OPINION: The furore over South Africa’s decision to award Turkey’s Karadeniz a contract to supply emergency electricity via gas-fired power barges has highlighted how Pretoria's government will find the energy transition a huge challenge to navigate.

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Over the past three decades, the country’s power grid has been emasculated through neglect, under-investment and corruption at sclerotic utility Eskom, resulting in frequent blackouts and brownouts.

Instead of helping create an actionable and cogent energy policy, many South African politicians — particularly under former president Jacob Zuma — have seemed more focused on feathering their nests.

The role of coal

Many fine words and action plans have been formulated but there has been exasperatingly little follow through by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.

Coal-fired power has always been at the heart of the country’s energy system, so much so that over the last 27 years the ANC — albeit with a bigger populace to govern after almost five decades of apartheid — has wilfully ignored South Africa’s oil and gas potential.

It is almost farcical that, just as the energy transition kicks in and opposition against fossil fuels grows, Pretoria will approve upstream legislation that was needed decades ago to underpin a vibrant oil and gas sector and tap the country’s abundant hydrocarbon potential.

That is one reason why awarding Karadeniz a $15 billion, 20-year power supply deal is bizarre — it will strand domestic gas resources while Pretoria buys imported gas.

Renewables have a major role to play in South Africa, with solar and onshore wind already finding traction, while offshore wind is untapped.

Jettisoning coal is a holy grail for many activists, but South Africa’s mines employ 92,000 people and 900,000 dependents.

You only have to see how the former mining communities in Wales still suffer economic malaise 35 years after their collieries were closed, to see how confrontational politics can devastate people’s lives.

Pretoria needs wise heads to ensure the same does not happen in the coalfields of Mpumulanga, Free State, KwazuluNatal and Limpopo.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)