This Coal Life

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The Skhosanas live a modest yet comfortable life in Kriel, South Africa. And they owe it all to coal. In fact, their family has worked in this industry for generations. But, now, the entire energy sector in South Africa is set to be rewired. Renewable energy will replace coal in a transition intended to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, while also making it a “Just Transition,” as the government calls it, with better jobs and cheaper energy - and maybe even healing past wounds. But what happens to the people who built their lives on coal? The world is watching to see how Kriel - and families like the Skhosanas - are going to do it.

Transcript

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Nontokozo: It’s just macaroni and minced meat.

Fezeka: Lasagna!

Nontokozo: And the green salad.

Lesedi: It’s Sunday lunch at the Skhosana’s home.

Nontokozo: And it’s getting cold, shem.

Lesedi: Nontokozo lays out a feast for her family, her two children, and her husband Adam, who loves the pork ribs.

Adam: I, I, I, I like the ribs that is done by, by ourselves here at home…

Nontokozo: By my wife!

Adam: By my wife.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: The Skosana’s live in the town of Kriel, that’s in Mpumalanga Province in the northeast of South Africa. Kriel is a small town in an area considered the coal belt region. The town’s biggest employer is the coal industry. Look up any images of Kriel on the internet, and you’ll see lots of pictures of huge power plants spewing smoke.

The Skhosana’s live a modest yet comfortable life here. They own a charming three bedroom house. They have a large family car. Their kids are in school. They’re not struggling to make ends meet. And they owe it all to coal.

Adam: Pray. Pray for us.

Spumelelo: God bless our food before the dinner. Amen.

Lesedi: Spumelelo is the youngest member of the Skhosana family. He’s nine and dreams of being a pilot one day, but right now all he wants to do is go outside and play with his friends. So as soon as he can, he slips away from the lunch table and leaves his sister behind.

Fezeka: My parents are very hard workers, especially my dad. Also my mother.

Lesedi: Fezeka is 18 years old and she’s the first person in the Skhosana family to attend university. It’s a huge expense and so there’s a lot riding on her, but Fezeka isn’t interested in a career in coal like so many other young people in this region. She believes that one day she’ll be a successful lawyer.

Fezeka: It’s something that I always wanted to do because I didn’t see myself as living in Kriel forever.

Lesedi: But when Fezeka’s mom, Nontokozo, was that age, she was interested in coal and found a job pretty easily.

Nontokozo: It was luck for me. I, I was very lucky because some of the people, they never, never, never work in their entire lives.

Lesedi: Nontokozo moved to Kriel in the early 2000s. Back then, Kriel was among the fastest growing towns in the country. There were plenty of jobs in the coal mines, or at the handful of coal fired power stations in the area. It only took Nontokozo a few months to land a job at Eskom, that’s South Africa’s state owned power utility. She was a cleaning supervisor for the Kriel Power Station. She also clearly remembers the day and exact time that she met her husband Adam, while working at the plant 20 years ago.

Nontokozo: It was on Saturday, around half past 11. Really!

Fezeka: Hey, mama! Ha!

Nontokozo: Serious! And he said, “Hi, my name is Boy.”

Lesedi: Back then Adam went by Boy. That’s his first name, but now as a father of two, he prefers to be called his middle name – Adam.

[MUSIC]

Adam was born in Kriel on a farm on the outskirts of town. He’s lived here his entire life. In grade 10, he dropped out of high school. He was 19 then. But Adam soon found a job at the Kriel Power Station in 1984.

Adam: Uh uh, I’m 58 years years old now, and I’m still working at Kriel Power Station.

Lesedi: But that could be over pretty soon. A sweeping change is about to engulf all of Kriel and South Africa and the rest of the world. There’s a radical transition coming to the energy industry, and so it didn’t take long for the Skhosana’s Sunday lunch conversation to shift from food to the closure of the power station.

Adam: The proposal is that the Kriel is closing down, 2030. So how many, seven years come? Yeah, the government is saying that in newspapers.

Lesedi: South Africa’s the biggest polluter of greenhouse gases on the African continent. Nearly 80% of the emissions come from energy, but if all goes according to plan, the entire energy sector in South Africa will be rewired.

