Reclaiming Power? Shifting geographies of extractivism in South Africa and visions for a just transition from below

South Africa’s Right to Say No campaign is raising critical questions about how to ensure that its energy transition does not leave behind communities devastated by toxic waste and excluded from the touted benefits of renewable energy.


Longread by

  • Lisa Pier
  • Matthews Hlabane
Orlando power station, Soweto, South Aftrica.

Prosthetic Head/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

Decommissioned coal-fired power station Orlando, Soweto, South Aftrica.

Weaving a Just transition from Below: threads, visions and alternatives

Activists in the Right to Say No will not let this moment pass without contestation and getting a foot in the door in discussing what would be a truly just transition for South Africa. Extractivist realities may seem like unlikely settings for developing utopian imaginaries. However, it might be precisely these spaces that hold the greatest potential for imagining alternatives, painfully informed by the evils of the extractivist model.

 Banners at the annual Sigidi Rally and Bazooka Commemorations in Xolobeni, March 2022.jpeg

Lisa Pier

Banners at the annual Sigidi Rally and Bazooka Commemorations in Xolobeni, March 2022. The rally is a central event for the campaign with activists from across the country coming together.

Having mobilised support within and beyond South Africa, the Right to Say No is taking on extractivism and corporate impunity at various levels. Amplifying and supporting community activism lies at the heart of the campaign, rallying communities across the country to form strong alliances and exchange knowledge about and experiences of extractivism. This includes national workshops such as the AIDC School of Extractivism, or practical support such as assisting communities with water testing for Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). The Right to Say No demands the rethinking of mining policy at national level, moving away from the short-sighted and assumed benefits to the national economy (or, in reality, transnational corporations (TNCs) and domestic elites) towards a diversified economy that is environmentally and socially sound.8 The campaign has links across the region, including in Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zambia and Zimbabwe through activities like the annual Permanent People’s Tribunal on Extractivism. The Right to Say No is also a member of the ‘Global Campaign to Reclaim People’s Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity’, actively participating in the negotiations for a United Nations Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

While the Right to Say No aims to strengthen community resistance, it also generates tools for securing the legal grounds for a ‘right to say no’ to mining and extractivism. This includes the formulation of a model law, a proposed draft law that guarantees communities the right to oppose business activities that negatively impact their lives and environment. The model law will be suggested for adaption and adoption in multiple independent legislatures across Southern Africa. Additionally, the campaign aims to strengthen advocacy in the South African Development Community (SADC) region for the Binding Treaty, where African delegations have been particularly active in the promotion of the Treaty process in 2023.

Legal tools have proven successful in defence of people’s lands and livelihoods. The Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), founded in 2007 by community activists in Pondoland, is a prime example. The ACC most famously sued the Australian mining company Transworld Energy and Minerals and the multinational oil and gas giant Shell in 2018 and 2022 over neglecting FPIC and customary land rights and causing environmental damage – and won. In both cases, corporate plans had to be put on hold, constituting a massive victory against corporate power and proving that law and activism can indeed alter power relations. Apart from opposing corporate power, however, the Right to Say No campaign recognises the strategic importance of putting forward development alternatives, such as feminist eco-socialism, to work towards. In March 2023, at the national Right to Say No rally and commemoration of the assassinated leader, Bazooka Rhadebe, the campaign adopted the People’s Declaration on building a just transition from below through advancing the Right to Say No as a programme for action. Giving ‘expression to our desire for a just transition from below, which to us is much more than an “energy transition”. For us, it is a transition from unemployment, landlessness, violence, abject poverty in all corners of the society and the glaring inequality of lives lived in South Africa. It entails the creation of millions of decent jobs and livelihoods. For example, in rehabilitating the land damaged by mining and other forms of extractivism, thousands of jobs can be found and lay the basis for food sovereignty’.9

In an interview in April 2022, co-author Matthews Hlabane explained that for a truly just energy transition, communities and the working class must be ‘in control of the process’, referring both to decision-making about future energy trajectories, and the production and installation of necessary technology, as otherwise ‘we are marketing for the capitalist’.10 The lack of support for developing community-centred energy projects and alternatives illustrates the state’s lack of interest in forming a just transition for all. For the SAGRC, communities getting organised is central to building effective counterpower. Generating materials and opportunities for conducting popular education on the principles of building solidarity economies and supporting community-based initiatives can go a long way in restoring cohesion and unity to fight for better futures. Socially owned renewable energy as well as alternative livelihood strategies such as agroecological farming are among the first ideas communities mention for turning around the energy and power imbalance.

