Broken Promises. Electricity access for low-income households in South Africa

The transformative role of clean, safe and affordable energy in reducing poverty and inequality, and in improving the quality of life of poor South African households as envisaged in the 1998 Energy White Paper, has failed to materialise to any significant degree. The overwhelming reason for this is the failure of energy policy and governance, and the absence of effective oversight of how local municipalities have actually delivered energy services to households.

There is an important lesson in this governance failure for the broader just transition movement: we cannot hope to solve complex, multifaceted socio-economic problems if we do not think very carefully about the institutional and governance arrangements necessary to ensure that comprehensive planning, action and oversight are all aligned to longterm policy priorities.

Policymakers have consistently failed to incorporate the developmental aims of the White Paper into energy policy, most notably where these pertain to poor households, small businesses and small farmers. This shortcoming has been compounded by the failure to oversee the effective implementation of even the mediocre response constituted by the free basic electricity policy. It appears that there is little interest in working towards affordable, clean and safe energy access for those who require it the most.

These multiple failures result in poor households having to spend money that they desperately need for food and other essentials on purchasing energy. They suffer enormous health consequences as a result of being forced to use dirty (polluting) energy sources. They lose what few possessions they have (and sometimes their lives) in countless house fires caused in large part because they are forced to use dangerous energy such as paraffin. They are forced to pay an effective involuntary R5.7 billion municipal tax each year.

The current situation underscores both the extent to which the current operation of the electricity distribution sector in South Africa is actively contributing to poverty and inequality, and the critical importance of changing this situation as part of any energy transition that aims to be just. Given the entrenched structural factors underpinning the current anti-poor energy distribution system, and the vested interests in maintaining the existing trade-offs between poor households and municipal financial viability, it would be naïve to believe that moving to a decarbonised energy generation system — while maintaining the current distribution system — will make much difference to poor households.

There is an argument that poor households will somehow automatically benefit from the lower generation costs generally associated with renewable energy sources. But this argument fails to take into account the strong vested interest in using the difference between current and future bulk costs to shore up the collapsing local government balance sheet. In the absence of a clear policy commitment to affordable access to sufficient quantities of clean and safe energy for South Africa’s 10 million poor households — which commitment does not currently exist — very little will really change for those households.


Excerpt of: Broken Promises. Electricity access for low-income households: good policy intentions, bad trade-offs and unintended consequences (PARI 2021)



Download the full study.