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Gendered labour and energy transitions in the Northern Cape, South Africa

By Julia Taylor - Just Transition Research Collaborative, March 1, 2023

Most approaches to a just energy transition focus on the impact on jobs and opportunities for new industries, with less attention paid to the informal and unpaid work although it is an integral part of the energy value chain. I have adopted a feminist political economy lens to explore the relationship between the development of renewable energy and gendered labour. This approach highlights the importance of the state, the economy and the household in the process of social reproduction (the reproduction of labour power). It is relevant to debates about a just energy transition because it highlights gender and racial inequalities and the undervalued and unpaid work (often conducted by women) required for social reproduction, which should be addressed in any effort to achieve justice.

A feminist political economy approach to the just energy transition means that I do not only consider whether a job was created, but also the job type (permanent/short-term, wage rate, etc.), working conditions and issues of sexism and racism. I also consider the impact of the shift in energy source for households which struggle with access to affordable energy and other services. Taking a feminist approach meant that I followed a methodology which highlighted a social problem and focused on the voices of those who are commonly marginalized — workers and local communities and particularly women in these groups.

To analyse whether South Africa’s renewable energy procurement programme could be considered part of a just energy transition, I conducted research in the Northern Cape, a rural province of South Africa where solar power plants have been developed around three towns (Kuruman, Kathu and Upington) over the past 10 years. South Africa’s renewable energy procurement programme required private renewable energy producers to take part in a bidding process to sell power to the electricity utility, Eskom. I conducted interviews with local community members, people who had worked on solar plants, solar plant managers/developers and state employees involved in the solar projects, with higher numbers of people interviewed from the groups whose voices are often underrepresented, those of workers and local communities. Despite aiming to interview equal amounts of women and men, or more women, if possible, I interviewed 10 women and 12 men, which may be indicative of the unequal gender representation in the industry. I was able to conduct the interviews with support from two research assistants, Boitumelo Tshetlho and Deon Bezuidenhout, who are local community organizers.

Unfortunately, I found that if the energy transition is carried out at scale in the way that it has occurred in these three towns in the Northern Cape, with privately-owned, utility-scale solar power plants that do not support local access, it will not deliver justice for the poor and working classes.

Net job gains are not sufficient

The energy transition is said to hold much opportunity, with certain developmental agencies arguing for a just energy transition which promises to address inequality and poverty while reducing carbon emissions from power generation . This shift to renewables has support across different stakeholders, as “[l]ow-carbon sources of energy are often framed as more equitable, egalitarian, and just than their fossil-fuelled or carbon-intensive counterparts” (Sovacool 2021:1). However, workers are wary of this transition as it is not clear what it would mean for livelihoods of communities dependent on the coal value chain, and the nature of work on renewable energy power plants is relatively unknown.

Modelling exercises conducted by academics and private companies in South Africa conclude that the energy transition will lead to a net gain in jobs. However, upon closer scrutiny of these models, it becomes apparent that most jobs created are in the construction of the power plant, not the operation and maintenance. This means that most of the jobs created will be short-term and provide lower pay compared to the mining industry.

Solar plants have not improved livelihoods

Workers and communities are justified in their scepticism of the just energy transition. The framework of social reproduction and gendered labour highlights the crisis in social reproduction in South Africa, where households are expected to survive on lower wages, without access to basic services or sufficient income support while the cost-of-living rises. This crisis results in increasing pressure on unpaid care work, mostly carried out by women. Therefore, a just transition would only happen if solar plants affected one or all of the three components required for survival: wages in the economy; grants through the state; or subsistence within the household. The experiences of the working classes in the Northern Cape show that this shift has not materialized as the jobs and livelihoods surrounding solar power plants have not improved their ability to survive in the long term.

The experience of general workers, receptionists and others who worked for solar power plant companies is that the job was fine while it lasted but was largely short-term (between 6 to 18 months), underpaid and did not equip them to move on to find further employment. The type of work carried out on solar plants was shaped by gender and race with women comprising under 25 percent of workers and mostly working on cleaning or office administration, and white people not doing any hard labour. While representation of women is slightly higher than in the coal value chain, which is about 13 percent, the gendered segregation of occupations is maintained on the solar power plants.

Many of the ex-workers at the solar plants questioned who benefits from the solar plant because there are communities in the surrounding areas that still do not have access to electricity, there is still load shedding (regular power outages) and the price of electricity has gone up. This is because the solar plants are connected to the national grid and do not necessarily improve energy access locally. There is a suspicion that the mines are the real beneficiaries of the solar power plants. And this might be the case, particularly in a solar power plant near Kathu which is connected to a substation that was built for a manganese mine, and may allow the mine to run on solar power during load shedding while the rest of the area is in darkness. Due to the structure of the existing grid, solar power plants have often developed near mine sites, and can be seen as plugging into the existing structure of the Minerals Energy Complex in South Africa.

In terms of the wages in the economy, South Africa’s renewable energy procurement programme is dominated by European firms that hire local workers temporarily through subcontractors who use exploitative practices during construction of the solar plants and thereafter create little opportunity for jobs in local communities. Households are partially integrated into capitalist accumulation through other processes, often through mining, and utilize various strategies to survive, including subsistence farming, made more difficult by the lack of access to communal land, energy and water services. The attitude towards the state and the local government is cynical and there is little hope that government will provide services, let alone address future environmental crises associated with climate change. In this despair, the only comfort is that communities are starting to work together to mobilize against exploitation and a lack of service provision.

Implications for a just energy transition and future research

A feminist political economy perspective highlights the fact that a just energy transition is not only about formal jobs and should ensure access to electricity and other important resources for subsistence, such as land and water. Issues of subsistence in the household are highlighted because they are often the domain of unpaid care work, which is commonly, but not exclusively, carried out by women.

A just energy transition should be structured to prevent worker exploitation in the workplace, and thus should address the issues in power dynamics of subcontractors and workers. We must also acknowledge that expecting the shift in electricity generation technology to enhance justice is not necessarily feasible, and broader systems which impact inequality and power in the economy should also be centred in debates on just transition.

Ideas that emerged from interviews about what forms of solar power would be useful to households include smaller scale technologies such as solar lamps or torches, solar geysers or small rooftop solar installations. Perhaps a just energy transition should incorporate more of these kinds of technology, as well as innovate around local and community-owned microgrids. There is an opportunity for further research on microgrids and whether they could improve energy access and affordability and might have more potential to contribute to a just energy transition in South Africa by alleviating the burden on women whose ability to care for the household requires energy access.

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