Hlabane stresses that establishing communities as ‘liberated zones’ for solidarity economies could solve issues of food insecurity, poverty, unemployment and violence through the circular provision of basic resources, including energy at a local level. It is anticipated that as such zones liberated from neoliberal capitalism gain importance, their solidarity economies could help avoid competition, duplication and waste of resources. In eMalahleni, the SAGRC and Matthews Hlabane have made possible the (almost) impossible. On a piece of land won back through a land claim in 2021, activists established an agroecological farm using their own generated solar and wind power. Their farm proves that community-based alternatives can become a reality and create spaces for experimentation and collective benefit. Even so, decentralisation alone will not be able to address the challenges of the South African energy economy.

Matthews Hlabane working at the SAGRC farm in eMalahleni.

Photo: Anonymous

Matthews Hlabane working at the SAGRC farm in eMalahleni

For most working-class communities, access to renewable energy depends on access to capital. As described in TNI’s report on ‘Energy Transition Mythbusters’, decentralised energy solutions such as individual solar or wind installations require private resources and hence are exclusive to those who can afford them. The free-market approach in South Africa largely failed to ‘unlock’ private investment in the renewable energy sector, contributing to the current energy crisis. Currently, the public sector leads on the energy transition, involving Eskom.11 AIDC, TNI and others have argued that reversing the privatisation of Eskom, campaigning against international trade law (including its restrictions on intellectual property), halting the ‘Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme’ (REI4P), reconsidering various options for a successful energy transition, as well as proposing new ways to fund the transition is key to transforming Eskom and achieving a just energy transition for South Africa. 12, 13 Community activists would add that integrating the FPIC principles to any new energy proposals, as well as ensuring community participation, are vital to a non-extractivist transition.

The Right to Say No is also about ‘saying “yes”’ to people’s own solutions. The concept of prefigurative politics, describing processes of the collective cultivation of radical practices that realise fragments of a desired future in the present, can serve as a useful methodology to promote community-level initiatives.14 Although there is a major (academic) debate about the impact that prefigurative projects can achieve in the broader picture of structurally and politically cemented injustice and inequality, they offer spaces for experimentation and conversation on inclusive and just futures. Especially in South Africa where Black communities have not been allowed to envision freely the development they want; it is important to create spaces for discussing alternatives and forming utopian imaginaries.15

On the question of employment, the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ campaign, promoted by the SAGRC, the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) and some South African trade unions aims to offer a comprehensive strategy.16 The campaign claims that a just transition could create ‘at least one million jobs’ and aims to mobilise ‘thousands of South Africans around real solutions to slow down climate change and promote the enhancement of human life and the natural environment’.17 Areas of action include the production of green energy, public transport, retrofitted buildings, sustainable food production, the protection of natural resources and the satisfaction of basic needs. In this way, the campaign offers a practical and just alternative to hegemonic discourses of extractivist development.18

This includes renewed attention to appropriate and locally sourced resources that reduce total energy use rather than driving ever greater demand, for instance through redesigning and retrofitting houses using thatched roofs, which contribute to natural air conditioning and can be built from regenerative and locally grown materials. 

Activists stress that a just transition must not only respond to the needs of labour, but also change social relations more broadly to respond to the crisis of social reproduction and climate change. Although it has been more than six years since the One Million Climate Jobs campaign took shape, it retains traction since its objective remains unfulfilled. Particularly among miners and other mine workers and those living right next to coal mines, the idea of clean and safe jobs will not lose its appeal, making the fight for the campaign an ongoing struggle. Many activists previously worked in mining and show solidarity with mine workers in precarious employment, variously affected by the exploitative character of extractivism. While the Right to Say No focuses on community activism and international alliance-building, the campaign also fosters relationships with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) to collaborate on labour rights and corporate accountability, as well as with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on the ‘One Million Climate Jobs Campaign’. Although the trade union sector in South Africa has a complex mixture of interests on issues such as energy, collaboration between AIDC and trade unions has shown that the distinction often made between labour and activists is false. In fact, issues of employment and production need to be tied more closely to matters of reproduction and unemployment.

Nonetheless, ‘moving beyond the “no”’ to extractivism poses a challenge to the campaign, not only because of limited resources to engage in creating utopian visions, but also because activists feel they ‘have not been allowed to do so’ throughout centuries of colonial and apartheid oppression.19 Breaking down the psychological and material barriers for reviving South African utopian imagination beyond demands for services is a major task for the campaign. In an interview in one of eMalahleni’s townships in 2022, an activist reported that the lack of financial resources or even external funding impedes aspirations to start community initiatives and build a better life for themselves. 

