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An industrial revolution for whom?

By Alex Lenferna

As a person who is going to live quite a bit longer than President Zuma, (or so I hope, although perhaps six wives supported by the state is the key to longevity) the State of the Nation address (SONA) was worrying.

Not only did Zuma spark a rather ironic note by swearing allegiance to the very Constitution he has been doing so well to undermine.

Not only did Zuma laud the successes of South African education in the face of much evidence to the contrary.

Indeed, not only did Zuma herald COP17 as a “historic and precedent setting” outcome along the lines of the Kyoto Protocol conference – perhaps the analogous aspects relate to the Kyoto Protocol’s inadequacy in dealing with climate change?

More than all of this, Zuma painted a picture of South Africa’s development, characterised by the “industrialisation” of South Africa, which has alarming implications for the future, my future, our future, the youth’s future and our climate’s stability.

Much of Zuma’s speech revolved around the plundering of South Africa’s natural resources in order to attain economic growth, an economic growth that so far only reaches a select few; that is, despite SONA’s repeated focus on poverty alleviation. And without drastic change, history, I fear, will repeat itself. Indeed, the minerals-(dirty)-energy complex that has dominated South Africa for so long, and which, far from alleviating the poverty of our country, has widened our economic inequalities even under the rule of the ANC, continued to be alluded to as the panacea of our economic woes.

Now, I am not naïve enough to suggest that our economy as it stands will be able to sustain itself without mining and energy, but the green economy is surely not consistent with the path of development that Zuma has painted. I know in isiZulu green and blue are one and the same word, but I didn’t realise the same applied to green and brown, for indeed the future that Zuma has painted is one consistent with a brown economy rather than the green one repeatedly mentioned in SONA – brown economy referring to an outdated fossil economy rather than being a racist slur, of course.

SONA confirmed that coal power through Medupi and Kusile are still on track to be developed and new rail line infrastructure is set to be established to help facilitate the continued growth of South Africa’s coal economy. Whether Anglo American Corporation and BHP Billiton will continue to see extremely reduced prices in electricity (BHP Billiton for example, received a $200-million subsidy in 2010) remains to be seen; or perhaps not, given the unacceptably confidential nature of those rates. Be that as it may, not only will Medupi and Kusile lock South Africa further into a coal-dependent future, but the debt from those purchases, owed to the far-from-magnanimous World Bank, will continue to haunt us for years to come as well as move precious resources away from the transition to the much needed green economy. I for one am not counting on Eskom’s sketchy track record to make the profits needed to pay back the loan any time soon.

Indeed it’s not clear where the source of finances for the grand infrastructure-state-capital expansion that SONA envisions will come from. If indeed it is from sources like the World Bank it is only fitting that much of Zuma’s speech focuses on the facilitation of cheap port systems in South Africa, for they’re going to be needed to facilitate the onslaught of one-sided extractive globalisation that characterises a country locked into loans from the World Bank and their kin. As Patrick Bond points out, our willingness to acquiesce to World Bank demands was demonstrated, among other occasions, when Trevor Manuel repressed debate on the World Bank’s conflict of interest in running the Green Climate Fund, last year in Tokyo – a conflict of interest which could/will see false solutions to climate change, such as carbon capture and storage, sold off for great profits as the real thing.

Faith Briol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency, points out that “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions.” So where are we going? Apart from a few allusions to the green economy, much of South Africa’s great infrastructure drive envisioned by SONA is set to prop up the dirty mining-energy complex of South Africa. As such, our arguably insufficient commitments [PDF] under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change seem to be getting further beyond our reach.

Credit, however, is perhaps due to Zuma for outlining the importance of continuing the “search” for – not roll-out of – renewable energies. I can’t help but think that in many ways South Africa’s renewable energy development is meant as a way to placate green economy proponents as opposed to a serious attempt to transition our economies. Indeed, with just over $0.2-billion loaned for renewable energies from the World Bank compared to the $3.75-billion for dirty development, it’s hard to think otherwise. I am not claiming that we face an easy switch to renewables or a green economy, for in South Africa, as in many places, we are faced with an apparent energy dilemma: we have an expanding industrial economy, which we are fuelling with fossils, but green resolutions that are asking us to do otherwise. This is indeed a tricky dilemma as Faranaaz Parker’s balanced article on SA’s energy mix suggests. This, however, is the time that we in South Africa need to see past this dilemma.

Yes, we cannot continue to fuel the current industrial mining-energy complex without mega energy projects, but what are the products of our current economy, and seemingly the one that Zuma proposes, which are so valuable? Top-down, unequal industrial development that benefits a few, often at the expense of many – including the health of our climate. Is this really the economic product that we want? For the majority of South Africans (except for the symbolic 1%), I’m not so sure.

We need to redefine our development paradigm to include more localised bottom-up development, which includes ecological considerations and health as important development indicators, for which renewable energies and less resource-intensive development is more suited. We as a nation need to begin to question and rethink the development paradigm shoved down our throats, which has allowed us to become one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters and resource-intense economies in the world, but still allows for such great poverty and inequality, represented by growing urban sprawl with elite pockets of wealth surrounded by burgeoning squatter camps, coupled with environmentally insensitive and often degrading development.

The industrial development paradigm that we currently seem hell-bent on pursuing, and which SONA punts, is failing throughout the Western world, and many of the reasons why it did originally work consisted, to a significant extent, in the West’s exploitation and their exportation of negative impacts beyond their own borders. We don’t have access to quite the same (perverse) privilege, so why emulate something that is not “sustainable” – however you choose to interpret this famously ambiguous term?

Before ending, it’s worth quoting John Perkins at length:

“We prefer to believe the myth that thousands of years of human evolution has finally perfected the ideal economic system, rather than to face the fact we have merely bought into a false concept and accepted it as gospel. We have convinced ourselves that all economic growth benefits humankind and the greater the growth, the more widespread the benefits. Finally, we have persuaded one another that the corollary is true: that people who excel at stoking the fires of economic growth should be exalted and rewarded…”

As Zuma attempts to stoke the fires of economic growth of our country, we must ask ourselves whether the product he is selling us is akin to the myth that Perkins describes; one that will sell our future down the river in the name of lopsided economic growth and the continuation of South Africa’s dirty mining-energy complex. South Africa is now 128th of 132 countries on the environmental performance index, and the 2nd most unequal society in the world; what further costs are we willing to pay to pursue that myth?

Alex Lenferna was the lead tracker of the South African government during COP17 under, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum. Follow Alex on Twitter , Facebook or


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