Seizing the moment in South Africa: overcoming climate policy governance challenges

President Cyril Ramaphosa (Creative Commons)

Climate policy has taken a particular hit during a 10-year period of political corruption and uncertainty in South Africa but now the country has a chance to get back on track.

The past 10 years have been a period of turmoil for South Africa, characterised by corruption and, as increasing evidence shows, ‘state capture’ by private interests. The true extent of the situation is only now being slowly revealed.

Nearly every sector has been affected in some way, the impacts rippling through the economy, whether through annual electricity price rises, fuel price inflation, crumbling infrastructure or interference in vital institutions. Perhaps less obvious but just as damaging in the medium to long term is the impact on policymaking and the speed of policy implementation.

Climate change policy is one such area in which these longer-term impacts could resonate. Here we summarise some of the consequences and impacts of these 10 years, described in more depth in our new policy report.

Policy uncertainty over the last 10 years has been damaging for climate action

While South Africa’s previous President, Jacob Zuma, publicly supported climate action in international fora, including the Paris Agreement on climate change, substantive domestic action under his watch was less evident, particularly during the latter half of his presidency. Indeed, this period was characterised by delays, disagreement and divergence in the development and implementation of policies designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or adapt to climate change impacts.

Zuma’s leadership saw near-annual cabinet minister reshuffles, including, frequently, at critical ministries involved in climate policy design – the Department of Energy and the National Treasury (from which Zuma controversially dismissed minister of finance Nhlanhla Nene in December 2015 in what was dubbed ‘Nenegate’). There were also frequent changes to the senior management of critical state-owned enterprises (SoEs) responsible for implementing climate-related policies. For example, the state electricity utility, Eskom, has had 10 chief executive officers, six chairpersons, and multiple other changes at senior management level over the past 10 years.

Leadership changes and interference over the Zuma years introduced much uncertainty around important policies and programmes including the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which determines South Africa’s strategy for energy generation. Zuma’s favouring of large-scale nuclear procurement led to the IRP process being side-lined in 2013 as it favoured renewable energy, and then in 2016 it was skewed in nuclear’s favour (this process was also abandoned). In parallel to the political processes around the IRP, the fixation on nuclear extended to Eskom, where the senior management between 2015 and 2017, who were part of the ‘state capture’ project, consistently championed nuclear over other technologies.

These political manipulations led to Eskom refusing to sign purchase agreements with renewable energy providers, effectively stalling the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) by nearly four years. This was a major blow because the REIPPPP had been South Africa’s largest and most successful greenhouse gas mitigation measure implemented to date and was highly respected internationally.

Policy coordination, continuity and coherence have suffered

While political leadership was distracted and sending mixed signals around energy, there were also often gaps in and neglect of the design and implementation of other prominent climate change policies. The lack of coherence between the carbon tax and carbon budgets is a prime example. The National Treasury and the Department of Environmental Affairs have gone back and forth over their design and alignment for the last five years, causing uncertainty for private sector and state-owned enterprises. Internal disagreements often played out in public consultation forums or announcements, including the annual budget statements.

While the carbon tax was passed into law in May 2019, these disagreements and questions over alignment for the private sector still exist. The nature of the process has led to mixed and unclear messages from government and increased tension with the private sector, trade unions and civil society around the design and implementation of both policies.

The neglect of climate change in considerations in other key sectors – including industry, waste, agriculture and transport – has also translated into limited action. These sectors have experienced a dearth of substantive climate change related policy development and almost no implementation over the last 10 years. Many of the sector-specific strategies and policies are still in draft form and have been for some time, while other central policies, such as the mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, were only promulgated in 2017, with the first reporting period in 2018.

These issues are prevalent throughout South Africa’s political discourse and economic structure and are certainly not unique to climate change, but climate is a policy area where constructive interaction between the public and private sector is particularly important for making progress and implementation.

Now is the time to ramp up ambition and implementation

Since Cyril Ramaphosa’s inauguration as President, the signs for climate action have been somewhat more positive. Two of the first actions taken were to restart the REIPPPP and sign the carbon tax into law. However, the hiatus in the REIPPPP and delays to the carbon tax not only set back climate action domestically, but were damaging to South Africa’s investment attractiveness and the country’s international credibility around climate change.

The experiences of the past 10 years cannot be repeated. Meeting the Paris Agreement targets requires all countries to achieve net-zero emissions by around mid-century. South Africa has signed up to these objectives but its current commitments and progress are not consistent or ambitious enough.

With a relatively new president and ministers in critical climate policy roles – including Tito Mboweni (National Treasury), Barbara Creecy (Department of Environmental Affairs), Gwede Mantashe (Department Mineral and Energy) and Pravin Gordhan (Public Enterprises) – this opportunity has to be seized. South Africa can change the narrative around climate action to one of growth and investment, improve the coherence and coordination of relevant policies to unlock these opportunities, and raise ambition in line with Paris.

Progress towards this target will require the provision of clear, credible and long-term direction from government, which supports reducing emissions across all sectors, while managing the transition.  Meeting the Paris targets requires working constructively together across government, private sector and civil society to unlock the immense opportunities action holds.


Governance of climate change policy: A case study of South Africa, by Alina Averchenkova, Kate Elizabeth Gannon and Patrick Curran, is now available to download as a policy report (40pp) and a policy brief (8pp).

The views in this commentary represent those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.