South Africa’s Energy Landscape: A Present-Day Apartheid

Author: Caitlin Hearle, 2017

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“Apartheid in South Africa was a systematic assault on non-white South Africans in every aspect of life – social, political, and economic…”

Photo from Pixabay under Creative Commons.


Apartheid in South Africa was a systematic assault on non-white South Africans in every aspect of life – social, political, and economic. Less commonly discussed, however, are the environmental impacts and implications of apartheid. The lack of focus on the environmental policies of apartheid serves as an injustice to researchers, historians, and apartheid victims alike. Environmental racism and injustice – two modern concepts that draw on the nexus between racism and environmentalism – were clear aspects of the apartheid government’s regime. What is more, environmental injustice served as a platform or a means through which the apartheid government could further its whitewashing agenda for South Africa.

After apartheid, the legacy of these racial tactics remains; traditionally black or mixed-race communities still suffer the brunt of environmental degradation and abuse, primarily due to the nation’s current modes of energy production and consumption. Carbon-intensive sources of energy – like coal and oil – present challenges to both the natural world and the residents of communities of color in South Africa. The negative impacts of these energy sources, from public health concerns to land, air, and water degradation, disproportionately fall on black communities. In short, South Africa’s current energy landscape is responsible for perpetuating the apartheid legacy of environmental injustice.

Though a prevalent force in South Africa today, environmental racism was first introduced as a concept during the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s (Cock). Environmental racism “combines with public policies and industry practices to provide benefits for whites while shifting costs to people of color. Environmental racism is reinforced by government, legal, economic, political, and military institutions.” (Bullard 451). In other words, it is traditional racism embodied in environmental degradation and exploitation, such that local land use, industrial facility siting, and other anthropogenic practices that impact the environment disproportionately impact poor communities of color (Bullard 451).

During the American civil rights movement, communities of color sought to bring light to environmental racism, highlighting the sincere need for environmental justice to be served for people who were forced to live, work, and play in some of the most polluted cities and towns in the nation (Skelton and Miller). In fact, “race was the single most important factor in determining where toxic waste facilities were sited in the United States. It also found that due to the strong statistical correlation between race and the location of hazardous wastes sites, the siting of these facilities in communities of color was no accident, but rather the intentional result of local, state and federal land-use policies” (Skelton and Miller). This is the overarching crux of environmental racism; the harsh realities of abusing the environment – and the human consequences of such – are pushed onto the backs of communities of color and those living in lower-income neighborhoods.

In South Africa, the root of environmental racism was largely the same: historically marginalized communities of color continually suffered more than their white counterparts because of environmental degradation and dirty energy use. This disproportionality was and continues to be far from accidental, but rather – in keeping with apartheid – is a systemic political tool.

The apartheid government in South Africa used a number of tactics to disenfranchise and systematically marginalize any person of color for decades. These included an array of environmentally based methods as well. First, the apartheid government displaced black and colored South Africans from their ancestral lands and relocated them to townships (“Apartheid Devastating South African Environment”). Half of the black population was forced to live in areas known as “homelands.” (“Apartheid Devastating South African Environment”). “By design, these areas are remote, their topsoil is thin, rainfall scarce and unreliable, and the ground sloping and rocky. Suffering under politically enforced overpopulation – ten times the population density of white rural areas – the homelands are among the world’s most degraded regions.” (“Apartheid Devastating South African Environment”). Black South Africans were systematically relocated, sequestered into homelands and made to share already scarce, depleting resources.

