South Africa: Perennial Protests, Industrial Action And The Risk To The Security Of Energy Supply

Last Updated: 14 January 2013
Article by Happy Masondo


As the country continues to count the costs of widespread industrial action including the loss of lives of mine workers and members of the security police, the long term socio-economic effects are incalculable.

Just as the transport sector reached a much awaited resolution to the impasse between the work force and management, strike action in the coal industry was mooted which prompted the Minister of Public Enterprises to state: "I am deeply concerned about the industrial action that has kicked off in the coal sector".1  

At the time of the resolution of the transport strike action, Eskom had already "lost a day's supply of coal".2  This befalls the energy sector during a time when the security of power supply remains tenuous at best. "The truth that the wave of strikes is everyone's problem, not just the mining industry's, has come home in the country's recent sovereign debt downgrades, which raise costs for Eskom, the municipalities and others, and in the weakening of the rand, which heightens inflationary pressures".3 It therefore seems ill-advised for lobby groups to be protesting against all attempts at augmenting the less than secure supply of energy in South Africa.

Endless fractured debates

During September 2012, the South African Cabinet lifted the moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing following a period of fourteen months during which the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), through the Minister, Susan Shabangu, had imposed a moratorium on fracking in the ecologically sensitive Karoo region. During the period of the moratorium, the DMR is said to have held consultations with all interested stakeholders.  At the same time a task team was established to investigate the feasibility of hydraulic fracturing, its impact on the environment and whether it would in fact create new job opportunities. 

Environmental groups such as the Treasure Karoo Action Group and Greenpeace expressed their deep felt "disappointment with the way the government has handled this, the secrecy around the technical task team that was appointed, the lack of consultation and the fact that nobody has seen the report".4 Without expressing a view on the substance of the arguments expressed by the environmental groups, it would appear that other than an assertion that hydraulic fracturing will pollute scarce water resources, they do not appear to offer any solutions to the impending shortage of energy supply.

The proponents of hydraulic fracturing state that the Karoo has the largest untapped deposits in the world and that exploring the Karoo for commercially feasible shale gas "has been billed as a possible  answer to easing coal-hungry South Africa's energy needs as it moves from the heavy polluting electricity production towards greener sources".5

Shell is one of the companies hoping that the exploration of the shale gas will produce commercially viable quantities of gas in an environmentally safe way to provide security of supply of energy.  Shell has also raised the prospect of stimulating job creation across the economy and add to the fiscus through increased taxes.

At the core of the arguments by the proponents of hydraulic fracturing is the view that this process will be carried out with extreme caution. For a period of between two to nine years and at an estimated cost of US$200 million, an enormous amount of work has to be undertaken before the sinking of any exploration wells. In the first instance an environmental impact assessment and an appropriate consultation process with communities in and around the Karoo area have to precede any exploration of commercially feasible shale gas.

The debate between the proponents and opponents of hydraulic fracturing is not in the least helpful if it does not provide options on how the country is to deal with the shortage of energy in the country.  A failure to provide viable solutions to the energy crisis in the country is akin to fiddling while the country goes into complete darkness. The energy crisis calls for balanced debates.

Could nuclear energy not be an option? 

The Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) together with the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR) have not been spared from the wave of protest action besetting South Africa.  Disgruntled Lanseria residents presented a petition at a public hearing meeting of the NNR and the Necsa to stop the plans of the construction of a nuclear contamination smelter in the area. The public hearing was convened by the NNR and Necsa to obtain the views of the community on the planned construction. The residents of Lanseria have asserted that they "have done their research and have concluded that this smelter will harm us".6 

Earthlife Africa has also added its voice to the objections of the Lanseria residents by saying that the smelter would cause far reaching health hazards even beyond South Africa's borders. Together with Earthhlife Africa other activists also made both oral and written submissions to the NNR.  The essence of the submissions by the environmental activists is that exposure to radiation is growing exponentially and the proposed smelter would add to the radiation levels in an already contaminated environment. 

Necsa points out that the fears of radiation needed to be presented to the NNR in a proper context and thus stated that the objections were noted but that NNR still had to take into account all scientific information associated with nuclear waste.  The representatives of Necsa said the smelter was planned for the disposal of the voluminous contaminated waste at Pelindaba.  According to Necsa, the disposal of the contaminated waste would take the form of melting down, "which means separating metals - steel and aluminum - from the uranium".7 

Necsa's plans include the selling off of the decontaminated metal for re-use, while the uranium is then concentrated in a controlled form which can be disposed of by Necsa. According to Necsa the melting down process would be conducted in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner. Necsa finds it incredulous that the environmental activists consider any and all radiation to be bad. Necsa concludes that "we need to make a proper risk-benefit analysis rather than being selective with particular scare-mongering tactics".8 It is incumbent upon all stakeholders not to lose sight of the bigger picture of security of energy supply before they attack each other's ideologies. Even if stakeholders do not ultimately agree, both sides should present balanced views. They should not sow panic.


The country is going through a period of socio-economic volatility, mistrust and combative relationships. The socio-economic and political landscape is more than just about industrial strike action in the mining and transport industries. The upheavals experienced in South Africa have now impacted on the country's ability to borrow money following the sovereign downgrades by rating agencies. These types of consequences will invariably sow panic and increase volatility. .

The country's security of supply is at extreme risk where Eskom, the Department of Energy, amongst other entities, will find it that much harder to borrow large amounts of money for the various infrastructure programmes planned for in the Integrated Resource Plan. South Africa is already in an energy crisis of great proportions. The country does not need any more extraneous factors to exacerbate the energy crisis.


1. "Fracking Fallout: SA Split As Moratorium Dropped", Cape Argus, 8 September 2012

2. "Ibid"

3. "Mine the Gap", Financial Mail, 12 October 2012

4. "Fracking Fallout: SA Split As Moratorium Dropped", Cape Argus, 8 September 2012

5. "South Africa Lifts Freeze on Shale Gas Exploration", The Peninsula, 7 September 2012.

6. "Lanseria resists R20m nuke smelter", News 24, 12 October 2012

7. "Ibid"

8. "Ibid"

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