Energy ‘poverty’ still entrenched in SA

Meeting South Africa’s household energy needs is not just about having access to the grid, or a suite of renewable technologies on hand. It requires tackling the roots of poverty in one of the most unequal societies in the world, writes Leonie Joubert.

The 2015 Fees must Fall protest at the University of Capetown, SA

2015 Fees Must Fall protest at the University of Capetown, SA (photo by Discott, edited, CC BY-SA 4.0)

South Africa’s university campuses are burning right now, and it’s hard for us to talk about anything else as the country faces one of the biggest crises in its 22 years of democracy. The campuses are burning with ideological and political dissatisfaction, and in some cases this has literarily ended with libraries, buildings, and buses in ashes. The 2016 academic year is drawing to a close, and a small band of students are leveraging the approaching final exams to force the state to take seriously their demands: free higher education, and a syllabus stripped of its Eurocentric self-importance.

But underlying this almost inevitable eruption of rage is the fact that the ‘rainbow nation’, with its miracle Mandela-era reconciliation, has not managed to reverse the structural roots of inequality that are the result of 300-plus years of colonialism and apartheid which have left people of color struggling to pull their way free of poverty.

Poverty has many faces. It’s not just about cash in hand, but about whether people or communities are able to achieve certain standards of living or access to certain ‘development’ opportunities: for instance safe homes, secure food access, healthcare, jobs, education, and… energy.

South Africa has a very unequal wealth and income distribution (our Gini coefficient is poor by global standards), and the divide between the haves and the have-nots is echoed in the energy landscape, with nearly half still living in ‘energy poverty.’

When the African National Congress (ANC) was voted into power in 1994, it inherited a country that had delivered excellent services—water, sanitation, roads, electricity—to white communities, but neglected the needs of black communities. The state immediately tried to redress this, especially through low cost housing initiatives and rolling out basic services.

According to Department of Energy statistics, about 37% of households had electricity in their homes in 1994. Twenty years later, that was up to 87%. However, for a family to be energy secure, it’s not just about being on the grid, or having some renewable energy option installed in their home. Energy poverty is more complicated than that.

In a 2014 report, local civil society organization Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA) explained that how much a family spends on electricity relative to their income is a good way of measuring if they’re energy poor.

According to SEA, when a household spends 10% or more of its income on energy, it is regarded as energy poor. This is the threshold where people start making tradeoffs between their energy needs and other household demands.

Electricity is cheap if you’re wealthy, and if you only spend a fraction of your budget on it; if you’re poor, it is unreachably expensive. The poorest in SA spend about 27% of their monthly income on energy, nearly four times as much as the rich, who spend only 6% of their income on electricity, according to SEA.

‘If this ‘energy poverty’ definition is applied, then close to 43% of South African households are classified as energy poor,’ states the report Tackling Urban Energy Poverty in South Africa.

Policies that work

The state has some laudable policies that try to address the root causes of total poverty, and overcome energy poverty.

Getting people out of informal structures and into well-built formal homes, for instance. There are various initiatives to roll out subsidized low cost housing. From an energy and poverty perspective, a bricks and mortar home is the objective: sheet metal or thin board slum homes are thermally inefficient, which means people spend way more on heating than wealthy families. Homes with ceilings, insulation, and fewer outside-facing walls (for instance, semi-detached flats) stay warmer in winter than informal shacks.

Social income grants—for instance, for the chronically ill, or pensioners—have put urgently needed cash in people’s hands, and made a significant dent in absolute poverty levels. This means people can buy small ‘parcels’ of pre-paid electricity from week to week.

The free basic electricity (FBE) policy ensures that all poor households get 50 kilowatt hours of electricity each month (51% of the country needs to lean on this support), and a tiered billing structure aims to subside poorer households. The free basic alternative energy policy is geared towards subsidizing those households which don’t have access to electricity, and can’t benefit from the FBE policy. And the 1998 White Paper on Energy aims to have universal energy access by 2025.

In its analysis of these various attempts to redress the imbalances in SA’s society, reflected in the level of energy poverty, SEA comes up with several suggestions: everything from a national integrated energy poverty policy and better engagement between national and local government stakeholders, to on-the-ground educational campaigns about energy uses and options, to improving research on these issues.

While government has made ‘enormous inroads’ in terms of addressing energy poverty here, SEA’s report nevertheless calls for a critical review of associated policies, their implementation, and effectiveness.

There are no quick fixes to the structural nature of poverty—including energy poverty—in this country. And while we try to figure this out, the campuses continue to burn.

Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist, and currently works as a fellow with the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Humanities of the South, where she is looking at the political economy of the food system in her country.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.


  1. James Wimberley says

    Good points. Meanwhile, there is immediate room for an energy policy that concentrates on lowering costs – which today means renewable generators and efficient appliances – and bringing access to isolated rural communities – which today means distributed renewable microgrids. A programme of Russian nuclear reactors which will certainly be expensive, and quite possibly unreliable and dangerous as well, will make rapid progress on energy poverty unattainable. Coal is only slightly less bad on costs and reliability and worse for health.

  2. Dr. Josef Pesch says

    South-Africa has so much sunshine – and plenty of roofs. Decentralized solar systems seem the obvious solution, now that solar power is so cheap. Solar power to the people.
    (Compared to solar, all centralized solutions are too expensive, including coal, and especially nuclear.)

  3. heinbloed says

    “University campuses are burning.”

    Thanks, students. Keep the fire roaring!

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