it lends itself a bit more easily to deal-making as such. 

From the South African side, we need to reduce our emissions because if we don’t our economy becomes uncompetitive, we can’t export and we lose work or jobs.

But our power stations are also reaching the end of life and it costs a lot of money to decommission a power station. It is very expensive for a variety of reasons. 

So all the ingredients were in place really, the essential ingredients, for a mega-size financial deal to be put together. 

And so, in the end, everybody has got their different interests or reasons why they need to do it. But that’s what has brought it together. 

But any suggestion that this is not a South African initiative is not true. We thought this up because of our need and our desperation and because we have got very clever people in this country, not just in government and Eskom, but in the universities and civil society. And all of that brains trust has been brought to bear on this thing.

Mark Heywood: Are the significant conditionalities attached to it? Is it just like another IMF type loan? Or is it as long as we carry out the transition and we use the money appropriately then we have a high degree of autonomy?

Valli Moosa: Well, it is a financial package. In simple terms let’s call it a loan. It is a very cheap loan; it’s concessional finance structured in a complicated way. No loan is not conditional, such things don’t exist at all. 

It is a performance-based loan. It has certain milestones; for example, it will say we are going to decommission such and such power station by such a date. Before we do that we need the cost of the preliminary work, and the people who work there are going to be put through training programmes and some of them above a certain age will get early retirement and then they get their retirement packages. 

So it will be structured properly like that. 

No foreign country is going to give you the taxpayers money as a blank cheque and say, “Do what you want with it.” It’s not going to work like that. The French president has to report to their Parliament on how the money was spent. It is performance based, it is conditional and that’s a good thing. It is a properly structured financial thing. In any case, we shouldn’t want blank cheques.

Mark Heywood: Can you chalk this financial agreement up as a successful outcome to the PCC? For example, you have said the PCC has made a major input on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and influenced the position adopted by the government. Can we say, in some ways, without the PCC steering, coordinating etc, this agreement may not have been achieved?

Valli Moosa:  I do think that. I don’t want to give the climate commission the full credit for everything. Remember, the climate commission doesn’t have legal or statutory power or authority to do anything. And therein lies the power of this commission, because what it has to do is to work hard to bring about consensus and to convince people, that’s what it’s got to do. 

We have been able to ensure that at the commission meetings where we endorse the just energy transaction that all the relevant ministers are present, from the finance minister, minister of energy, minister of public enterprises, minister for environment, all of them are present. 

And they are sitting there when we say this commission supports a particular issue. 

That means a lot because, as you know, ministers are political people, and they have constituencies and they need to say whatever they need to say. Then we’ve got the private sector: the business organisations are all represented on the commission. We are saying that the first phase of the just energy transition will focus on South Africa’s electricity sector. Now, remember that business, every big business would want to have itself as the recipient of concessional finance. So it’s a big thing to get business to agree to something of this sort.  

We’ve also got commissioners coming from each of the four labour federations (Saftu Cosatu, Nactu, Fedusa). The labour movement, rightfully, is very, very worried. You know, they’ve seen what happened, what Margaret Thatcher did to the coal workers in the UK. They don’t want this thing to be happening without them and their members. And so they’re extremely concerned about the “just” part of the transition. They’ve been very actively involved in the whole discussion because of that. 

And then you’ve got the NGOs, South Africa has a particularly vibrant NGO community with lots of opinions, and a lot to offer and a lot of credibility in society. And so we’ve got a whole lot of NGOs represented from Greenpeace, WWF, and various other sorts of NGOs. 

I think this is what would have given the president the confidence to put his name, and to put the country’s name, to an agreement like this. There is, there is wide agreement, not necessarily on every aspect of the detail, but on the broad concept. 

When you come to the details, there will still be a lot of debate and disagreement and all that. 

I didn’t know whether the president would sign up to it until he did. After all, he’s the head of the country, and he’s got a lot of things that he’s got to take into account. But I think that the fact that we have a commission has made a great deal. 

