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Eskom and Sasol put a low price on life

By Alex Lenferna

How much is a human life worth? How much is our future and that of our children worth? Well, the answer to both is “not too much” if Eskom and Sasol’s pollution-friendly tactics are anything to go by.

Allow me to explain. On paper, South Africa has some pretty decent environmental legislation intended to protect the quality of our air and environment, in the form of the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act. Sasol and Eskom, however, have long delayed implementation of measures under this act aimed at protecting our air, and now after having delayed implementation they are trying to get out of complying with these measures. Sasol and Eskom claim that complying with the legislation will be just too expensive, but the question I would like to ask is, “too expensive for whom?”

While it might involve increased costs for Sasol and Eskom to reduce their pollution, overall if we count the costs to society we might find that reducing pollution might save us quite a bit, especially if we value human health, life and well-being properly.


To be clear, this is not just about tree-hugging hippies and saving the polar bear. It is about human life, health and well-being. In the present the costs of pollution from Sasol and Eskom comes in the form of “a soup of polluting compounds, including sulphur, nitrous oxide and particulates, each linked to specific negative health and environmental impacts. Other noxious chemicals included in this brew include radically toxic substances like cadmium, chromium, lead, barium and mercury”.

Those words come from a more comprehensive article by Glenn Ashton, who also points out that in places like Witbank, South Africa’s air is more polluted than even China’s infamous pollution levels. So when even the Chinese populace with its history of repression and censorship is protesting pollution, why does South Africa with its rich history of protest and civil-society engagement stay largely quiet?

We might think we are saving by not complying with these regulations, but to believe that is to be rather narrow-minded, for while the costs of pollution may not appear on our energy bills or on Sasol or Eskom’s balance sheet, they are still borne by us. They are borne by the South African populace in the form of loss of life, illness, polluted air and the deterioration of our climate and ecosystems.

In fact the costs of coal pollution, for instance, are so bad that their damages likely outweigh their benefits. While Greenpeace issued a study claiming that Eskom’s power plants kill 2 220 people prematurely each year, a less controversial study by world-renowned Yale University economist William Nordhaus showed that the value added to an economy by coal was outweighed by the damage it causes. In other words, if we incorporate the harm caused by coal power into our valuations, coal power turns out to cause more damage than good. (Nordhaus’s rather conservative economic analysis was done, furthermore, in the US where coal power is significantly cleaner than South Africa, thanks in no small part to Eskom and Sasol’s aversion to cleaning up their acts).

While the present harms through air pollution are pretty darn worrying, ensuring Eskom and Sasol clean up their act is also about ensuring a liveable environment and climate in the future, rather than one defined by climate chaos. The sort of climate chaos that will push large parts of South Africa into drought and in many places when the rainfall does come, it will be less frequent and in violent downpours that will cause flooding and soil erosion. Many of those impacts, like that of our current pollution, will fall disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable sectors of our society.

As Oxford University economics professor Dieter Helm argues, “the overwhelmingly immediate question in climate change is how to stop and then reverse the dash-for-coal, and to do it quickly”. That is because coal accounts for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions and generally emits three times more greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuel sources of energy, never mind renewables. In South Africa, however, we seem to be going in the opposite direction as we forge ahead with installing two of the world’s largest coal power plants, in the form of Medupi and Kusile. (Ironically, the name Medupi comes from the Sepedi word for “rain that soaks parched lands”, the very thing Medupi might contribute to less of).

So, to sum up, Eskom and Sasol are opposing environmental legislation put in place to protect us from the harmful effects of their actions, and in doing so they are continuing to expose us to deadly and harmful pollution that wreaks havoc on our present health and well-being, and weakens the prospects of a decent future by its contribution to climate change. We shouldn’t be happy about this.

So, what to do? I want to encourage you to raise your voices to ensure that companies like Sasol and Eskom properly value human life and well-being, both now and in the future. On September 20 and 21 tens if not hundreds of thousands of people around the world will be marching for a better future and environment – check out Right now, however, South Africa isn’t even on the digital map. So let’s get on the map and connect our protests to these important domestic issues.

To borrow from a recent advert, Eskom and Sasol have a new pollution filter, and it is us, and will continue to be, unless we change that.

Alex is a South African Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar getting his PhD in philosophy at the University of Washington, Seattle, focusing on climate justice.


