Second Class Citizens: Gender, Energy and Climate Change in South Africa



Forty percent of South Africa’s 48 million people are poor, and more than half of poor people are female.  Official unemployment figures hover at around 25%, but since this statistics does not count those who have given up looking for work, real unemployment may be double this.  South Africa is, by world standards, relatively rich.  We are classified as an upper-middle income country with a gross domestic product of R667 billion and can produce up to 38 000 megawatts (MW) of electricity.  However, these benefits accrue mainly to mining houses, large industry, and upper and middle class consumers.  Meanwhile, as the world’s 12th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, our development path means we are a disproportionate contributor to climate change.  Poor South Africans see little of the economic benefits, but are most vulnerable to the impacts climate change will bring.  According to a study conducted by lobby group Citizens United for Renewable Energies and Sustainability, approximately 2.5 million households still have no access to electricity, while 4 million households do not use electricity for cooking.  This could mean that 20 million people still rely on dirty, polluting fuels, if an average household size of five people is assumed.  Clearly, simply increasing electricity capacity will not be enough to solve South Africa’s problems of poverty and unemployment.  Neither will increasing access to electricity without examining affordability.  Yet these two priorities, in large part, have been the focus of energy policy in recent years. . . .  Energy poverty in South Africa endures despite a massive electrification drive, which connected 2.5 million households to the national grid between 1994 and 1999.  The percentage of households with access to electricity now stands at over 80%, from only 36% in 1994, but most poor households still switch between multiple fuels and rarely use electricity for cooking or space heating.  Despite the general upward trend, in the Western Cape and Limpopo, electricity connections have actually decreased since 2007.  Just over 13% of households reported they had had their electricity cut due to non-payment in the 30 days preceding an official survey.  A free basic electricity policy was implemented in 2003 in response to this affordability problem.  An amount of 50kWh is provided free to poor households.  This is thought to be enough electricity to meet the minimum needs of poor households, such as basic lighting, basic cooking, basic ironing, TV and radio.  A review of this policy by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg found that this amount is insufficient for the needs of poor households.  A light bulb used for four hours a day for a month will consume 20kWh, an electric stove used for one hour a day uses 42kWh, and boiling a kettle for 30 minutes a day for a month uses 21kWh, according to Earthlife’s analysis.

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This report was published by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg in March 2011 under a Creative Commons license.


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