Uncertainty on renewable retraining frightens South Africa’s coal communities

An investigation by Oxpeckers and Climate Home found coal-reliant communities in South Africa have scarce details on how funds for reskilling workers from its $8.5 billion deal will be implemented.

This story is the first of Climate Home News’ and Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism series on South Africa’s clean energy transition, supported by the Pulitzer Center.

Nelly Sigudla, a qualified fire watcher and part-time control room operator at Duvha power station in Mpumalanga, South Africa’s energy capital, worries for her future, when her main source of income gets unplugged.

The mother of four children lives in Benicon Park, an informal settlement next to the coal-fired power station, which is scheduled to be decommissioned by Eskom – South Africa’s public electricity company – between 2031 and 2034.

Like many employees in the coal-mining industry, Sigudla fears her qualifications won’t be enough in the near future, when renewables take over coal as South Africa’s primary source of new energy, risking becoming unemployable.

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The country, which depends on coal for about 85% of its electricity, is home to one of the largest energy experiments in the world: an $8.5-billion deal with a group of rich nations – including the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union – to transition towards renewable energy.

For solar panels and wind turbines to operate, South Africa will have to redirect coal workers towards new jobs in the renewable energy sector, such as construction, electrical engineering and information technology.

But an investigation by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism and Climate Home News found a major skills gap in coal-reliant communities and a lack of clarity on how funds for reskilling will be implemented.

Sigudla said the transition to green energy sources in Mpumalanga is difficult to welcome. From a community perspective it could bring even more poverty. The region has a soaring unemployment rate of 38%, and more than 100,000 jobs depend on coal.

“When the renewable sector kicks in, what fire am I going to watch?” Sigudha asks. “No one has come to the communities to tell us about new skills programmes that we can follow to acquire skills that will be needed in future.”

Reskilling programmes

The Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP), a document that is guiding South Africa’s move to renewables, includes an investment of nearly R2.7-billion ($151 million) for reskilling programmes across the country.

In Mpumalanga, R750-million ($42 million) is allocated to “investing in youth” – including education, training, work experience and placements – and R5.6-billion ($310 million) to “caring for coal workers”, which includes re-skilling, redeployment, placement and temporary income support.

Funds would not only come from the JET partnership, but also from government budgets, venture capital and multilateral banks.

According to the JET-IP, the government plans to set up a national skills hub to advise on reskilling needs, and R1,6-billion ($89 million) will be allocated to creating pilot training centres known as “skills development zones” in Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape provinces.

These pilot zones will be run by technical colleges and support the development of new skills and courses, aiming to “ enhance the employability of graduates”, says the JET-IP.

One of the options to set up facilities for the training centres is to use old decommissioned coal plants. This was one of the options for the Komati power station, the first one to shut down, in October 2022, according to a recently published report by environmental justice organisation GroundWork.

But details about how these training centres would actually become operational are scarce.

Development zones

Blessing Manale, spokesperson for the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), an independent multi-stakeholder body established by President Cyril Ramaphosa to oversee the country’s transition, was unable to indicate when the skills development zones will start operations.

Additionally, he acknowledged that skills development is severely under-prioritised, adding “all stakeholder groups have raised this as a fundamental weakness in the JET-IP”.

“In the PCC’s view, much work needs to be done, both to quantify the needs for skills development, and to upskill the workforce and new entrants – in particular youth and young women,” Manale said.

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Manale added the transformation of technical and vocational colleges, typically aimed at adults looking for new technical skills, is “fundamental”. The PCC is rolling out a new programme on skills for the energy transition along with the departments of education and energy, he said. 

But there needs to be more clarity on the skills needed for the decommissioning of coal-fired plants, he said.

“This gives rise to questions around who will actually provide the training required for upskilling workers in the coal value chain, design curricula for educational institutions where skills development will take place, and how this can be funded,” Manale told Oxpeckers.

Nelly Sigudha, a worker in the coal sector, stands in an informal settlement by the Duvha power station.

For workers in the coal industry such as Nelly Sigudla (above), the transition to green energy sources in Mpumalanga is difficult to welcome. (Photo: Ashraf Hendriks)

Vocational training

Mpumalanga has three technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges that fall under the department of higher education and training (DHET). They focus on “preparing students to become functional workers in a skilled trade”.

These colleges, based in Ehlanzeni, Gert Sibande and Nkangala districts, provide practical skills training for the mining and fossil fuel industries, among other courses. At the start of the year, the department reported that more than 500,000 students had enrolled at TVET colleges countrywide.

Oxpeckers and Climate Home reached out via email to all three TVET colleges, as well as the DHET and several other tertiary institutions in the province, to understand how skills development courses currently on offer could be applicable to the green energy sector. Similar questions were also sent to Eskom’s Academy of Learning and the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre. Despite follow-up phone calls, no responses were received at the time of publication.

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The curricula of the TVET colleges and other educational facilities needs to change to achieve the energy transition, said professor Victor Munnik, co-author of the Contested Transition report recently released by GroundWork.

Training and reskilling for renewables must be “fit for purpose”, he said. “It should be aimed at a society that lives on renewable energy and understands how it works. There are specific specialised skills involved; for example, for the grid to become a smart grid it has to integrate a lot of IT technologies.”

Changes in the education system need to include school courses “to prepare young people not just to work in the new economy but to actively shape it and be part of it”, Munnik said.

Wendy Poulton, secretary general of the South African National Energy Association, added that there is a scarcity of specialist technical and managerial skills in the renewable energy sector. “This will require the education, training and upskilling of engineers and technicians to shift into renewables,” she said.

Happy Sithole sitting in a table with a red shirt questioning South Africa's green energy training centres

Happy Sithole, NUM health and safety chairperson in the Highveld region and an Eskom shop steward, says he has no knowledge of skills development zones in Mpumalanga. (Photo: Ashraf Hendriks)

Union concerns

The regional chairperson of National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the Mpumalanga Highveld region, Malekutu Motubatse, is concerned that the current courses offered at TVET colleges and other education facilities still produce learners that will be unemployed in the near future.

Next to each power station there is a coal mine that is used for the purpose of providing coal to the power station, he said. “So the reskilling should be a reskilling of everyone. If the government is talking about reskilling, who is going to be reskilled, Eskom employees or mine employees? Let’s assume that it talks to Eskom employees, then where does it leave the coal mine workers?”

Happy Sithole, NUM health and safety chairperson in the Highveld region and an Eskom shop steward, believes not many artisanal coal miners - who conduct small scale mining - will be employed in the renewables sector.

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