Renewable energy will replace coal. A transition intended to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. And it’s inevitable. Coal is going away. But what happens to the people who have built their lives on coal? The world is watching to see how Kriel and families like the Skhosana’s are going to do it.

In the best case scenario, South Africa’s drive towards renewable energy will deliver new and better jobs. It’ll protect the environment, it’ll make energy cheaper. People will have their voices heard, and some of the wounds they’ve suffered in the past will be healed. Experts call that a “Just Transition”. But Adam doubts the transition will succeed. He says there won’t be new jobs.

Dhashen: What do you think will happen to this town? If the coal mines and the power stations shut down?

Adam: It’s gonna be a ghost town.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: Adam’s not alone in thinking this. A lot of people are worried that they’ve already been forgotten, which is why we sent our youth reporter Siya Mokoena and producer Dhashen Moodley, to spend several days in Kriel, and they had one central question in mind during their reporting.

Dhashen: What do you think will happen to your family without coal?

Nontokozo: Eish… I can’t even answer it. Our life is surrounded by cold. Yeah, eish. It’s gonna be very hard. It’s gonna be very hard.

Lesedi: I am Lesedi Mogoatlhe. This is Radio Workshop.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: Every morning for decades, before he leaves for work at the power plant, Adam puts on his PPE, that’s personal protection equipment.

Adam: Which is, uh, gumboots, socks, trouser, and a top.

Lesedi: He grabs a bus, arrives a few minutes early, has a cup of tea, puts on his hard hat and gloves, and starts work at 7:00 AM.

Adam’s had a lot of different jobs at the power plant. After a few years in one division, he’d get a promotion. A few years later he’d get another. Today he works with coal ash. That’s one of the byproducts from burning coal. It’s Adam’s job to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere.

Adam: Because we, we are not supposed to pollute a lot of ash.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: When Kriel Power Station was completed in 1979, it was celebrated as the first of the new generation of giants. It was the largest coal-fired power station in the Southern Hemisphere. It was equipped with six 500 megawatt units. That could power over a million homes for a year! Adam loves working at the Kriel Power Station. The work may be hard and he knows it’s bad for the environment, but his job is well paid. He also receives good benefits for his family.

Dhashen: Are you good at your job?

Adam: I like my job. I know, I know my job as I know myself.

Lesedi: I know my job as I know myself.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: As the Skhosana’s mentioned earlier, the plant where they work is slated to close in 2030. Just seven years. In fact, the plant is already shrinking its operations and despite promises of a Just Transition, the family says people are already moving away.

Dhashen: Yeah. How many people do you know have left Kriel?

Nontokozo: Lord…

Siya: And where do they go?

Adam: Some, all mos they’re going to Cape Town. Cape Town, Middleburg, uh, Free State, overseas. Nowadays they’re going to Australia. Australia and New Zealand.

Lesedi: But not everyone is aware of the proposed Just Transition. Government has hosted dozens of community meetings to explain it, but we learned some residents don’t show up because the meetings are in the middle of the day and they’re too busy. Others don’t trust the government and they refuse to be counted. And frankly, a lot of people we spoke to don’t understand the meaning of a Just Transition, including Adam.

Dhashen: What does the Just Transition mean to you?

Adam: That word, it’s actually, it’s, it’s a new, new word to me, but, uh… I know this one is, it’s a little bit, uh, difficult for me to answer.

Dhashen: Were we the first people to tell you about the Just Transition or had you heard it before?

Adam: No, it was my first time.

Dhashen: What impact do you think it’s gonna have on you and your family with this Just Transition going through?

Adam: Oh… I really don’t know. I really don’t know.

Lesedi: Adam also doubts whether renewables will work, but he thinks the country should give it a shot.

Adam: I think let’s, they can try. Try this new, renew renewable energy. I know coal, carbon and the likes is affecting our lives, but there’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing you can do.

What I can say, maybe let them try to accommodate both of them. Balance them, and see if it’s going to work or not. Unlike just taking coal away, uh, on the spot. That one is going to affect a lot of people. Because people are going to lose their jobs as they’re losing jobs right now. And where are they going to work? That’s, uh, that’s the biggest problem that we are facing right now.

Fezeka: Where will he get a job? He won’t get a job anymore.