Once relocated, the land previously inhabited by black and colored South African families was converted into national parks, game reserves, and other ecological sanctuaries (McDonald 1). Flora and fauna were protected throughout the country on these lands, while much of the population of South Africa was forcibly moved into townships and homelands where they lacked basic access to clean water and sanitation, food, and shelter (McDonald 1). In this way, the government’s intense focus on preserving wild plants and animals became yet another tool to exacerbate the apartheid regime; South African nationals were expelled to live in poverty stricken regions while conservation areas expanded (McDonald 1). Though conservation is indeed a noble pursuit, engaging in ecologically conscious practices at the expense of a particular segment of the population is not – but it is precisely what happened.
Additionally, entrance to the national parks that were created with these lands was available to whites only (McDonald 1). Conservation and natural enjoyment became an upper class, white pursuit – a luxurious concern for those who did not live in poverty or overpopulation day to day. Black populations viewed conservationism through the lens of oppression, seeing efforts to preserve vegetation and animals as the excuse for the segregation and mistreatment that it was; conservation was indeed a secondary goal of these actions. Whitewashing – purity for both humans and animals – was the true focus of these efforts.

Second, the apartheid government of South Africa engaged in environmental racism through its primary choice of energy resources during its reign: coal. South Africa has abundant coal resources, making it a viable economic choice for energy production. In 1990, an area east of Johannesburg called the Eastern Transvaal Highveld produced much of the nation’s coal and was responsible for nearly 80% of the country’s electricity generation (Durning 22). In fact, coal was the “economic foundation” of apartheid, providing cheap domestic energy to the nation when the international community no longer desired to do business with the South African government in protest of the apartheid regime (Durning 20). As a replacement for international energy, domestic coal provided an affordable and easily accessible energy source through the use of cheap labor – black workers (Durning 20).

The wages of black miners were kept low, keeping the cost of coal mining and consumption very low as well (Durning 20). Not only did this promote wastefulness – as more coal could always be afforded – but it also perpetuated poverty for the black miners obtaining the coal (Durning 20). Further, the mining process contributed to apartheid’s perpetuation of environmental racism through hazardous waste dumping (Durning 14). During apartheid, mine waste – including detritus from coal mines – accounted for three quarters of all solid waste in South Africa (Durning 14).

Strategically, the burden of the toxic waste was not borne by the white population, but rather by the poor black and colored communities whose “townships and squatter settlements are downwind and downstream from the mines. Riverlea, a typical ‘colored’ township near Johannesburg, for example, is centered on a massive yellow gold mine dump.” (Durning 15). In other words, non-white communities lived in constant exposure to dangerous and hazardous chemicals, the public health implications of which were not negligible. For instance, in 1990, the Mngweni River had mercury levels 1,500 times the level that the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency would deem toxic for humans (Durning 16). Nearby settlements suffered from the extreme pollution of this resource (Durning 16). Likewise, following the end of apartheid in 2001, a journalist discovered that the rate of Leukemia in black communities in Durban was twenty-four times higher than that in other parts of the country (Knight). The area had no existing laws regarding air pollution, allowing dirty energy sources like coal to emit dangerous greenhouse gases, leading to serious health concerns, including leukemia. The unregulated industry air pollution “guidelines” failed to protect vulnerable communities – all of whom were poor black and mixed-race residents (Knight).

Following the end of apartheid, national energy policies were altered, addressing gaps in legislation in areas like air and water quality. In 1998, the national energy policy was updated to include the goals of increasing affordable energy services to all, improving energy governance to “be more sympathetic to the needs of a wider range of stakeholder communities,” and reducing energy related emissions that were deemed harmful for human health (1998 White Paper on Energy Policy 24).

Under the new African National Congress government, this White Paper policy was quite revolutionary: it finally acknowledged the environmental injustices experienced by communities of color during the apartheid government, ranging from lack of access to energy sources to harmful health effects from excessive coal use in the country (1998 White Paper on Energy Policy 21). While the policy paper does not explicitly address racial gaps created by the nation’s environment and energy policies, its central theme is the improvement of the existing energy policies that led to hardships endured by those communities under apartheid. The shift in the power paradigm from apartheid to the African National Congress appeared hopeful for the energy industry, and by extension, poor townships and neighborhoods that bore the brunt of its effects.

South Africa’s national energy policy was altered yet again in 2003, introducing alternative and renewable sources of energy to the supply mix in order to meet the needs of a growing population and the subsequent demand for “mass electrification.” (2003 White Paper on Energy Policy 7). Again, the improved policy was meant to address the provision of electricity to all communities – white and black alike – ideally mitigating poverty and inequality in regions where both were commonplace (2003 White Paper on Energy Policy 8).

