Our Burning Planet


How do you instantly create 10 ghost towns? Stop using coal, Gwede Mantashe warns

How do you instantly create 10 ghost towns? Stop using coal, Gwede Mantashe warns
Minerals and energy minister Gwede Mantashe. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The energy minister and others have urged an Afrocentric energy transition that is not dictated to by developed countries. Addressing an energy summit, he also had a dire warning about ghost towns in Mpumalanga.

If South Africa were to stop mining, trucking, shipping and burning coal, 10 ghost towns would be created “immediately” in the coal belt province of Mpumalanga, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe claimed during the ministerial symposium at the African Oil Week and Green Energy Africa conference on Monday.

Addressing about 30 African energy ministers, numerous fossil fuel company executives and renewable energy businesspeople from across the continent and beyond, he spoke about the “just energy transition” and the challenges it poses for the continent. He also cautioned against African countries being dictated to by developed countries.

His sentiments were largely shared by the panellists and delegates at the symposium, including Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for infrastructure and energy at the African Union Commission, who took issue with wording. She preferred “the term access rather than transition… Africa still has an energy access problem.”

Looking ahead to the United Nations climate negotiations in Egypt in November, Abou-Zeid said that “we want to make that COP work for us… for the continent… so we need to go there with our African perspective.”

She reiterated that as Africa seeks to secure an energy supply for its growing population, it should do so while “not ignoring any energy source”. While mindful of the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and internationally agreed climate policy commitments, “Africa cannot be bound to dates more applicable to other parts of the world”, she said, in an apparent reference to net-zero plans. 

“Africa is [responsible for] 3% of the world’s emissions… when all of Africa is connected our emissions will still stand at only 4%… current discussion around the world does not apply to Africa because we do not speak from the same starting place… whether it’s equity, whether it’s access… we want to ensure our resources work for us and not blindly following someone else’s agenda,” said Abou-Zeid.

“That being said, Africa has never been a climate denier; we have been the hardest hit by climate impacts.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Africa faces an uphill battle against western emissions to combat climate change

Mantashe urged the consolidation of a unified African position in its engagements with developed countries as the continent charts its energy future and developmental pathway. 

“When we are individuals, we are weaker. When the EU (European Union) talks to us, they talk to us as the EU… when they talk to us they engage us as individuals. I want you to note that,” he said. 

“Africa is the least developed part of the world but has the most potential to develop. If you talk about the green economy you will achieve that from things that are planted or mined and all those things are in this continent. We must be very innovative, they must be beneficiated here… if we do it, we are going to be a better continent.”

It’s all in the ‘details’ 

Mantashe pointed out that the Presidential Climate Commission’s technical report on the just transition explains that a “just transition” refers to “the management of a transition to a low-carbon society in a balanced and just manner, housed within a given socioeconomic context”.

He said there was unanimity on the need to move towards lower carbon emissions. 

“That debate is settled. The real issue is in the detail of that transition. If it [the transition] is just, justice must be seen to be done… it must be people-centred… three; it must be community-focused because there will be communities affected by that transition.”  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Getting buy-in from the people most at risk in SA’s just transition to low-carbon energy – the workers

Mantashe stressed that South Africa in general and Mpumalanga in particular were highly dependent on coal. In the “coal belt” there were “10 towns of contiguous coal mining” and “there will be 10 ghost towns” overnight should all coal-related activity cease. 

Without skipping a beat, he listed them: Belfast, Carolina, Delmas, Ermelo, Hendrina, Kriel, Leandra, Middleburg, Ogies and Witbank.

Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (Tips) have, in their coal value chain report, noted that “the value chain as a whole employed around 200,000 formal workers and was the main source of livelihoods in eMalahleni [Witbank], Steve Tshwete [Middelburg], Govan Mbeki [Secunda] and Msukaligwa [Ermelo]”.

“If you just switch off that area, [they] will be dead immediately… how best do we manage that transition… we must move from high carbon emission to low carbon emission… everyone accepts that… not one dissenting view… the devil is in the detail of the transition and I imagine that goes for the whole continent,” said Mantashe.

“When the EU accepts that gas and nuclear are part of the green transition, the tone changes… it is important for us to appreciate the importance of the AU and consolidate the views,” he said.