Without the commission’s work something else would have had to be done to get consensus in society. This was the only show in town when it came to building the consensus. 

Mark Heywood: When it comes to NGOs, I see the commission has significant NGOs, commissioners, including Bobby Peek or Ayakha Melithafa or Makoma Lekalakala. But there’s also a significant section that is outside of the commission. For example, when I spoke to Vishwas Satgar (of the Climate Justice Charter Movement) he was quite critical of the commission and said, “No, we don’t subscribe to it, because they bought into the ‘net zero by 2050’ lie”, and so on. And then they appear to be pursuing a different course, from the Climate Justice Charter that they have developed. Can you just reflect on that? Does this present a problem to the commission? Does it present issues of legitimacy? Or is this a big church that can allow different approaches?

Valli Moosa: The thing about the members of the commission is they are there in their individual capacities. But each one of the commissioners also come from some or other organisation or constituency, and it would be artificial to separate that. 

We’re very fortunate, because when the commission was set up, we didn’t have terms of reference, or a statute in terms of which we operate. So it was like learning by doing. And I like that very much. Because I wasn’t certain on Day One how this thing would work; how do we structure it? How do we make it work, because you’ve got all these different people? 

You’ve got to accept that somebody may come from an organisation that believes that “net zero by 2050, is just a disaster. In fact we should become net zero by 2035 or something – and that’s the position of the organisation they come from. 

You’ve got to allow for that. You’ve got to allow that person to participate in a commission meeting, to be part of a commission consensus, and at the same time to be able to the next day put forward a slightly different point of view, which has been happening. 

The strength of the commission is that it can allow that, because if you can’t allow that, then we’re not going to be able to have a national forum, then the commission will be a forum of like-minded people. And if it’s a forum of like-minded people, then it will be an utterly useless body. 

Even before the first meeting of the commission, the NGOs met with me and said they want to have a private meeting with me: “How are you going to run the commission meetings and all that? Will the media be allowed to the commission meetings? Will we as individuals be able to say what we discussed at the commission meeting? Or are we going to be bound by some kind of secrecy rules, those sorts of things?” 

And so out of that discussion, it was probably their proposal – although I’d like to take credit for it – came the proposal that we conduct all our work in the open. And I thought, but why not? Because we’re discussing climate change, we’re not discussing whether or not we should send the SANDF to invade Swaziland; we’re not discussing security and intelligence matters. We are discussing what to do with a big problem that we’ve got, and let’s have all our meetings in the open. 

So, because we didn’t have terms of reference, I could just do that. Nobody said that the deputy chairperson doesn’t have the right to conduct the meeting in the open, so I just did it. 

Some commissioners were a bit nervous about it, particularly from the private sector. They were saying, “I come from a company, and if I say something here and it gets quoted, we’ve got shareholders and we’ve got this, and we’ve got that.” So there were some legitimate concerns, but we decided to throw it all into the open. I think that’s helped us a lot. 

What happens now is that the civil society can listen in, and they can listen to what people are saying. And somebody, who they like or not like, who’s on the commission, they can hear whether this person is being honest, what you are saying, what you are not saying, rather than what gets reported afterwards. 

I think that’s helped a great deal in taking away potential controversy that we could have had. 

I’m still trying to build on our style of working, because when you’re building national consensus, you can’t force it. You can’t do it by rules. You can’t say, “You shall agree”, you know, that kind of thing. You have to work at it. 

So before the last meeting, the four labour commissioners asked to see me privately and we had a meeting. And they said, “Listen, you know, sometimes a minister may say something, which we don’t like, but we don’t think it’s appropriate to sound rude; and if your whole thing is webcast all the time, we do feel a bit awkward. And sometimes we don’t agree with the way you’re running the meeting.  

“But we don’t want people to think that you’ve got opposition in the commission, because you don’t. And so we want to be able to, frankly, tell you something.” 