Lesedi: Fezeka, Adam’s daughter worries about finding work for her father and herself. Yes, the Just Transition could be a good thing for the environment, but her father and tens of thousands of others could lose their jobs.

Fezeka: They will have to rely on me, and I’m still in school. I, that means I’ll have to drop out and get a job then. It’s devastating.

Dhashen: So where are we going Adam?

Adam: We are going on a farm now. Doorsfontein Farm 71AS. It’s the name of the farm and the number.

Lesedi: Kriel has a population of about 21,000 people. There’s no mall or big nightclubs. But like most small towns in South Africa, there’s a KFC, a Wimpy, a funeral home, and a few bars. But they employ just a handful of people in Kriel. Most people either work for coal mines or for Eskom. The only other major employers are the farmers who sell produce locally or export it to other parts of the country or even abroad.

Dhashen: How often do you make this drive to the farm? How often do you go?

Adam: Maybe per month, I will go there twice or three times.

Lesedi: The farm or what’s left of it is on the outskirts of Kriel at the end of a long dirt road that’s completely inaccessible with a regular car. Fortunately, Adam has a four by four SUV.

Adam: The farm goes up there to the, to these other trees there, and it’s all around, all around, all around.

Lesedi: Even though Adam has access to the area, it’s not his land. It’s owned by a coal mine. It was a farm where Adam’s family were labour tenants. They worked in exchange for a portion of the land. They raised their cattle. They grew crops and built their homes. But when a mining company bought the land, the Skhosana’s were never made part of the deal.

Adam: Okay. This empty land. That’s what we call home. Yeah, we are… We are now at home.

Lesedi: Adam was raised on the farm by his parents and extended family. He remembers seeing his uncles, aunts, and grandparents every day.

Adam: It’s one. It’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 7 houses from our family.

Lesedi: They farmed the land, grew soybeans, and raised cattle. Many of his ancestors are also buried here too.

Adam: This one here is my grandmother, Sophie. Uh, Sophie Skhosana. This one is my grandfather. His name is Jantjies Skhosana. He died in 1975. This one is his brother…

Lesedi: There are so many graves. Some are marked with tombstones, others are not. What it shows is a connection to this area dating back to the 1800s. That’s six generations of Adam’s family who’ve lived in Kriel. Some of them were the first farmers and herders in the area. Adam’s father was a farmer before becoming a contract worker at Eskom, he poured concrete to build the foundations of the town’s power stations.

Adam: There was also a house there. Starting from here, somewhere around here it was a kitchen and here it was my father’s room. It was a dining room. Uh, it was my sister’s room. Here. Somewhere here…

Lesedi: As a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies before the power stations were built, Adam remembers how important coal was to their family.

Dhashen: Do you consider yourself, uh, a child of coal from a coal family?

Adam: Yes, I would say so, because in the past, on the railways, then some of the coal will fall down. Then during the weekends, maybe on Saturday, late or early in the morning before you go to play soccer, then the farmer will give my father a tractor so that we can just go there and pick up the coal along the railway. We are using the coal.

Lesedi: Adam says they’d use the coal for cooking and heating, and the mine owners knew they were doing it. By picking up the loose coal they were helping to clean the railway tracks.

Dhashen: And I imagine, what, what did your hands look like?

Adam: Oh, you know mos, black, pitch black.

Dhashen: Was it good quality coal?

Adam: It was a very, by that time, it was a very, very good quality of coal because that coal is the best, best, best coal in the world.

Lesedi: You can see it on his face. Adam longs for that time in his life. He wants to go back to living on the farm. But when the coal mine bought the land, they heavily blasted the area to reach the coal underneath, and as a result, his family’s mud and brick houses cracked and collapsed.

Dhashen: How does it feel being here?

Adam: Yoh! You know, I remember how the buildings were. It’s, it’s, it’s painful. It’s painful.

Adam: It’s the land. Where is it? Eish. Okay. It’s a little bit mixed up now, but it’s, it, it’s still there. It should be here. Yes. Yes. Uh, in front of me, I’ve got the documents, uh, concerning the claim of the farm, Doorsfontein 71AS where we were born and bred.

Lesedi: Adam says a Just Transition will mean the return of his land, but that fight has been going on for almost half his life.

Adam: The proof that I have, I think, is this one. The first claim that has been done. The first one was in 1996.

