The town of Secunda, South Africa is named after the single biggest point of carbon emissions in the world: the coal-to-oil refinery it was created to serve. It’s one of the most polluted places on earth. Within a 100km radius of Secunda there are twelve coal-fired power stations, in addition to the refinery and the coal mines that feed them. Nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and mercury, all are pumped out at high volumes. Coal dust blows off coal trucks and slags, poisoning farm land and polluting the water system.
The northern part of the province of Mpumalanga, where South Africa meets Mozambique, is beautiful country. Streams wind between rocky hills covered in bushveld trees. Wilderness abuts agriculture: next to an antelope conservancy you might find an orange grove; from the deck of a bed and breakfast guests may view hippos, and an avocado grove. Secunda is in the south, its furious industrial production clustered around the hydrocarbon concentrated in the Mpumalanga coal seam. Eskom, the state-owned energy generator, the aforementioned refinery, which is owned by Sasol, the many coal mines and the smelters that feed off them, jostle with farmers and communities for arable land, clean water and unpolluted space.
Mpumalanga means ‘place of the rising sun’ but here the sun does not emerge to light up the big highveld sky with bold colours, like in the tourism brochures. Here, the sun struggles above the meniscus of the horizon, only to be immediately dulled by the pall of thick smog.
Tracey Davies, a lawyer for the Centre for Environmental Rights described what she saw during a two-hour flight over the heart of Mpumalanga:
“The scale of the devastation is staggering. For almost the entire duration of the flight, we flew over a coal mine every couple of minutes, each a vast acreage of mutilation: enormous pits gouged out of the earth, acre upon acre of topsoil and overburden, piled into lifeless mounds, streams and rivers diverted, and poisonous water pooling at the bottom of abandoned pits.”
I spent my birthday this year playing roulette at Secunda’s only hotel, the Graceland Peermont-Walmont. It wasn’t a vacation; I was there to learn about widespread heroin abuse in the area. Several of the towns that owe their existence to the fossil fuel industry—eMahlahleni (“place of coal”) and Middelburg, as well as Secunda—were said to have unusually bad heroin problems in proportion to their size, an anomaly I was trying to unravel.
The Graceland itself, wedding-cakey and cartoonishly “grand,” was apparently designed in the style of “an American estate in the Victorian era.” The interior cannot decide whether it wants to be a dice joint or a respectable conference venue. (I’m told these features are also characteristic of the hotel-casinos of Las Vegas.) The Graceland’s lifts have granite floors, but the lights in the ceiling flash blue, green and red.
I’d never gambled in a casino before. The staff at the hotel explained how things work with humour and warmth, and really all the people were so nice. Most of the casino was on one floor, though there was a room upstairs, presumably for high rollers, called Rockefeller’s Privé. There was a dreary bar selling coolers and beer and liquor. The much busier smoking section of the casino, boxed in with glass, was equipped, by law, with its own air filtration system. I nearly went in, thinking the air might be cleaner.
The neat single-storey homes of Secunda feature high walls, behind which, one can safely assume, are lawns and sprinklers. There’s a big, newer mall, and a sad, older one. Almost everyone works for Sasol, or a company that provides services to Sasol. The town is dense with engineers and chemists, and might in fact be one of the most highly-educated in the country. The refinery runs 24 hours, and is brightly lit up with big rigs and spotlights: A handy landmark for navigating to the Graceland. Their driveway is flanked on one side with banners for Sasol, and on the other for banks, whose ATMs could be found inside the casino. I parked my car next to a slope leading down to an 18-hole golf course, with the refinery as its backdrop.
Almost 90% of South Africa’s electricity is produced from coal by Eskom. The Sasol-run Secunda and Sasolburg refineries, meanwhile, produce around 25% of the country’s fuel through coal liquefaction. Both firms fueled development during and post-Apartheid. Sasol—the country’s biggest company by revenue—is now publicly traded, though it was originally set up by the state in 1950 in order to reduce the Apartheid government’s dependence on imported oil. This became a particularly pressing concern during the 1973 oil crisis, and anxieties about energy security merged with expectations that the white supremacist regime would be hit by trade sanctions and an oil embargo, as it was from the 1980s.
Since the democratic transition in 1994, Sasol has been listed on both the Johannesburg and New York stock exchanges, with operations in 33 countries. Its most recent new build is a $13 billion chemical plant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The commercial viability of coal-to-oil processes was first established at the pilot site in Sasolburg, and Secunda was established in around 1976—residents say the whole town was built almost overnight.
You would think the compensation for living in the midst of this titantic industrial activity would be employment. The brightest engineers and other professionals are rewarded with generous benefits, including one of the best private medical insurance schemes in the country. With the power plants, the mines, and the smelters there are more jobs here than in many other parts of South Africa. But for the working-class people who were born and grew up here the picture is much bleaker. Locals complain that they cannot pass the mines’ medical tests—lung problems, including asthma and COPD, evidently being disqualifying conditions for mine workers. Migrants flock from around the country, with their fresher lungs, but only a few strike it lucky. In fact, despite all the industry here, in Mpumalanga unemployment levels are at 43%, which is higher than the national average, and 25% of households cannot meet basic food needs.
