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Can South Africa Transition to Clean Energy?

PHOLA, South Africa — Dozens of cattle farmers swarmed the excavator clawing into a green pasture in South Africa’s coal belt, shouting a threat to the man behind the controls: Stop digging, or they would topple the machine.

They were desperate to halt the newest coal mine in Phola, a township in the country’s high plains, fearing it would decimate one of the last patches of grazing land for their cattle.

“If it means we’ll die for our things, we’ll do that,” Sifiso Mathibela, one of the farmers, said, referring to his livestock.

Mr. Mathibela and his fellow farmers were in many ways unlikely protesters of coal. Many of them work in the industry — Mr. Mathibela’s primary income comes from transporting coal. Their investments in cattle are relatively new, a hedge against the expectation that South Africa cannot run on coal forever.

But as a global climate summit gets underway in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, South Africa is proving to be a prime example of how hard it will be for countries dependent on coal to make the transition to cleaner, renewable energy sources.

About 80 percent of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal. South Africa, the most industrialized and diversified economy on the continent, has pledged to phase it out. At last year’s global climate summit, in Scotland, wealthy nations pledged $8.5 billion to help South Africa shift to energy systems that produce less pollution.

But most coal mining ventures, once run by white-owned conglomerates, have shifted to Black ownership under laws passed after apartheid by the governing party, the African National Congress. With that wealth finally in Black hands, political and environmental analysts are concerned that the A.N.C. and its union allies may be loath to let go of the industry — especially at the urging of Europeans, who profited for generations from South Africa’s resources.

While the state-owned power company, Eskom, plans to phase out about half of its coal-fired power capacity over the next 13 years, a government planning document calls for the creation of new coal plants because the current grid is so overwhelmed that there are regular power cuts. The country continues to invest in industries that require coal-generated electricity.

“It’s counter to all the things that we’ve been talking about in terms of South Africa’s commitment to reduce emissions,” said Nokwanda Maseko, a senior economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies, an economic research institution in South Africa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has publicly promoted a shift to renewables, but his minister of mineral resources, Gwede Mantashe, has maintained that coal will remain a strong part of the country’s energy mix for years to come.

Speaking to the climate summit on Tuesday, Mr. Ramaphosa called on developed countries to shoulder the cost of the shift.

“Our continent only contributed 1 percent of the damage that’s been done to the climate, and we believe that the more industrialized countries that are more developed need to live up to the commitment that they have made,” he said.

He raised concerns that most of the funding that has been pledged to his country, by a group that includes Britain, France, Germany and the United States, was slated to come as loans. That will only add debt that the country can ill afford, he said, arguing that the country needs grants instead of loans, and that a meaningful transition will require $98 billion over five years.

Leaders of wealthy countries on Monday endorsed South Africa’s plan to invest the $8.5 billion — mostly in renewable energy projects.

The battles over coal’s future in South Africa are taking place in Phola and other mining towns throughout Mpumalanga Province in the northeast, which produces about 80 percent of the country’s coal. Hulking coal-fired power stations dotting the region’s flat, rural landscape make South Africa among the world’s worst carbon dioxide emitters.

Many of the region’s residents are dependent on coal, but also desperate to leave it behind.

Thunderous blasts from mines crack the concrete facades of their homes, while plumes of dust leave their children short of breath. Community objections to mining are often no match for the politically connected coal operations that, residents say, identify and pay local residents to lobby on their behalf. In a country where about one-third of the working age population is unemployed, the companies promise jobs to some, angering those who are left out.

In Phola, a township built for Black coal laborers during apartheid, many of the activists battling mines are not necessarily thinking about saving the planet, but about meeting their basic needs. And for many, coal has not been cutting it.

For all of the money mining companies have thrown around Phola over the years, fundamental conditions have not improved. Many people still live along bumpy dirt roads, some in tin shacks barely bigger than latrines.

Mr. Mathibela, the farmer, 34, grew up in a three-bedroom house built by Eskom. His father worked at a nearby coal-fired power station, and his mother cooked for workers at another plant.

After college, he worked in construction at Kusile, a power station near Phola, which broke ground in 2008 and is now the largest in South Africa. He grew disenchanted with the coal industry after Phola residents were struck with rubber bullets and tear gas in 2010 while protesting a new mine that had failed to bring promised jobs and infrastructure investments.

Yet for all of Mr. Mathibela’s anger at coal mines, they remained his best option to make a living while he was growing his herd of cattle. Together with a childhood friend, he started a trucking company four years ago that transports coal between power stations and mines, not unlike the one he is now fighting against.

The cattle farmers in the standoff with the excavator, which happened in December, found reason to celebrate when the man operating the machine heeded their demands and stopped digging.

The victory was short-lived, however.

Under the cover of night a few days later, the machines thundered back to life. The farmers, alerted by shepherds sleeping in the field, raced back to the site, and the standoff began again.

“It’s going to be a very, very, very big battle,” Mr. Mathibela said. “Is coal more precious than what we have started?”

Officials with that mine, Opsirex, hired a resident of a nearby informal settlement to work as their community liaison officer to sell the potential benefits of the mine to his neighbors. They also asked a traditional chief, Sylvester Mashiyane, to help them lobby government officials to obtain a mining license.

Mr. Mashiyane, who works as a machine operator at a different mine, said Opsirex paid him 8,100 rand, or about $550, in September 2021 for travel expenses to take three busloads of people to rally on the mine’s behalf at the mineral resources department. He said he also heard an Opsirex official talk about having paid a City Council member $840 to promote the mine, which the council member denies.

But Mr. Mashiyane said he fought for the mine because he believed the mining officials’ pledge to bring jobs and build infrastructure in Phola.

That is not what happened.

About three months after the rally, he said, Opsirex broke ground without ever telling him or presenting a plan to help the community as mining officials had promised.

Opsirex officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In the weeks after Opsirex began digging, the mine’s opponents scrambled to find solutions.

They said they held several meetings with Conny Nkalitshana, the mayor of the municipality that includes Phola. Her ultimate message was that the mine had followed the proper procedures and that they needed to accept it. Ms. Nkalitshana did not respond to requests for comment.

The livestock farmers filed a lawsuit in March asking a court to halt Opsirex’s operation.

The lawsuit was largely underwritten by Peter Masango, 44, a wealthy farmer who has also built a nest egg from other business ventures — including running a fleet of ambulances that respond to emergencies at mines.

One afternoon, holding court in his house in a gated community near Phola, Mr. Masango floated a proposal to Mr. Mathibela: If mining officials offered 2 million rand — about $113,000 — to each farmer, they should drop their opposition to the mine. Mr. Mathibela nodded in agreement.

But neither this proposal nor the lawsuit went anywhere. A judge threw out the suit in April.

Now, the heavy machinery at the site is rumbling as loud as ever, extracting coal to power South Africa.

With the mine’s crater growing, and the grazing land for his livestock dwindling, Mr. Mathibela is wondering whether there is anything left for him in Phola. His grandmother has developed a hacking cough. He fears that his 2-year-old daughter will get sick, too.

And he is already plotting his next business venture: building wind and solar farms.

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