Lesedi: Adam believes he has all the necessary paperwork to prove his family’s claim.

Adam: It’s just that my papers are mixed up now.

Lesedi: He even hired a lawyer to make the case, but Adam says whenever he’s spoken with representatives at the mines, they deny his ownership.

Adam: The mine said, no, they don’t know us there on the farm.

Dhashen: So the mine is saying they don’t owe you anything?

Adam: That’s what they’re saying. That’s correct.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: Thousands of miles from Kriel and the Skhosana’s, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with the European Union are backing South Africa’s decarbonization efforts. They’re committing 8.5 billion towards the first phase of transition to renewables. It sounds like a lot, but it’s only a fraction of what the country needs to turn off coal and shift to renewables.

A lot more money is needed to create jobs to absorb the layoffs that will happen in coal. Money will be needed to consult with communities and provide social welfare for those who need it, and money will be needed for one more thing. In South Africa, we call it restorative justice.

Gaylor: …and that’s where we’re saying, you know, how do we deal with the historical injustice?

Lesedi: Gaylor Montmasson-Clair is a senior economist at Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies. It’s a research institute that supports the development of economic policies. Gaylor leads their work on the Just Transition and restorative justice.

Gaylor: And, and that is something that’s come very strongly in this South African context, which, you know, doesn’t feature in the global north context, they don’t talk about restorative justice in the global north.

Lesedi: Gaylor wrote parts of South Africa’s Just Transition Framework. That’s government’s planning tool. He says, in a perfect world, the plan is to leave no one behind.

Gaylor: Leave, no one behind. I’m like, hello? Most people are behind. They’re already behind, you know? So I mean, you know, uh, it’s not just about leaving the one behind, but we have to bring everyone already to some level before we can take them along, you know?

Lesedi: Which means a Just Transition would need to address those past injustices while tackling new ones. That’s a big, nearly impossible task, he says.

Take Adam’s land claims case. It was launched almost two decades ago. Nothing has happened. Much of it is due to the backlog of claims and the lack of staff and resources to process it. Claims go on for years due to disputes, fraud, and corruption. Gaylor says he witnessed the frustrations with government firsthand at a public stakeholder meeting in a coal town. He watched residents grab the mic to raise all kinds of complaints from housing to water.

Gaylor: It was all about daily issues, you know, it was like your Just Transition feels very distant to me right now because I can’t put bread on the table. I don’t have water, I don’t have electricity. And you’re talking to me about Just Transition?

Lesedi: We wanted to know about the future of Kriel and the future of jobs. Will there be enough? We approached local politicians in Kriel. We reached out to a few academics working on renewables. We made several attempts to speak to Eskom, the state owned power utility. None of them were willing to talk to us.

So we asked Gaylor, will renewable energy create enough jobs to replace 90,000 coal jobs in South Africa?

Gaylor: Yeah, look, I mean, there’s no, there’s no silver bullet to that. No, it’s not. You know, no single industry is going to, uh, replace all those jobs. And on top of that, then we would end up with the same pattern, another kind of mono-economy. It’s not what we want. We need to look at diversifying the economy of the province.

Dhashen: And it’s not renewables either?

Gaylor: So, renewable energy will play a part. But let me be clear, the notion that everyone employed in coal must now work in renewable energy, makes no sense. None whatsoever.

Dhashen: Why?

Gaylor: They are very, very different types of jobs. Um, very different types of skills, very different locations.

Lesedi: Gaylor says only 2% of the renewable energy jobs will be in Mpumalanga, even fewer will be in Kriel, and those jobs are not on par with coal jobs. But Gaylor says there’s still hope. In his view, it starts with shutting down coal mines immediately and then hiring those retrenched coworkers to rehabilitate the land.

Gaylor: And mine rehabilitation can create a lot of jobs. Jobs that cannot be created anywhere else because they have to be on the mine. It doesn’t take huge amounts of skills, and it can really start to create virtuous cycles in terms of rehabilitating the land, the water.

Lesedi: Gaylor says other opportunities exist for towns like Kriel, from manufacturing to agriculture and tourism. Even coal ash, the byproduct of burning coal, can be used to make bricks and fertiliser. He says there’s major job opportunities once government starts to think out of the box.

