No light ahead for SA’s complex energy crisis


Season 10 of the Big Debate heated up this week, its focus on the country’s energy woes appropriate following weeks of rolling blackouts that have left citizens irate and anxious. The audience during the live television broadcast included representatives of mineworkers and unions, as well as activists and citizens.


The feasibility of renewable cleaner energy alternatives was explored, while noting that climate change presents potential challenges in this regard, given the recent cyclone Idai in Mozambique and recurring drought patterns across southern Africa.


Resistance against a move away from fossil fuels largely emanates from projected job losses in the mining sector, especially coal, which would run into hundreds of thousands, a heavy burden in an economy already beset by high unemployment levels.


It was noted that energy parastatal Eskom’s debt has reached half a trillion rand – equivalent to more than the country’s combined education and health budgets! Eskom has also been mired in corruption scandals; and World Bank Presidential nominee David Malpass indicated that World Bank loans have been “riddled with corruption”, with South Africa being a case in point.


Even amongst workers’ unions, there is an acknowledgement that a move towards more sustainable alternatives is desirable and inevitable, but they demand that “the transition has to be just”. However, there is little consensus as yet on what a “just” transition should incorporate.


Johnrie Gule, a worker at Tegeta mine, claimed that mineworkers have not been paid in five
months and that trains loaded with coal mysteriously went “missing”. Tracey Davis from Just
Share called for greater social ownership, noting that key decisions are being made by those
in the government, fossil fuel and financial sectors – who are all focussed on short-term
benefits for themselves.


An electronic poll before and during the show indicated that respondents (22,782) were divided on the question of an appropriate way forward, with 45% voting to protect coal jobs and another 40% supporting a focus on renewable energy and the remaining 15% saying the issue is not that simple. Votes captured on social media revealed a stronger push towards renewable energy alternatives, with 72% of Facebook voters and 58% of Twitter users favouring this option. By contrast, of those who participated via a free USSD service, 56% were in favour of protecting coal jobs.


An audience member enquired when the energy problems would be resolved. In response Eskom board member Nelisiwe Magubane promised there would be no load shedding in the coming week, but that there would undoubtedly be intermittent load shedding in the next few months. It appears that South Africans will continue to grapple with the consequences of poor energy management for some time to come.


The Big Debate poll was conducted by Grassroots, Social Surveys Institute and OpenUp. Khetha! is funded by Open Society Foundation and Media Development and Diversity Agency.


Big Debate is broadcast on SABC2 and SABC News Channel 404 with financial support from Luminate, Open Society Foundation and Ford Foundation.


This week’s episode is online at


Contact for further enquiries: Lebogang Shilakoe, Social Surveys Institute,, 073 411 2626, 011 486 1025

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