Moreover, resistance is met with systematic intimidation, persecution, and, in some cases, the assassination of activists and community leaders. As University of Johannesburg Professor Patrick Bond notes, one interesting route of contestation may be to classify extractivist activities as economic crimes. In Goa in India and Nauru in the southwestern Pacific, for instance, this is how prohibitions on mining or the payment of compensation have been achieved. This approach might also have potential in South Africa, where resources continue to be rapidly exploited and mining activities are estimated to have caused economy-wide capital flight of $330 billion between 1995 and 2018.20

What are we talking about? Histories of energy injustice and extractivism in South Africa

Coal sits at the core of the current South African energy model, constituting 70% of national power generation capacity.21 The destructive social and environmental impacts of coal mining are largely borne by marginalised communities, nature, women and future generations, contributing to what Samantha Hargreaves calls an ‘acute, multifaceted social, economic and environmental crisis’.22 The negative environmental effects of mining activities include acid mine drainage, dust and soil dumps that increase concentrations of heavy metals and radiation, coal fires, fly ash and smoke loaded with toxic chemicals.23 Water abstraction and water pollution are acute problems around some coal mines, including the fought-over site Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal province, where the community leader Fikile Ntshangase was assassinated in 2020.24 The depletion of natural resources without reinvestment has been debilitating.

Environmental authorities appear to be under the command of politicians with close ties to the mining industry, which has led to the flouting of regulations in favour of capital. For example in 2012, when current president but then coal-mining tycoon Cyril Ramaphosa, as Lonmin’s main local investor emailed in a request for ‘concomitant action’ against ‘dastardly criminal’ wildcat striking platinum mineworkers, that led to the 2012 Marikana Massacre.25 As the limits to South African resource abundance, especially of gold and coal, are increasingly apparent, extractive frontiers are being extended with capital penetrating more remote and inaccessible sites.

Women tend to stand at the frontlines of extractivist projects. African feminist network WoMin explains how women face further and specific marginalisation in mining and extractivism. Not only are female mine workers paid less than men, but they also tend to take on more dangerous and precarious tasks. This is not to mention women’s unpaid care work and the responsibility to feed their families – a task that can be extremely difficult in the absence of fertile land and/or income for those who do not obtain employment in the mines as there may be very few low-skilled jobs available. There is also an increased risk of sexualised and gender-based violence in and around extraction sites, which are often male-dominated spaces.26, 27

The combined cities of Witbank and eMalahleni illustrate the multifaceted violence of extractivism. The area has one of the world’s poorest air quality rankings due to the mining and processing of coal, leading residents to describe the city as ‘hell on earth’ .28 It is one of the places where extractivism in all its brutality is visual and real. While coal mines are lit up all day and night, producing energy for the urban centres, elites and industry; neighbouring townships are left in the dark. The lack of access to electricity contributes to unsafe situations, especially for women, and makes it extremely difficult for people to build a better life. Often, open-pit mines are placed only a few metres away from peoples’ homes, causing serious structural damage as well as affecting residents’ health and safety.

Mining companies collude with the state and police to oppress protests and mobilisations. In fact, mining companies and municipalities are suspected of channelling resources towards violent vigilante groups to oppose protest and intimate activists. In Phola, a protest against the neighbouring Beryl coal mine in 2022 was opposed by a group of pro-mining vigilantes who started to attack anti-mining protesters. When the police arrived, protesters were surprised to see the police protecting the aggressors rather than ensuring their safety.29

As attention shifts to markets for renewable energies, and new sites of extractivism, places like eMalahleni are likely to be dropped like hot potatoes once coal reserves are depleted, leaving land sterilised by life-threatening sinkholes and AMD uncontrollably seeping into rivers. In a place so inextricably tied to and dependent on the coal industry, the imperative of a green transition has raised doubts and fear among communities dependent on employment in the mining sector. Mining corporations in the area have started to sell their assets to emerging companies formed under the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act. In so doing, they shed jobs and transfer social and environmental liabilities to the government or BEE enterprises, which have proven incapable and unwilling to deal with these issues.

The New Wave of Extractivism: Green hydrogen in the Northern Cape

Under the banner of climate action, TNCs and other corporations are already expanding their activities to ever more remote and inaccessible extraction sites with no concern for environmental and social standards. The political support for the rush for ‘green’ hydrogen is a prime example of green extractivism. South Africa has become a central site of the global rush for the new resource, resulting in a series of protests and contestation.

