Start main page content

Party manifestos lack a clear, coherent and inspiring roadmap for a just transition

- Sonia Phalatse, Yashila Govender, Imraan Valodia, Katrina Lehman-Grube and Julia Taylor

Party manifestos lack a clear, coherent and inspiring roadmap for a just transition

Given its potential for addressing climate change impacts and the unemployment crisis, it is surprising that none of the manifestos outlines a clear, coherent plan for the potential of a just transition to create decent work and livelihoods.

In a few weeks South Africans will make their way to the voting stations in what is expected to be a tense election. In addition to familiar national challenges such as the stubbornly high unemployment rate, this election is also set against the backdrop of significant shifts in global politics. Politics and social divisions are increasing polarised, locally and internationally

One such issue is climate change, which is uniquely polarising on at least three fronts. 

First, on an international scale, the responsibility for historical greenhouse gas emissions lies primarily with industrialised countries, while the material effects of climate change will likely be disproportionately felt by countries in the Global South. On the one hand, South Africa is one of the highest emitters of carbon in Africa and in the top 20 emitters in the world, however, according to IPCC’s SR1.5, southern Africa is one of top 10 climate hotspots in the world. Subsequently, research indicates that over the past decades, warming in southern Africa has occurred at twice the average global rate

Second, while there may be a global push to address climate change by phasing out fossil fuels, on a local scale, many global south countries, like South Africa, remain reliant on natural resource extractive industries, such as coal mining, on which many livelihoods depend.

Third, South Africa’s extremely high levels of economic inequality manifest in the climate change debate. High-income households in South Africa disproportionately contribute to carbon emissions while the risks of climate change are borne disproportionately by low-income households.

However polarising climate change has become, addressing the climate crisis necessitates acknowledging that we are vulnerable and interdependent, both as a species and individually. It also demands that we think ambitiously about policies that will move us toward sustainable development, including in South Africa. 

Unfortunately, on the basis of the party manifestos alone, there is a lack of a clear and coherent vision for what political parties intend to do to tackle the climate crisis in South Africa, both locally and within the broader international policy processes. This shortcoming reflects a broader misconception that separates social and economic challenges and climate change, treating them as isolated problems rather than symptoms of an economy that structurally reproduces inequalities.

Critics have rightly pointed out the lack of a visionary approach to address climate change in the manifestos. What is also glaringly missing from the manifestos is any grasp of the potential of a just transition, which not only holds promise for combating the climate crisis but also for creating green and inclusive jobs and livelihoods with the notion of no one left behind. This is despite growing evidence that both of these issues are important for South Africans. For example, a small survey conducted earlier this year showed that the climate crisis and unemployment are two of the top 10 priorities for respondents to consider when voting in this year’s election. It’s also worth noting that climate change is interconnected with other critical issues, such as water supply, electricity and infrastructure, even if it’s not always the main concern.

A just transition advocates for a shift towards sustainable industries that prioritise both environmental sustainability and decent job creation, offering a path towards a more equitable economy. 

If implemented effectively, a just transition could generate job opportunities in sectors such as renewable energy, transport and construction. It also has the potential to catalyse radical and necessary shifts in public infrastructure investments. For example, the popular concept of green jobs goes beyond working in industries that will be decarbonised. Green jobs also include low carbon-emitting jobs, particularly in care work that will be critical for how we will inevitably need to care for each other more than ever, focusing on childcare and healthcare, among others. Investment in high-quality jobs in the care sectors of our economy is necessary for equitable access to job opportunities, particularly for women, as a source of employment for those transitioning from the fossil fuel sectors, and as a means to mitigate the climate crisis.

Just transition elusive in manifestos

Given its potential for addressing climate change impacts and the unemployment crisis, it is surprising that none of the manifestos outlines a clear, coherent plan for the potential of a just transition to create decent work and livelihoods. 

Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa manifesto, which boldly claims to be “The Jobs Plan”, does not mention the just transition at all and does not offer any insights into how it will tackle the climate emergency. Similarly, the DA’s and ACDP’s manifestos do not explicitly mention the just transition or any proposal for addressing the climate crisis outside its focus on energy and water. 