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


  1. Stephen Stephen 26 August 2014

    Excellent article Alex. I travel frequently to South Africa and often get down to the “Vuil Driehoek” (Vaal Triangle). What amazes me is the apparent indifference to the toxicity of the environment in which the folk down there are apparently quite happy to live in. If the locals are happy with the situation, there is not going to be much traction for change.

  2. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 26 August 2014

    Firstly, the picture you have is of water coolers and that is steam – not pollution – coming out of them

    Secondly, there are insects and birds in Witbank. That is not something you find in Beijing. That, alone, says that Witbank isn’t ‘worse’.

    Thirdly, if you have ever been to Tembisa in the evening, you will know that lack of electricity creates a HUGE amount of pollution (not to mention the amount of trees it destroys).

    I would love to see us going towards more sustainable energy production. There are some wonderful new products evolving and, if we could only get the electricity storage to work, we shouldn’t be dependent on fossil fuels. The reality is that the average South African can’t afford more expensive electricity – most can’t afford the current price.

  3. Alex Lenferna Alex Lenferna 27 August 2014

    Thanks Stephen. I am glad you enjoyed the article. Hopefully it can spur some to action on this important issue.

  4. Aubrey Chalmers Aubrey Chalmers 27 August 2014

    I fully agree what has been written,
    However, please do not insert a picture like the one in this article.
    The (white smoke) coming out of the Cooling Towers is STEAM and not smoke.

  5. Tom Tom 27 August 2014

    Its the old adage of the frog in boiling water… People don’t see the change cause they live the slow death day by day and remain oblivious to it.

  6. Mike Mike 27 August 2014

    Greenpeace has just published a set of stories from people living with the impacts of coal pollution in South Africa. Not surprisingly, it’s called “the Poisoned People” (

    I would add to Alex’s piece, that you can take action online to oppose Eskom’s application here:

  7. Alex Lenferna Alex Lenferna 27 August 2014

    Hi Folks,

    I didn’t include the picture myself, that was added in by the M&G team. Apologies for that.

    I agree that lack of electricity can lead to significant pollution in it’s own right through burning of coal, paraffin etc. However, it’s not clear to me that avoiding environmental regulations will lead to less access to electricity. Perhaps a better way for Eskom to cut costs would be to stop making domestic consumers subsidize the likes of BHP Bililiton. Furthermore, as the following article suggests, providing electricity to places off the grid can perhaps better be done through decentralized means, rather than expanding on coal production:

  8. Alex Lenferna Alex Lenferna 27 August 2014

    Mike, thanks for the work that Greenpeace is doing on this. I hadn’t seen that petition before otherwise I would have included it in the article.

  9. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 28 August 2014

    People in squatter camps can’t afford coal and they can’t always afford paraffin. Normally, they use wood. A lot of that wood is scrounged from dumps and is treated with some kind of preservative. All of that gets aerosoled into the air. If you consider what we treat wood with to deter termites and to harden it, you must know that it is positively toxic. Some of the luckier people will have some old car batteries to run a tv or a study lamp. Said battery is likely to end up in the same stream they use as drinking water. We know that batteries are toxic from start to finish. THAT is what I was trying to explain.

    I think the idea of local energy production is a brilliant idea. The loss over the distance that electricity is transported is ridiculous. We also are not using our biggest resource – our wonderful weather. I also hope that someone hears your plea that we stop subsidising big business.

    Please note that I’m not fighting with you on this (I’ve been passionate about pollution reduction for more decades than I care to admit to), there are just some concerns around the logistics of what you are saying. Primarily is the storage of electricity and the ability for everyone to be able to benefit from it. Solar collection panels that double as windows are a wonderful new product but very few will be able to afford them and storing the electricity, for night time use, is likely to produce even more pollution.

  10. Marie Marie 30 August 2014

    No money for cleaning the air? Ironically there was enough money to pay the COE’s, managers, etc. outrageous salaries and bonuses. Yet they are not made accountable for a job not completed. Before them there were the many persons/ companies who were paid hugely inflated sums over and above the cost of the supplies. We live in sad times. Greed rules.

  11. Paul Kearney Paul Kearney 1 September 2014

    @Marie; I think that is a telling comment. Power from coal can be made friendly to the environment – it just needs political will, legislation, enforcement and an understanding of the total life cycle cost of the power produced. The SA government, SASOL and Eksdom fail on most, if not all of these points.

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