While in South Africa, there is little proof of such an organised, funded campaign being conducted by the coal industry itself, a motley crew of intersecting interests has coalesced around common policy goals: Attempting to stop government’s policy of introducing renewable energy into the national grid by purchasing power from Independent Power Producers (IPPs), and pushing a narrative that says that Eskom needs to keep buying coal, and that the life of its ageing power stations needs to be extended.
The narrative is also centred on the idea that government must once again pursue a large nuclear build programme, once favoured by then president Jacob Zuma, but since shelved by the Cyril Ramaphosa administration.
Many of the anti-IPP lobbyists are strongly sympathetic to the former president.
The is despite the release of the Integrated Resource Plan last year – the country’s energy roadmap – which seeks to phase out coal, gradually, over the coming decades, increase the use of renewable energy onto the grid, with a reduced role for nuclear energy.
Lobbying efforts by the industry itself have cropped up all over the world as governments are pressured to radically reduce their reliance on burning fossil fuels.
The Guardian reported last year that such a campaign had been launched on a global scale by mining giant Glencore.
But in South Africa, the campaign has taken on the face of a coalition of forces, more than an organised and well-funded propaganda effort, as far as we know.
To the one side of the anti-IPP coalition are some unions, some obscure pro-Zuma lobby groups, coal truckers and disgruntled individuals such as former acting Eskom CEO Matshela Koko.
This campaign has played out in the mainstream media, but seems to have the most traction on social media.
The campaign reached Eskom’s physical doors last week when the EFF entered the fray on the side of the lobbyists. The party took its message to the power utility in the form of a protest, flanked by nuclear energy industry lobbyists like Adil Nchabaleng of pro-Zuma lobby group Transform RSA.
On the other side of the campaign is the coal industry itself, which appears to be in the initial stages of an advocacy campaign.
Transform RSA teamed up with Numsa and the Coal Truckers Association in 2018 in a failed court bid to stop the signing of IPP agreements – a case that Nchabaleng tried to link to a break-in at his home where his housekeeper was tied up and held at gunpoint.
He is also a member of parliament, representing the African People’s Convention.
Transform RSA’s politics were made clear when, also in early 2018, it threatened to take legal action against the ANC’s leadership if they moved against Zuma by discussing his recall at a meeting.
On the social media front, the South African Energy Forum (SAEF) has been actively opposing IPPs, and has advocated for more nuclear energy in South Africa’s energy mix in a “People’s IRP” released on behalf of itself and sister organisations last year.
Another vocal advocate of nuclear energy, and of abandoning the IPP project, is Khandani Msibi, who heads up Numsa’s investment arm.
The SAEF’s members are all APC party members, with the exception of one Ronald Mumyai. His social media accounts show that he is a former EFF member, supporter of Zuma, and homophobe, although the homophobic tweet in question has since been deleted.
Another obscure entity that appears only to exist online is the Anti-Poverty Forum, which, when it is not laying complaints with the public protector over IPPs, spends its days campaigning against Zuma’s nemesis, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan.
The forum is fronted by ANC Brian Bunting branch member Phapano Phasha, also formerly associated with the Guptas’ failed television station ANN7, who laid a complaint against Gordhan with the ANC’s integrity commission last year.
Coal industry advocacy
As for the industry itself, it seems clear that many players feel coal is unfairly under attack, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of its contribution to climate change.
At a gathering of coal industry leaders in Cape Town in February, Minerals Council South Africa (MCSA) senior economist Bongani Motsa said there was a need for a “strong coal advocacy group” to lobby for the industry, against what it views as an onslaught from the “renewables lobby”.
Motsa likened the IRP to an abusive spouse that was unkind to the industry, in spite of its willingness to invest in “clean coal” technologies.
Motsa did not provide any details as to what this would look like.
In February 2018, when heated talks over the IRP were ongoing behind closed doors at Nedlac, the MSCA released a document titled “Coal Strategy 2018” in which it outlined plans to counter the narrative around coal.
The plan’s executive summary states: “The Chamber of Mines Coal Leadership Forum, consisting of coal executives, commissioned a report to determine what needs to be done to increase the profile of the coal mining industry in the face of seemingly ineluctable negative public opinion around the use of coal in industrial processes. Negative views on coal and its impact on the environment have resulted in a precipitous decline in the use of coal by the major economies of the world…”
The plan decried the introduction of strict laws to protect the environment that would stifle the coal industry, and implied that the industry’s contribution to the economy and jobs needed to be punted in public.
For now, the links between the pro-coal, anti-IPP actors are murky. But what is clear is that their interests align around policy and political goals, and it remains to be seen whether they carry enough weight to have real impact on either front.
(Written by Sarah Evans for News24)