At the same time, while Rise Mzansi includes the climate crisis as one of its five key priorities and acknowledges the climate crisis as an important opportunity to build a fairer South African economy, the manifesto does not outline how it will create more jobs (or how many) should it be voted into power. 

The EFF’s manifesto is the longest and most comprehensive and lists 33 priority areas, but not one of them is the just transition. In one of its priority areas, titled “Agricultural, Forestry and Environment”, the party promises to localise production in green industries like agriculture to create more local job opportunities, but there is no estimate of the potential number of jobs that this type of initiative could create. Further into the section, it commits to creating one million climate jobs, but does not offer more information on what is meant by “climate jobs” and in what sectors these jobs will be created. 

While the ANC’s manifesto recognises the need for a just transition, it is scant on details. It mentions the just transition only twice in its 53-page manifesto and does not speak to how its existing Just Transition Framework will be operationalised to create more jobs. 

The MK party and UDM mention the just transition, but notably ActionSA mentions it 11 times. The manifesto proposes the establishment of the Climate Change Response Fund, which aims to foster collaboration between the government and the private sector to tackle environmental challenges, promoting environmental stewardship programmes. 

Water and energy and the role of the state

Energy and water make up the most content on climate change-related issues across all the manifestos. The crux of the differences between the manifestos in their approach to addressing the energy and water crises is the expected mix between the involvement of the state and the private sector. 

On the one end of the spectrum, parties like the EFF outline a state-led energy and water provision plan, promising to support the use of mixed energy sources, including so-called clean coal, nuclear energy, as well as renewables. On the other end, for parties like the DA, ActionSA and ACDP, the plan seems to be to open these markets and allow the private sector to be the main provider of these public services. 

Most notably, the ANC’s unbundling plan for Eskom is almost identical to the DA’s, with both planning to liberalise the energy market by unbundling Eskom into three different entities as well as involving more private sector involvement in the renewable energy market. 

For more newly formed parties like Rise Mzansi and existing parties like the ANC, the promise is to advance a mix of public-private partnerships as a solution to failing water and energy infrastructure. The core problem with this proposal is that it does not clarify how unregulated markets will not lead to a potentially climate destructive path that prioritises private sector profitability, and how accessible and affordable sustainable infrastructure will be achieved. In the water sector, for example, public-private partnerships (PPPs) are heavily promoted, overlooking key international failures in its implementation. PPPs in the UK, for example, were officially phased out from fiscal policy because of the resultant high fiscal risks through exorbitantly high costs and increased political risks. An official audit of the Private Finance Initiative in the UK, conducted in 2018, found that the cost of PPPs was at least 40% more than relying on public funding.

This private sector-focused infrastructure plan raises important concerns about the just transition, the need for radical economic and institutional changes, and the role of both the private and public sectors in delivering a truly just transition. 

As we stand at the crossroads of a climate crisis, the need for a transformative approach to our economic system becomes increasingly clear. While there is no singular vision that commands universal agreement, certain proposals have emerged that suggest a path forward. These suggestions aim to reconcile economic activity with ecological sustainability, proposing a shift from short-term profit focus to long-term resilience and inclusivity. 

Effectively, there are two fundamentally different approaches to investing in a just transition, and a climate just economy more broadly. The first amounts to a “greening” of the current system, leaving the economy to look fundamentally the same but with new incentives and regulations, hyper scaled-up private investment, and carbon pricing based on a continued scepticism of the role of the state. 

The other vision for a green economy is a much more radical plan for a restructuring of the economy along fundamentally different lines that advances climate resilience and is not just the “greening” of the failing system we currently have. It is one that wholly reorients our economic priorities while embracing the state’s capacity to plan and finance at the scale and pace that is now required. Unfortunately, none of the manifestos inspires much confidence in a political party that can take us on this necessary trajectory. 

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick

The authors are all researchers in the Climate Change and Inequality Research Project at the Southern Centre for Inequality Centre in the University of the Witwatersrand.