Gaylor: Let’s do things. We’ll get it wrong, but let’s do things, you know, let’s start, if we wait for the perfect plan, the perfect project that ticks all the boxes, you know? Yeah, we’re never gonna get anything done. But no, I feel like we are waiting for that unicorn.

Fezeka: To my room. And my room, I consider my room the first room in this house.

Lesedi:  Back at home with this Skhosana’s and Fezeka shows us her bedroom. There are a few photographs from high school. A teddy bear on the bed, a small desk built by her dad, and then on a shelf above her window where it can’t be mishandled or broken she keeps her most prized possession.

Fezeka: Yeah, but my rock collection is up there. I can’t take it down. I really love that rock. And then there are also these ones here, but then these ones, I love them because they change colors. Ah! I just love the rocks…

Lesedi: Before deciding to study law, Fezeka considered following in her dad’s footsteps to work in the mines. She wanted to be a geologist, but she changed her mind.

Fezeka: Law is a very broad career. That’s when I was interested and the more I heard my dad saying, “I’m going to look at this lawyer because of this matter. I’m going to look at this lawyer. Oh, another trial. What what… justice is not served.” And then I was like, oh, why don’t I pursue law?

Lesedi: Fezeka worries about whether her father will receive justice. She thinks it’s fair that he gets his land back, but the government process takes so long that people die while waiting for their land claims to be settled. And in the midst of all those delays in justice, young people are looking outside Kriel for opportunities to succeed. And Fezeka fears the worst.

Dhashen: Do you think Kriel will become a ghost town?

Fezeka: Definitely if that happens, definitely. People will even be scared to come back. Even if they were to try to build, to build the place again, it would be very hard because a lot of houses will be vandalized.

Lesedi: Fezeka’s mom, Nontokozo isn’t certain that law is a good career choice for Fezeka’s personality, but she is certain that she wants her daughter to keep away from jobs in mining.

Nontokozo: No, no, no. I don’t want her – no, no, not at all. Not at all. Because mines are, are, are getting closed, so they’re not guaranteed understand? So what is going to do after that? So you must take the, the stable one. Something that you are definitely sure that is gonna be there for a long time.

Dhashen: How do you feel thinking about Spumelelo and Fezeka leaving Kriel?

Nontokozo: Hey! Yeah, ne. It’s a mix that one. I would like them to leave Kriel. At the same time I don’t want. So, mixed emotions about that one, ne?

Dhashen: What happens to you and Adam?

Nontokozo: In the beginning, it was just the two of us and at the end it’s gonna be just the two of us. Yeah, you must let them go.

Dhashen: If the power station closes and if the coal mines go away,

Nontokozo: Eish!

Dhashen: Where will you go?

Nontokozo: We have no choice, because he is originally from Kriel. He’s originally from Kriel, so we have to go back to the farm.

Dhashen: But otherwise, we’ll see you next time.

Adam: Okay, then. Okay. Thank you.

Siya: Thank you so much, much.

Nontokozo: No problem.

Lesedi: It was time for the family to drive Fezeka back to university. It’s a long ride. Several hours. They’d only be back by nightfall. And so our reporters, Siya and Dhashen, say their goodbyes to the Skhosana’s.

Nontokozo: No, I want to be remembered.

Dhashen: No, we’ll never forget you.

Adam: Is it?

Lesedi: But as our team were leaving, they were left thinking about something Adam said.

Dhashen: So if your family story started as farmers. And then the second story is coal. What’s the, what’s the next story?

Adam: Yoh! Okay. As they’re talking about this renewable maybe. Maybe I’m not a hundred percent correct. Maybe they will be there.

Dhashen: And Fezeka maybe it’s gonna be law? Maybe that’s the new family business.

Adam: Yes. Yes. It can be.

[MUSIC]

Lesedi: This story was reported for Radio Workshop by Siya Mokoena, a youth reporter from eMalahleni FM, one of the many community radio stations we support. This story was produced by our senior producer, Dhashen Moodley. Jo Jackson is our Managing Producer. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions, sound Engineering by Jo Jackson and Mike Rahfaldt.

This episode and the work of Radio Workshop would not be possible without the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the African Climate Foundation, the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group and the Earth Journalism Network.

Find out more about what we do and support our work on radioworkshop.org.