The White Paper stated that the “production and distribution of energy should be sustainable and lead to an improvement in the standard of living of citizens.” (2003 White Paper on Energy Policy vii). All citizens, regardless of race or ethnicity, should have access to clean, sustainable energy so as to mitigate negative health impacts of more traditional fossil fuel sources and create more equitable living conditions across South Africa. Clearly, the government recognized the environmental injustices embodied by the nation’s energy provision, aiming to address the needs of the historically marginalized, black or mixed-race communities traditionally neglected by the national use of coal for energy.

Since 2003, the post-apartheid energy industry in South Africa has changed little, coal remains the flagship domestic energy resource, dominating the sector with over 70% of the energy makeup in 2014 (Fisher 1). Comparatively, the global average coal consumption on the national level is 30% of a country’s total energy use (Fisher 1). What is more, 92% of South Africa’s energy production comes from domestic coal production, while the global average is a mere 40% (Fisher 1). As the world’s leading exporter of coal, these domestic numbers are no surprise – and neither are the health impacts of such avid coal use on local communities of color.

In 2010, the World Bank invested $3.75 billion in South Africa for the buildup and operation of the Medupi mega coal-fired power plant (Sinani). Allegedly, the purpose of the plant’s buildup was to increase domestic power supply in South Africa while supporting energy efficiency and economic growth (Sinani). What both the World Bank and the South African government failed to acknowledge during this partnership was the disproportionate impact black residents in the surrounding area; the project would require mass amounts of water that would be diverted from communal taps, the likes of which many poor black communities rely on in order to get water for basic needs and daily tasks (Sinani). This impact was effectively ignored in the pursuit of “national development,” increasing the lasting legacy of apartheid by further marginalizing already poor black communities (Sinani). Here, the promise of future coal use is quite literally ensuring that black communities will lack access to resources they desperately need.

Likewise, in 2015, air quality in Highveld presented health concerns for black residents (Schneider). During that same year, a power crisis caused the government to rely more heavily on coal reserves for electrical power (Schneider). As a result, twelve of the country’s sixteen coal fired power plants were active, and more mines were opened to meet the increasing demand for electricity from coal (Schneider). Opening the additional mines also impacted groundwater resources in the area – heavy metals and acid mine drainage have leaked into the aquifers, polluting this precious commodity (Schneider). This pollution, paired with elevated greenhouse gas emissions and heavy metals in the soil, led to over 2,000 pollution related deaths in 2015 (Schneider).

Often, the coal mining companies responsible for the pollution ignore the legal requirements outlined for the company’s continued operation (Schneider). Specifically, these companies do not comply with environmental policies that require land restoration and rehabilitation upon completion of mining projects in a particular area (Schneider). Mines are often left abandoned, allowing them to leach heavy metals and other toxins into groundwater, thereby impacting surrounding communities. Those communities, given South Africa’s strategic placement of toxic power plants, are largely black and poor (Schneider).

Thus, poor black neighborhoods continue to experience “slow violence of toxic pollution,” an invisible process by which human health is slowly but surely degraded by polluted air and water, worsening into severe illness over time (Cock). South Africa’s continued use of coal-fired power plants for over 70% of the nation’s total energy consumption perpetuates “slow violence” against predominantly black residents.

In this way, the use of coal as an energy source is a state-supported method of continuing the legacy of apartheid in a modern era. Though unsafe for any resident living near a power plant, the residual effects of coal are quite clearly impacting non-white communities the most; the apartheid government systematically corralled non-whites in South Africa into townships and homelands, such that “townships, such as Soweto, where apartheid crowd[ed] blacks into cramped quarters, are choked with air pollution from coal stoves. Medical studies show that Soweto’s children suffer more asthma and chest colds, and take longer to recover from respiratory diseases, than do youngsters elsewhere in the country.” (Durning 23). With today’s pattern of dirty energy use mirroring that of the 1990s, the forced collectivity of people into townships and homelands continues to have negative health implications for those groups and regions.