They suggested that there should be an opportunity for a closed session, where we can have a bit more direct talk about procedural matters in substance, not the content. 

So the last meeting, the first hour was closed; it wasn’t webcast, and people could talk about procedural matters. I think that we conducted ourselves so much into the open, and I’ve more or less said to anybody who wants a platform to participate in or address the commission, you may do.  

Structure and decision-making processes of the PCC

A climate commission is such a new concept, even globally. Globally, there are various kinds of advisory committees that have been set up in various countries. Some of them have been set up by the government, but most of them have a degree of independence, and they give independent advice on climate change, and they monitor, report on etc. 

The PCC fits broadly into that genre of institutions. But it is very different in the sense that we are made up very specifically of the social partners in society. Although the commissioners are there in their personal capacity, it is at the same time a representative body. 

So it’s a kind of a hybrid type of body.

We are probably the only commission on which you have several Cabinet ministers who are serving and all of the important Cabinet ministers, including the minister of finance, etc. 

And we are chaired by the president. 

So it makes it an interesting institution, because it’s an independent body chaired by the president. That’s an interesting thing – almost by definition you would say it shouldn’t be so. But the social partners wanted it like that so that it can have weight, and it can have authority. 

So this raises the question of how do you take decisions in a body like this? 

The two extremes would be that you have one commissioner, one vote, and you have a show of hands, and you see the majority supports a resolution or the majority does not support the resolution, you can take decisions in that sort of way. 

You can finesse that a little bit by saying, “X number of people abstained from those who are voting, even if they’re a small number, the majority of those voting vote in favour of this and others don’t vote for it.” 

So that’s the one thing. 

It doesn’t make a lot of sense to do that. Because it could mean that you could permanently disempower and sideline important social partners if you take decisions in that sort of way. 

So we have ruled out that as not an appropriate way of taking decisions. The other thing that would then happen is social partners would argue that they need more people from their sector on the commission. Business, for example, could easily argue that we need somebody from the Black Business Council (BBC), we need somebody from the Minerals Council, we need somebody from this business body, that business body etc, etc. 

The other extreme is that you could take decisions by consensus. And you could say that we’re going to take everything by consensus. And if you take that approach, then you won’t be able to make any decision whatsoever because there will always be somebody who will be unhappy with it. 

So those are the two extremes. 

Then you take into account other considerations. 

For example, a person who is there in his or her personal capacity participates in the debate. But when it comes to voting, the commissioner may be employed by some corporate, or be a member or leader of some other trade union or some other NGO, and can that person vote for something which is not the policy of the organisation in which he provides leadership? That places a person in a very difficult position. 

So that’s the other consideration to take into account.

Let’s take the NDCs for example. It makes sense for the commission to take a stand on the NDCs that is more ambitious than what the government said. But when it comes to Cabinet ministers who are PCC members, can they vote for something when the Cabinet took a different decision? 

So it makes my task of chairing it very complicated! 

Let me just say on the question of independence that the commission is independent of each of the social partners. It’s not dictated to and controlled by any of the social partners. That’s the only independence that it has. It applies its mind so when people sit there we sit as a commission. 

So what we’ve been doing up to now is that when it is very clear, when there’s an overwhelming view that we should move in a particular direction, we say, “That’s the decision of the commission”. We do it in that way without having to compromise any particular person or having to have to vote.

It therefore means that you should not rush into such a thing. Because if you rush into it, you may find that the commissioners say, “But you know, we don’t agree with this.”  

So, by and large, you want to be able to do it with any commissioner, being able to exercise plausible deniability depending on which constituency he or she comes from. And at the same time with the commission being strengthened by that decision not weakened by it. 

So how do I do this? 

Sometimes, commissioners contact me individually, before a meeting or after a meeting to give me their view on something. I’ve mentioned the trade unions. Business has also written to me on occasion, saying that if you take the following decision, we want you to know we disagree with it. 