His sentiments were largely echoed by Uganda’s energy and mineral development minister, Ruth Nankabirwa. 

“African resources are for Africa’s economic development. When it comes to the new agenda of climate change, those who have been emitting for decades just want the young countries that have just discovered petroleum, [they] don’t want them to do what they did even though what they did made them rich. So, whether you make all the necessary laws, the truth is Africa must pay for the deeds of those who discovered oil long ago.”

Nankabirwa continued that “to tell us we cannot develop [fossil fuel resources] is an insult to Africa. You are telling us to stay poor in Africa. Africa wants to grow, we want to consider all the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] at once. Ending poverty is critical, just as critical as climate change. You cannot regulate a poor person. A person who is using charcoal is poor and a company who is going back to using coal… who is better?

Africa Oil Week ambassador Dr Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, a former minister of state petroleum resources and former group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, shared similar views. 

“There isn’t a just transition. ‘Just’ is a shortened form of justice… the global players will transition in their own interest… economics is a selfish approach… we need to begin to look at this verbiage and look a whole lot more to what I may call an Afrocentric energy transition. Every global group must sit down and think, ‘what really suits me’, and Africa must begin to look at its own interest and say, ‘how do we play’… we are not being fair to ourselves. 

“We must not pace ourselves according to emotion. Our transition must be driven by Afrocentrism — by what is in the best interests of Africa’s people.” 

Fossil fuel a ‘poor solution’

Tracey Davies, executive director of Just Share, said that while it was true that Africa had contributed the least to climate change, the solution did not lie in developing infrastructure to increase that contribution. 

“Whilst it is, of course, true that least-developed countries have contributed least to global emissions, and are entitled to financial support from developed countries to transition, renewable energy is now the cheapest form of energy, and it is hard to understand why anyone would advocate for Africa’s future development to be reliant on fossil fuels, which are now the most expensive method of power generation, especially given how rich Africa’s renewable resources are.

“You’ll note that all of those who are advocates of this view are politicians and oil and gas industry representatives, or their advisers — in other words, those with a vested interest in the development of oil and gas, not those with an interest in the wellbeing of ordinary people living in Africa.” 

Davies said “there is a plethora of expert reports that confirm that rapid and extensive scaling up of renewable energy generation is the most cost-optimal energy pathway for the continent and presents significant economic benefits and opportunities. Coal, oil and gas are a poor solution for energy access: of the 800 million people worldwide who lack electricity, 85% live in rural areas where distributed renewable energy can provide electrification much more quickly and much more cheaply than fossil fuels. 

“Furthermore, from an emissions point of view, South Africa is not in the same category as the rest of Africa. It is unrealistic to expect the rest of the world to treat us as a developing nation in terms of emissions when we have one of the most carbon-intensive economies on Earth.

“For over a century, South Africa has had unlimited access to coal, but has still failed to generate prosperity for the vast majority of the population. The past and present offer no templates for the future — tackling our systemic inequality, unemployment and poverty demands radical changes in the structure of our economy.” OBP/DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    He forgot to add that if coal was “switched off” the cadres who were benefiting from overpriced coal contracts and those receiving kick backs for giving those contacts would also be switched off.

    • J W says:

      Exactly this.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      What about evergreen contracts that span over 40 years? We must accept that corruption has no colour and when we paint corruption as having colour then we have a problem because that is racism. The issue of Glencore having been found by the US Justice department to be offering bribes throughout the world including South Africa is concerning. We condemn the corruption in coal contracts in their totality and refused to be boxed and blackmailed to accept IPPs for the benefit of the few when we have massive coal reserves and as Mantashe says, we need clean technology to use our coal to fire our development. We must do as India has done in COP 26 and refused the 2050 timeline set by countries with resources for nuclear and other technologies but put 2070. We are not America or Britain or Germany. We have an economy in ICU and we have yet to see any economy driven by solar and wind. That economy exists in Utopia. Today the European Political Council was launched to look at three things, firstly defeating the Russian thug called Putin, secondly the critical issue of energy and keeping lights on which includes coal powered stations and thirdly the issue of immigration and the rise of the right wing. Coal will always remain central to our energy mix for the next three decades. People with sharp shoes and sharp teeth who want to loot Eskom we are watching them.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        Interestingly, you are the only one raising race and colour. The person you are responding to doesn’t mention it in any way shape or form.

