Transitioning SA's Petrochemical Value Chain

Political objectives

Not everyone active in the political system supports an energy transition in South Africa, with vested interests playing a key role here. Many continue to benefit from the current fossil-based system, and will seek to continue its dominance for as long as possible. An example noted at the Government Engagement was that of the large refining lobby, which is motivating for government to offer financial support to upgrade facilities to be able to produce cleaner liquid fuels to meet European standards – enabling them to continue production for longer. These discussions are not, however, being framed within the broader question of whether such national investment is optimal, given demand for liquid fuels should begin to decline rapidly to align with the decarbonisation imperative. Individuals can also contribute to political resistance. For example, how might owners of internal combustion engine cars respond to the phase out of liquid fuel infrastructure? 

Factions within the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party, are divided on their support for the energy transition.  Whilst the ANC remains in power, the dominant faction will determine the extent and nature of actual political and policy support for decarbonisation, rhetoric notwithstanding. On certain issues, such as the future use of natural gas, decarbonisation rhetoric may be used to push an alternative underlying political agenda – that of ongoing access to rents. Politics influences policy narratives, and close attention to evidence-based analysis is needed to distinguish between political, economic, climate science or other rationales.

That said, decarbonisation has the potential to be aligned to two political objectives that enjoy support across the political spectrum given their importance for social stability:

  • Energy security, the political objective that led to the development of Sasolburg and then Secunda last century, remains an important political driver today as the geopolitical landscape destabilises (Source: Business Engagement), and one which aligns to a large degree with the decarbonisation imperative.
  • Ensuring a just transition aligns with existing political objectives. Whilst clean technologies such as renewables are conducive to decentralisation and present opportunities for private actors, this may pose a challenge to the national goals of inclusiveness and just transition. In the context of a weak state, large business and the rich have access to capital to install solar panels, whilst SMMEs and the poor get left behind with a failing power supply. Enabling a just transition is a key role for the state, and when the state is weak, the risk of an un-just transition, where already-high inequality is exacerbated, is very real.