I wouldn’t just accept that, I would then contact the leaders in business and say, “You may want to reconsider your position, maybe the commission will make the decision, and you will then be in an awkward position of saying you disagree with everybody else. Do you really want to do that?” 

I’ve got to do a bit of that management sort of work. 

It’s a kind of a consensus-building exercise that one does in decision-making. You shouldn’t run it like a traffic cop that says, “This is the rule. You can’t park on a red line, you’re going to get a ticket, and this is the ticket that you’re going to get.” You can’t run it like that. 

Mark Heywood: That’s very interesting. I’ve seen how, you know, from my experiences in the SA National Aids Council, how things can go wrong if you’re trying to reach an agreement based on the lowest common denominator. And then at the end of the day, it started to hold back critical interventions. So you will distil a consensus using your interpretation of the overwhelming view and that will then be communicated to or recorded by the commissioners and communicated, if relevant, to the government, to the president and social partners.

Valli Moosa: Yes, that’s what we would do. 

I wouldn’t take too many risks, you know, because I want the commission to be strengthened and I don’t want it to fall apart, and that’s my responsibility. 

So if Commissioner Mark Heywood is sitting there, and says, “But I don’t agree with this. I can see what everybody’s saying. But I want you to know, I don’t agree with it.” 

I would have known that beforehand that Mark Heywood doesn’t agree with it. And I would also know what is the strength of his disagreement on a scale of one to 10. 

Is his disagreement a matter of such principle to him that he’s going to say, “I can’t have anything to do with you, if you’re going to take that”, or is it a sort of a milder disagreement? So it’s a question of judgment. And that’s my responsibility to do that kind of thing. 

So it just creates a lot of work. But I don’t think there’s any other way when you’re dealing with something as important as this.

Mark Heywood: It’s clear to me how important this body is and it becomes only more important as time goes on. So innovation is crucial to get the job done. Does the president have any direct hand in it? Obviously he won’t come to plenaries and so on. But do you meet him periodically?

Valli Moosa: I will tell you exactly about the president’s involvement. 

The very first meeting of the commission, which was held on the 19th of February 2021, was convened by the president, and he chaired the meeting. It was a kind of an inaugural meeting, we didn’t go too much into the substance of the matter. He gave the background, why the commission has been set up, and what his expectations are. And he said he would like this to be an independent committee, commission, etc. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS)

Then he said, “I will not be involved in the day to day work of the commission, and I am handing over everything to the deputy chair and from here onwards, you will hear from the deputy chair.” He had said to me before that in a private meeting that he doesn’t have the bandwidth to be running the commission. And so he appoints somebody who would, in effect, be running the commission. He will not interfere in my work. And after that, he didn’t interfere. He didn’t ask to be consulted on agenda-setting. 

After that we had the first proper meeting of the commission, which was open to the public, I threw it open. 

At that meeting, I had André de Reuter, the Eskom CEO, address the meeting and Fleetwood Grobler, the CEO of Sasol. I said to them right at the outset, “I want the elephant in the room to be here to speak. Let the commissioners see who you are, what’s on your mind and put any questions to you if they have”. I just wanted to start there right from the beginning. 

I also had Bheki Ntshalintshali, the general secretary of Cosatu speaking there, about whatever you wanted to say to the commission. I said, “I’d like to just give you a platform to say what you want to say.” Ebrahim Patel also spoke at that meeting.

At the next meeting after that I had Mark Cutifani, the CEO of Anglo American, which is the biggest mining company in South Africa. I specifically said, “Can you continue mining on a net-zero basis by 2050, and if you can tell us how you’re going to do it?” and that’s what he gave: he said, “We’re going to do it. And this is how we are going to do it.”  

Then I had Thabo Makgoba, archbishop of the Anglican Church. In a sense, he’s like a high profile representative of civil society, you’ll find that the input he made is very interesting.

