Navigating the energy crisis for Just Urban Transition – Perspectives for South African cities.

by Kopano Ntsoane
17 April 2023

With the highest number of recorded hours of power cuts than any other year, 2022 is considered the most intensive year of load shedding. The situation had only worsened in the current year with impacts proving burdensome to cities. Statistics South Africa attributes the decline in economic activity amongst key sectors (energy, manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, and mining) to load shedding due to a lack of electricity generation capacity. Media briefings continue to point out implications on macro-economic performance indicators such as production and consumption, GDP, investment, and political stability. Various sectoral reports also outline visible adverse impacts of load shedding on food security, cost of living, income generation and livelihoods amongst others.


The impact of this phenomenon on the well-being of urban ecosystems is significant and affects most fundamental goals for cities, including sustainability, resilience, livability, and justice. This begs the question about the role cities can play in ensuring the availability of energy resources and access to energy services, in an inclusive and sustainable manner, while minimising the associated negative impacts of its use.


An objective case is made herein that the just transition framework could be leveraged to achieve some degree of productivity, stability, and inclusion if cities are to be forthright and courageous in navigating the current energy crisis.


As articulated in the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) report, the just transition framework presents an opportunity to start dealing with practical issues relating to jobs, local economies, skills, social support, and governance. Central to the Just Transition process is adapting to the adverse impacts of climate change, fostering climate resilience, and reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in a way that is inclusive, and predicated on the principle of placing people at the centre, especially the most vulnerable.



The Perils of Load Shedding on Cities

Various reports across social quotas paint a vivid picture of the impact of load shedding and its ripple effects on urban ecosystems. In its latest survey, South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA) shows that load shedding is having adverse impacts on the property industry, including the commercial office, industrial/logistics, shopping centres, hotels and residential. Adverse impacts in the sector were reported due to mainly lost labour, productivity, and resultant damage to machinery.


For agriculture, concerns were raised over persistent load-shedding for areas mainly dependent on irrigation, noted by the Agricultural Business Chamber. For this sector, the impact is felt mainly due to disruptions in production schedules, revenue, and sensitive electronic equipment. Beyond this, the urban food system encompasses production, processing and packaging, distribution, retail, consumption and waste, which are somewhat affected. It is therefore incumbent on cities to uncover, through rigorous inquiry, the dimensions, and complexities of their food systems and to see this as an urban mandate and governance obligation. [i]


For small businesses, load shedding poses threats to business survival and livelihoods. The impact is much more severe given that these businesses are mostly survivalist and vulnerable. The cost of downtime and business disruption, as well as the general lack of necessary backup equipment, remains a concern. For such cities as Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality, some enquiries already revealed that load shedding results in business interruptions and poses security risks to SMMEs.


For manufacturing, it is understood that the sector is energy-intensive thus making electricity one of the key inputs required in the production process. The decline in production was reported after four consecutive months of increases, as sustained and intense power cuts continued to weigh on the sector. A survey by the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber found that one in five businesses have cut jobs and over 90% are halting investment and expansion plans, thus threatening the sustainability of the highly manufacturing-dependent city economy.


Possible Implications and Pathways

Cities are clearly bearing the brunt of the energy crisis in disproportionate ways. Risks posed by load shedding erode the cities’ ability to generate revenues from paying customers and increase the number of customers in need of subsidies from the city. Load shedding also poses significant threats to how municipalities can pay their own bills, strategically budget for expenditure, and in turn, deliver on their developmental mandates. In addition to the government’s commitments and initiatives to curb the energy crisis, it is in the cities’ interest to confront the crisis decisively. Exploring transition pathways carries major implications for labour market dynamics, energy, housing, transportation and agro-food systems, and requires changes in consumer practices, policies, cultural meanings, infrastructures, and business models. Cities have already made some strides to this effect and opportunities still exist.


The government reported that Just Energy Transition Investment Plan will see approximately R1.5 trillion worth of investments in our economy over the next five years.  New frontiers such as renewable energy, green hydrogen and electric vehicles are on the cards. Some cities and several major companies, start-ups and financiers are taking firm action to tackle not only climate change but local energy crisis. For such cities as Cape Town, options are on the table to procure power from the open market, and so are Johannesburg, eThekwini and Ekurhuleni. This includes considering options for renewable energy and dispatchable technologies, such as battery storage and gas-to-power. eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality’s Climate Action Plan envisions that 40% of all energy should come from sources other than Eskom, and by 2050 it aims to be 100% reliant on clean energy sources.


A Concluding Note

Cities are disproportionately enduring the devastating impacts of the crisis in energy, food and water, felt amongst vulnerable groups (women, children and youth). But by virtue of their proximity to local communities, they have local knowledge and networks that enable them to identify, and support affected workers, businesses, and communities. They can systematically map out local functions required for just transition and share responsibility amongst their constituents.


In the name of promoting good governance and shared learning, cities are encouraged to become more deliberate in prioritising the involvement of all stakeholders. This involves bringing policymakers, industry players and subject-matter experts, community organisations and key role players to debate key (energy) issues and propose suitable mechanisms and approaches to navigate the current crisis while transitioning justly.


[i] Handbook on Urban Food Security in the Global South. Edited by Jonathan Crush, Bruce Frayne, and Gareth Haysom.

Kopano Ntsoane is a Junior Researcher: Policy, Research and Advocacy. To contact him email