A long walk to a just energy transition the political economy of the restructuring of Eskom: 1985 and beyond

Mondi, Lumkile Patriarch
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This thesis is about the political economy of the restructuring of Eskom from 1985 to 2019. The restructuring of Eskom invites us to explore the relationship between the institution, macroeconomic policymaking and political change. I locate the restructuring of a major state owned power utility, Eskom, within the context of both global and South African policy adjustments, enabling us to understand and come to some view as to whether the macroeconomic and energy policy shifts that various authors point to internationally and at macro level in South Africa’s transition to democracy, also obtain at micro-level. Moreover, the thesis shows how Eskom’s challenges open up opportunities for change: for South Africa, energy transformation means moving away from a system that brought about these complex problems in the first place, that relied heavily on fossil fuels, towards variable renewable energy in a just transition. The thesis contributes to the political economic tradition of South African historiography and complements recent work by Nimrod Zalk (2017), Seeraj Mohamed (2019) and Von Holdt (2019), and extends Bowman’s (2020) recent work by looking at the restructuring of Eskom in historical perspective. The contrast between narrative and reality has been assessed at four levels. First, this thesis considers the extent to which the narrative created by Eskom management as an interest group gave rise to the promise of “electricity for all” through the extension of electricity to black households, both urban and rural, thereby frustrating the restructuring process. Second, how power and class coalesced against the democratic state’s attempt to restructure Eskom, turning the power utility into a resource for jobs, revenue, contracts, tenders and licensing that precipitated the energy crisis informing the state’s intention to restructure Eskom and transition to a low-carbon economy. Third, the thesis examines the evolution of the primary legitimation mechanism of the black elite that shaped the intersection of patronage and factionalism, by gaining power in the state and capturing Eskom for rents, leading to a need for its restructuring. Finally, the thesis critically analyses the 2019 Eskom paper, Building an Electricity Supply Industry (ESI) of the Future, with a focus on how a restructured Eskom could contribute to the transition of the South African economy to a just low-carbon economy – what is termed a just energy transition in the work of many scholars.
A thesis submitted to the in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, School of Economics and Finance, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2021