I said to the president, “It would be nice if you could attend this meeting and after the archbishop speaks, you could respond to what you’ve heard.” He came there without any notes and he responded. 

After we took a decision on the NDCs, myself and Crispian Olver (the executive director of the PPC) met with the president, we presented the report, gave him the background, we had written it up, and he said he will take it to the Cabinet. 

Over the just energy transition, I’ve given him a report that backs up the views that I expressed in the commission about just energy transition. On more than one occasion I’ve given him that feedback on that. So that’s been his involvement. And I think it’s working very well up to now, I must say.

Mark Heywood: I couldn’t find on the website, records of these plenary meetings?

Valli Moosa: I’m happy you’re saying that because I can give that also as feedback.

Mark Heywood: Please do. Because you’ve talked about openness, complete openness. So I thought, let me go and find the minutes, or at least the resolutions of each of the plenary meetings and who attended or the recording. But I couldn’t find them. I don’t think they’re there. 

Finally, some points about civil society and inclusion and Climate Justice Charter. Do you have anything you want to say on that?

Valli Moosa: I think that we must accept, expect, conduct and encourage robust debate on this question. The transition from where we are to a low emissions economy is a big and important matter, which has implications for everybody. It’s not a matter that society should take lightly. 

From the point of the commission, I think we then have the challenge to be able to reply. We have the challenge of taking decisions which stand up to whatever scrutiny there is out there. 

We work within the generally accepted global framework, which is based on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as the decisions of the UNFCCC, which is an important multilateral forum. We’re not pursuing any narrow or ideological approach or anything of that sort. This is the general sort of view that we take. 

We take the South African and African view that no matter what it looks like, we’re not responsible for messing up the atmosphere, no matter that we have relatively high emissions and all of that, we must hold those that have done wrong to account and we will always be saying that. That’s sort of what guides us. 

Beyond that, people may have different views and will engage with that.

Mark Heywood: So would you invite the Climate Justice Charter Movement to present and debate the charter with the commissioners if they requested, or even if you made the request to them?

Valli Moosa: I will consider it. Why not? I think that the commission must be the place for everybody to come and put forward their views and debate. And try to influence the national direction. 

The commission doesn’t have any legal authority at all, whatsoever, it has got no legal authority. But it is the place where all of the important role players are coming to, in order to influence the direction in which this country goes. I’ve just mentioned some of the people who’ve come there to influence and we will continue to have more and more influential people. So that’s the place to do it and then we’re happy with it.

Mark Heywood: That’s important. There are many community-based organisations that have endorsed the Climate Justice Charter; they’ve presented it to Parliament and asked Parliament to adopt it; they’re holding a picket of Parliament on Tuesday and a Climate Justice Assembly online. It strikes me that one of the things that the PCC needs to try to forestall is a polarisation and conflict over SA’s political response. That everybody needs to understand the advantage of debating all ideas, as you’ve said, and working on the points on which we agree, even whilst we continue to debate and accept that there are issues on which, for ideological or other reasons, we don’t agree.

Valli Moosa: I agree with you. DM/MC

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  • Thank you very much for this interview, it is very helpful to know the work that the Commission is doing, and how it is approaching developing proposals for South Africa to address the climate crisis. A major concern is that the government is not speaking and acting in a unified manner, the Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources is acting and speaking in a manner that is c0ntradictory to implementing a just energy transition, and is undermining urgent action to address the energy crisis and the climate crisis. This could undermine financing and investment that are critical for successful programmes. A new Minister must be appointed urgently!

  • Could someone please forward this to Gwede so that he can stop pushing “new coal”, “Clean coal”, “nuclear” and “gas” and align with the transition. It may make the public believe that there is some hope. Right now there is a total lack of faith or belief that there is a plan – and that we will ever see any of that money to make it happen. He must get with the program or get out and let someone else make it happen. The public trust is gone…and thats another cliff edge.

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