South Africa’s energy nexus: Energy security, climate change mitigation and capital expansion

Vasna Ramasar


This paper examines the current dilemmas of the South African state in the face of its energy crisis. Historical under-investment has led to a rapidly deteriorating electricity generating system. This system is built on coal-based electricity production, making South Africa the largest greenhouse gas emitter on the African continent. In response to climate change mitigation agreements, South Africa has a responsibility to switch to a new energy system based on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. However the country is locked in a dilemma where the old fossil fuel-based system is in crisis but there are barriers to a new renewable energy system. In this paper I argue that the drive for capital expansion and the role of the neoliberal state creates a nexus of competing interests that is not conducive to a new and sustainable energy system being introduced. Using the theory of the minerals-energy complex in South Africa I investigate how an alliance between elite capital and the state is creating a obstacle to an energy transition. To a limited degree, South Africa has begun development of its renewable energy sector with substantial financial investment by international financial institutions. However this path has been filled with obstacles, which begs the question of whether the state is committed to renewable energy or operating as a green rentier state. I argue that at South Africa’s energy nexus of furthering energy security, climate change mitigation and capital expansion, there cannot be three winners. As Andrew Sayer (2009) notes, the intrinsic interdependence of GHG emissions and economic development means that the transition to a more sustainable society is only ever going to happen on capital’s own terms, implying that the energy dilemma pits climate change mitigation against capital expansion. In order to address this dilemma, the role of the state is crucial in adopting a new discourse and political practices in support of sustainability rather than neoliberalism. Although the rhetoric is present in South Africa, the political practices are yet to be evident.

South Africa - green capitalism, natural resources, bioenergy - Minerals