Hydrogen gas is generated from water through a process of electrolysis, requiring enormous amounts of energy. For hydrogen to be labelled ‘green’, that energy must come from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy. While hydrogen can function as a fuel for heating or combustion engines, it is particularly valued for its ability to store electricity. Green hydrogen can hence serve as an electricity storage for surplus wind and solar energy to be used when the weather does not allow for direct use. Another property of green hydrogen is that it functions independently from direct grid connection and hence is easy to trade internationally.

This is where South Africa comes in: thanks to its capacity to produce large volumes of wind and solar energy, the country has become a welcome ally to countries in the global North keen to ‘green’ their energy systems without making significant structural changes. It is estimated that Southern Africa will turn into the largest producer of green hydrogen globally by 2050.30 This forecast led the current ANC government, in line with its neoliberal agenda, to focus on the export of green hydrogen and ammonia, securing partnerships with business and winning tax revenues as part of the national green hydrogen strategy. Unveiled at COP26 in 2021, the Just transition Energy Partnership (JETP) between South Africa and countries in the G7, including France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, strongly emphasised the development of a green hydrogen export economy in South Africa. Germany has become one of South Africa’s leading partners and is a central player in green hydrogen projects in the Northern Cape province. Negotiated behind closed doors, about 97% of the USD 12.5 billion (as of November 2023) in funding for the JETP comes in hard currency loans, increasing South Africa’s debt burden and financial dependency.31, 32

Table 1. Main companies in South Africa's renewable energy sector

The renewable energy sector in South Africa is fairly consolidated and dominated by five major players:

CompanyHeadquartered in
Mainstream Renewable PowerIreland
Juwi Renewable EnergyGermany
EDF RenewablesFrance
Acciona Energía SASpain

As Table 1 shows, none of the five major companies in the South African renewables sector has its headquarters in South Africa; these are renewable energy TNCs with global operations. One important player in the green energy landscape, however, is the South African energy and petrochemical giant SASOL, the world’s biggest producer of fuels and chemicals from coal and gas, which is buying up renewable energy capacities in the country. In 2023, SASOL announced a partnership with the French gas company Air Liquide to procure 1,200 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy to power their respective operations. The two companies also entered a 260-MW wind and solar purchase agreement with TotalEnergies and the South African renewable energy firm Mulilo.33 SASOL is also involved in the production of green hydrogen, for instance in Sasolburg in the Free State, and has signed several agreements to secure supplies.34

At the Green Hydrogen Summit held in Cape Town in June 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa presented South Africa as a future ‘global exporter of energy’. Currently, there are around 20 green hydrogen projects in the pipeline in South Africa. Nine of these have been declared Strategic Infrastructure Projects in 2022, meaning they will be fast-tracked and approval processes eased. Although Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia De Lille claims that the projects have undergone ‘extensive quality assessment, it is unlikely that environmental and social impact assessments will be given sufficient consideration and resources, given the investor-friendly focus of the green hydrogen strategy.35 Four of these projects – the Boegoebaai Green Hydrogen Development Programme, Prieska Power Reserve, Ubuntu Green Energy Hydrogen Project and Upilanga Solar and Green Hydrogen Park – are located in the Northern Cape.36 

The Boegoebaai Green Hydrogen Development Progamme, which will be established in the Richtersveld municipality is a flagship project for the South African green hydrogen strategy. The South African government together with SASOL and ArcelorMittal are planning the Freeport Saldanha Industrial Development Zone, aiming to generate 80GW by 2050. This is likely to make Boegoebaai one of the world’s largest green hydrogen projects. Among activists, SASOL and ArcelorMittal are known for neglecting any form of corporate accountability and indeed covering up environmental and social harm. 

In response to such developments, backed by the government and global capital, activists formed the group for Vrywillige, Vooraf en Voortdurende ingeligte Toestemming (VVVT) Namakwaland, to contest land and water grabs.37 In Boegoebaai, roughly 450,000 hectares of community-owned land are earmarked for the Boegoebaai Green Hydrogen Development Programme, without consultation nor consent of the affected communities. These communities had only recently reclaimed parts of this land, and are now at risk of losing it again. The land question in South Africa clearly cannot be addressed only by an increased focus on FPIC. Yet, for those communities owning land, FPIC remains one of the last resorts for defending land rights, which are often customary rather than owned via legal title. 

Fishing is critical to the livelihoods of coastal communities and central to local identity and culture. Local residents argue that the jobs promised as part of the development project are unattainable for community members as they require specific and high qualifications.38 VVVT Namakwaland has demonstrated and protested against the planned project in the Northern Cape, including through creative forms of resistance. Theatrical performances by Nama Khoi Productions stress the need to consult the Nama Khoi Indigenous Peoples before developing new mega-projects on their lands.39 In one of their recent plays during International Khoikhoi Languages Week, the group left the audience with the question ‘If we sell our LAND, then WHAT?’,40 leaving no doubt about the inextricable link between land and identity for Khoi Peoples.