        • Jane Crankshaw says:

          If you want to find real racism, look no further than BEE policies- the backbone of racism in our country and as bad as the Nationalist government!

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    He makes some valid points, but getting behind renewables immediately, can be a good opportunity to create employment in this field.

  • Grant Walliser says:

    How do you create 500 ghost towns Gwede? Keep running Eskom into the ground without alternative sources of energy generation for the South African population. Your political double speak is obvious, coal will never go to zero overnight as you well know, you are spreading fear to prop up your agenda. Shame on you!

    • Phil Baker says:

      Good Point Grant – really disappointed the DM continues to give this ogre open platform without interrogating his motives, alliances etc.
      While he pretends to fret about Etwatwa – where 50% of the kids have pulmonary diseases caused by his sponsors – 100% of the rest of the country is currently non functional directly due to his CURRENT policy – but there are 20km of newly formed shell-company coal dumpers blocking the N4 and Komatipoort borders to lush his comrades

    • Johan Buys says:

      Grant : correct! our coal sector employs only about 90,000 people. Loadshedding is costing us far more than that in jobs – in effect business has 4 workdays a week… The cost in confidence is also hammering job creation.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Unfortunately, Mantashe and other AU ministers jump to the conclusion that the developed world is out to subjugate and keep Africa poor through fossil fuel energy transformation, particularly coal. But is Mantashe deliberately smoke screening to protect his own vested commercial interests?

    According to Dr Mike Holland in his paper Health impacts of coal fired power plants in South Africa, “… many studies have shown that air pollution has a broad spectrum of effects on health, including mortality and cardiovascular and respiratory illness. And these do not include the sub-lethal effects of stroke, treatment costs and morbidity linked to lung cancer, and effects linked to low birth weight and impaired cognitive development in children.”

    Also, “the use of coal leads to the release of other pollutants into the atmosphere, with toxic metals such as lead and mercury being of special note. Emissions of mercury and lead are established as having impacts on neurodevelopment, leading to reduced IQ in the population that persists from youth to old age. Linked to this effect is a reduction in the productivity of the labour force.”

    Mantashe would, it appears, prefer to turn his 10 towns into ghost towns over a longer period at greater eventual cost in lives and money.

  • Chris Engelbrecht says:

    “Africa cannot be bound to dates more applicable to other parts of the world”. What absolute idiocy. The laws of physics don’t cease to exist at national borders. We are at the mercy of imbeciles. Climate scientists have been getting themselves arrested and are putting their careers in jeopardy out of desperation to get the clear message of science heard. We are totally out of time for taking the drastic action required to rein in greenhouse-gas emissions. No more oil, no more gas, no more coal. The message has been hammered out again and again and again by the scientific community and by the secretary-general of the UN, who is not on the payroll of fossil fuel companies and therefore responds rationally to what the science is telling us (links are not allowed in the Comments, but please look up the SG’s comments on IPCC AR6). For goodness’ sake, even our own government approved Assessment Report 6 of the IPCC. Anybody who reads that report without their minds having been warped by fossil fuel propaganda would agree with the UN SG’s statements. Our politicians have become simple ventriloquist’s dummies for Shell, Total, BP, Exxon, Chevron, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, etc. etc. The corporate media are not far behind in their negligence to report the science adequately (huge thanks to DM for sustaining accurate, informative reporting on the true state of affairs via Our Burning Planet). A global grassroots revolution might be the only way to escape the worst of climate chaos.

    • Nick Griffon says:

      Our politicians have never been anything other than dummies and criminals.
      These absolute clowns are going to tank the $8.5 billion investment into renewables just to keep their pockets lined.
      And to be honest, I do not see how/why SA and the ANC is even on the radar of the US/EU any more?
      The idiots vote against common sense at the UN and side with lunatics, dictators and failed states.
      They should just pull the plug on all aid and let these clowns to their own resolve.