Going forward, the South African government aims to provide universal access to energy by 2030, using “clean coal.” (“Energy”). Unfortunately, there is no such thing: “clean coal” is a term that was created by fossil fuel companies during a period of growing environmental concern to decrease public backlash against the industry (Plumer). As a fossil fuel, coal always emits dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with negative impacts on human health. Coal is harmful for air quality, water quality, and is ultimately unsustainable – even for a coal rich nation like South Africa (“About Coal Mining Impacts”). Interestingly, South Africa also claims to be committed to significantly reducing its greenhouse gas emissions – which would improve the lives of the non-white communities suffering from those emissions – by 2025 (“Energy”). If the nation continues to invest in “clean coal”, this goal will not be met.

The current policy on Climate Change in South Africa reflects this reduced emissions goal, calling for a carbon tax implementation and carbon budgeting as two ways to mitigate greenhouse gases from coal use (Fisher 9). Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of eliminating coal from the energy sector. The government’s priorities, then, are clear: development over the health of its nationals. More specifically, development and economic growth through the use of cheap, accessible, albeit dirty coal is more important than the well-being of black townships and neighborhoods continually suffering from the toxic output of coal-fired power plants.

Ultimately, the South African government’s deliberate use of coal as a primary source of energy is a clear continuation of the apartheid legacy. White residents do not feel the brunt of the negative impacts from coal use – though they are by no means immune to its residual effects. For poor, non-white South Africans, continued use of coal and buildup of future coal mines poses everyday challenges, continuing the discrimination and isolation perpetrated by the apartheid government against communities of color, including ensuring the continuation of poverty and disease experienced by those communities.

For a nation so keen on development, raising neighborhoods of color out of poverty and protecting them from the immediate detriments of coal mining and burning seem to be low on the agenda. Or perhaps, as during apartheid, those issues are not on the national agenda at all. As long as South Africa actively supports the use of coal for energy, environmental racism and injustice will persist: both the environment and those most vulnerable to its changes will suffer.



Works Cited

“About Coal Mining Impacts”. Greenpeace. July 1, 2016. May 26, 2017.

“Apartheid Devastating South African Environment”. WorldWatch Institute. 2016. May 7, 2017.

Bullard, Robert D. The Legacy of American Apartheid and Environmental Racism. Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development, 1994. May 9, 2017.

Durning, Alan. Apartheid’s Environmental Toll. Washington D.C.: WorldWatch Institute, 1990. May 7, 2017.

“Energy”. South African Government. 2017. May 9, 2017.

Fisher, Nikki. South Africa. South Africa: International Energy Agency, 2015. May 23, 2017.

Cock, Jaclyn. “How the Environmental Justice Movement is Gathering Momentum in South Africa”. the Conversation. November 1, 2015. May 7, 2017.

Knight, Danielle. “Environmental Racism, a Lingering Legacy of Apartheid”. Inter Press Service News Agency. April 3, 2001. May 7, 2017.

McDonald, David A. Introduction: What is Environmental Justice? Boston: Boston University African Studies Center, 2002. May 9, 2017.

Plumer, Alan. “What ‘Clean Coal’ Is – and Isn’t”. August 23, 2017. October 9, 2017.

Schneider, Victoria. “The Heavy Toll of Coal Mining in South Africa”. Al Jazeera. April 2, 2015. May 23, 2017.

Sinani, Nezir. “World Bank’s Environmental Injustice in South Africa”. Huffington Post. August 20, 2014. May 9, 2017.

Skelton, Renee and Miller, Vernice. “The Environmental Justice Movement”. NRDC. March 17, May 7, 2017.

White Paper on the Energy Policy of the Republic of South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Minerals and Energy, December 1998. . May 9, 2017.

White Paper on the Renewable Energy Policies of the Republic of South Africa. Pretoria: Department of Minerals and Energy, November 2003. . May 23, 2017.

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