Against this background, it is a sinister comedy for the German Green Robert Habeck, Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Climate Action to promote green hydrogen as the energy of the future, ignoring its social and environmental costs.41 In fact, Germany is cashing in twice from promoting green hydrogen in South Africa: first by by selling the technology and expertise needed for its production and second by importing it at low prices . There are currently no comprehensive or binding environmental and social standards for green hydrogen projects in South Africa, and decisions on the national hydrogen strategy were conducted without inputs from civil society, trade unions and the affected communities. 

The development of the green hydrogen economy in South Africa hence begs the question of a green energy transition for whom? It ought to be hard to justify exporting energy during an energy crisis, especially when the wind and solar capacities planned for the Boegoebaai project are significantly larger than all renewable energies currently installed in South Africa taken together.42 It is difficult to imagine how the production of green hydrogen for export does not compete with or downgrade local and national energy needs and demands. 

Rather than selling green hydrogen to wealthy G7 countries, the energy could be used to light streets and homes, or build up a national manufacturing sector. At present, manufacturing in South Africa is minimal and the entire production of the hardware for renewables takes place elsewhere. All the solar panels and wind turbines installed in South Africa are imported, mainly from China, France or Germany. While the Department of Science and Innovation claims to be reorganising the mining sector, the focus is on exports. The national Just Energy Transition plan allocates only 0.1% of the planned budgets reserved for localisation efforts to invest in domestic manufacturing industries to produce the hardware required for renewable energy.43 Communities also report that there is minimal transfer of expertise, leaving the monopoly of knowledge of installation and maintenance of renewables in foreign hands. In other words, local communities are expected to remain only as consumers and to uphold a system of exploitation to their own disadvantage. 

Clearly, there will be no decarbonisation without further mining and the extraction of resources. A right to ‘say no’ to all kinds of mining would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. While the Right to Say No is aware of this tension, this does not weaken the demands. Members of the Right to Say No, especially those living in urban or peri-urban context in direct proximity to mining activities, stress that saying no to extractivism does not necessarily mean saying no to all kinds of resource extraction. Rather, by ensuring environmental standards, appropriate community consultation and participation through safe and fair employment opportunities, as well as the provision of basic services such as clean water, electricity and waste management, it would make an enormous difference in moving towards fairer energy systems. Being able to decide about questions of development, including in the energy sector, is vital for fulfilling the right to self-determination. When benefits and burdens, as well as power over decision-making processes, are spread equitably, we can start talking about a non-extractivist just energy system.


Anti-extractivist activists in South Africa are up against gigantic political interests in a corporate-led energy transition. Their activism tells stories of – successful – community struggles against capital. The rush for green energy is a difficult enemy to take on given the complex nature of the global energy challenge, and web of power relations steering the global transition in the interest of capital and countries in the global North. The collusion of the South African government and TNCs has consolidated an architecture of impunity where both power and energy are distributed extremely unequally between communities and capital.

In addition to renewable energy giants, companies such as SASOL are also seizing their share of the green energy market in South Africa. It is clear that there will be costs to this transition. But at this point, there is almost no improvement in how these costs are distributed between the global North and the global South. Land- and water grabs in Boegoebaai show what happens when patterns of extractivist energy generation are replicated from coal to green hydrogen. The expulsion of people from their land remains key to the extractivist model and creates dependency through reduced access to food, employment and essential resources. Places like eMalahleni serve as a reminder of what the future of places with high energy potential look like after a century of extractivist violence.

Right to Say No activists continue to hold TNCs and government to account, successfully using principles of FPIC and customary rights to their advantage. Although alternative visions for development from the R2SN may be in their initial stages, formulating alternatives and utopian imaginations can serve as strategic tools to move forward. The ‘One Million Climate Jobs Campaign’, and proposals for the decentralisation and democratisation of energy under the public lead of transformed state utility Eskom, remain key to the campaign’s demands for just energy futures. Developing tools such as a model law that inscribes FPIC in domestic legislation, as well as the negotiation of a strong UN Binding Treaty on Business and Human Rights, will be critical to holding corporations accountable for environmental damage and human rights abuses, as well as ensuring community participation in and benefits from green energy projects. 

Ideas into movement

Boost TNI's work

50 years. Hundreds of social struggles. Countless ideas turned into movement. 

Support us as we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2024.

Make a donation