  • Angus Auchterlonie says:

    Despite his desperate clinging to outdated and failed ideology, he is probably not wrong about the prospect of ghost towns. However, where he and his incompetent and dysfunctional department fail, is that they should have begun to prepare for this decades ago. Their own policies cater for the eventual closure of all mines, but it takes years of planning and preparation, retraining of the local population to survive after mining, repurposing of infrastructure etc.. which his department is supposed to be overseeing, but as with everything else, it’s too little, too late and completely inadequate!

  • Johan Buys says:

    Mantashe likes yanking the dam from underneath the duck. We cannot stop our coal energy, we simply cannot afford to write off the newer and horribly expensive coal plants, nor can we afford to retrofit them. We can decommission the old poorly performing smaller plants, salvaging whatever parts may be useful for maintenance and breakdowns in the rest of the fleet. We can also continue to export coal : the west can hardly export their oil and gas and expect us not to export our coal. Those old plants have transmission infrastructure that can be used for RE plants and if we have cheap reliable gas we can convert old coal stations to have gas peakers adjacent to the RE plants.

  • Malcolm Jaros says:

    Instead of doubling down on carbon intensive power, why can we not get ahead of the curve on renewables?
    We have all the wind and sunshine to make this possible.

  • Nick Griffon says:

    Drama queen Gwede… Shame…
    Everybody with common sense knows that nobody is going to stop using coal completely.
    As mentioned by others, the real issue is that reducing the reliance on coal will significantly slow down the gravy train for the ANC fat cats and their cronies. That is the real problem.
    Renewables can be done in smaller scale projects that are more difficult to loot and when it is run by the private sector, the tenderpreneur opportunities to buy patronage for the ANC is greatly reduced.
    They cannot even pay their salaries now. Imagine when 50% of the electricity is generated by cost efficient private generating companies? I see this as the end of the ANC and this is what they are fighting tooth and nail to protect.
    They do not care that people are dying from coal pollution. They do not care that we have had the worst blackouts in history. They do not care that they are destroying the economy.
    ALL they care about is their pockets. They have proved this over the last 28 years.

  • Gazeley Walker says:

    At some stage in the future coal mining will decrease and then stop. The challenge for the government , now,is to start planning for when that day comes so the affected towns don’t turn into ghost towns. So Mr. Matashe, as this will only happen after you are no longer involved in “ruling” (as opposed to governing) the country, why should you care? You will be safely ensconsed behind your Bossasa sponsored home security system with all your government retirement perks. Another prime example of how the ANC, knowing what the future holds for coal mining towns, is not putting in counter measures or reviewing alternative options to sustain these towns when the coal D day arrives. Who, in the ANC, cares about the future of coal mining towns when they can enrich themselves today?

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    It is time that this dinosaur, Mantashe, leaves politics, because he has a double agenda about coal workers. He is intelligent enough to understand that those workers can’t be left in the cold, BUT THEY HAVE TO BE RETRAINED TO WORK IN THE GREEN ENERGY SECTOR. Besides, this transition will take years – such things don’t happen overnight. But we have to make a start, for the sake of our existence. Any moment that we waste any longer, we are going to regret in 30 years time. I also see that there is an allegation that an unholy alliance between the ANC and the coal workers sector exist in which the ANC has appointed cadres (100000’s of them) and then these workers give funds to, and support in other ways, the ANC. I conclude that Mantashe represent the ANC faction in the process and COSATU, who also are clinging to the coal generation of electricity, are representing the workers.

  • fishingboy says:

    Tracey Davies – fossil fuel the most expensive form of power generation? I suggest you go do the maths again and work out what it costs to build wind or solar units of MW size and where the power to build those renewables comes from.

  • Fagmeedah Petersen-Cook says:

    The sooner we start trading carbon credits the sooner the externalities are priced in and we will get more rational behaviour. If Africa are so rich in renewable energy resources, we must be rewarded for it sooner rather than later, and we must trade the carbon credits that we gain by generating green energy versus carbon-based energy.
    How many of those towns are going to have the coal switched off anyway by the power stations reaching end of life?

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    These so called “ ghost towns” that would be created could easily house the million of homeless and informal shack dwellers so would not go to waste.! When one door closes another opens!
    Job opportunities in these towns could turn from coal mining to market gardening!

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