Eskom and Sasol, together with the South African government, are being sued by environmental rights groups over their failure to meet pollution standards, but Eskom’s problems go far beyond the lawsuits. The Eskom crisis is multifaceted and deep, a painfully compacted mess built up over years of poor decision-making, shortsighted, poorly timed and overbudget mega-projects, and more recently, dire corruption. The utility has been unable to meet demand for more than a decade, and acute rolling blackouts in the beginning of the year have been named as a key factor in weak economic growth, currently threatening recession and an investment downgrade to junk. One third of Eskom’s coal-fired plants are broken or in need of repair and the utility is in debt to the tune of $31 billion. The government is pouring in money to keep it afloat, with little evidence of a long-term turnaround plan. The energy crisis, the ailing economy and joblessness are locked in a vicious cycle.
In the casino, after a short while playing the tables, I found myself baffled, rather than entertained. For anyone else similarly uninitiated, this is how it works: You buy chips from the house. You put those chips down on a baize table and the dealer says some words and maybe something spins, and maybe lights flash, and maybe cards are spread. Then the house takes your chips away. That’s it. A round of roulette is surprisingly fast and surprisingly boring, yet my fellow punters put down so many chips, again and again, all of them losing, losing, losing. It is depressing how obviously stupid gambling is and made me reconsider how we use it as a metaphor: You’re gambling with our lives! You’re gambling with our jobs, the climate, the future! If you also thought the word connoted a needless risk, take note: it also implies the inevitability of loss.
With the prospect of stronger legislation on emissions in view, international finance is stampeding away from coal. And Mpumalanga is not in a closed system—international coal exports, at 30%, are crucial to the financial viability of coal mines. One day—a day which might still be too late to save the climate—the coal export market could collapse; indeed, this whole complex of coal mines and power stations and refineries and smelters could quite suddenly collapse. Even in South Africa, the banks are refusing to finance new mines, which are considered financially risky. Multinationals like Anglo are quickly turning over their coal mine assets, leaving them to smaller, lower profile and politically-connected companies who can pull strings to keep government committed to ill-fated projects. Without a planned transition that will spell ruin for labour. Yet unions resist talk of restructuring or coal transition because they both imply job losses in the short term. In turn, government covers up its own paralysis on Eskom and on emissions, and its entanglement with private coal interests, with talk of saving coal jobs.
On the floor of the Graceland, casual conversation revealed most punters to be employees of the only game in town: Sasol. The croupiers all had the same eyebrows, stenciled into swoops that gradually fade at the center, dark with a faint sparkle, as if they’d been applied with coal dust. When I asked them if they gamble, they laughed and laughed and shook their heads. I placed a R10 bet on 26 black and won R350, and from then on one of the roulette punters, a matronly woman in her 50s, followed me around mimicking my bets, as we both got progressively poorer.
Risk, addiction and coal did endless loops in my mind in the casino, like the lights that chasing each other around the slot machines. In my interviews with people about drugs, I was told that “Secunda en dwelms loopsaam” (“Secunda and drugs walk together”). From one angle, it seemed always to be work or its absence that underpins drug use: drugs to work better, drugs to offset the stress of work, and drugs to dull the physical and emotional pain of the fact that you and the people around you are not working. Rich and poor alike drink heavily, but other drugs find different markets. For the skilled workers, it’s methcathinone (‘cat’), which is more easily available than coke, something that keeps you alert towards the end of a 12-hour shift and sobers you up before the start of it. Heroin is a poor man’s drug, its use concentrated in Embalenhle, a township twenty minutes’ drive from the formerly-whites-only towns here. Heroin is called kataza or nyaope and is generally smoked in a joint with weed. Heroin offers the ability to opt out of an environment that offers no income, no purpose and no respite from painful social conditions, conditions which are structured primarily by the legacy of Apartheid and unemployment. It goes without saying that the refinery at Secunda has a strict policy against drug use.
No problem this country faces will get better as the planet warms, and this place plays a significant role in that particular form of suffering. The heavy reliance on coal makes South Africa the 14th biggest greenhouse gas emitter despite not having anything like the 14th biggest economy. In fact, we have higher emissions than the UK, a country with not only a vastly bigger economy, but also a bigger population. According to one analysis of corporate responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, of 100 companies that have released 71% of all global industrial emissions since 1988, Eskom ranks at 29 and Sasol at 45.
South Africa is also absorbing a generous portion of the consequences: the country is warming at approximately twice the global rate. Under the best circumstances (high mitigation) it will warm 2.5 to 4 degrees before the end of the century.
Now, are we operating under the best circumstances, friends?
The prognosis is life-precluding, agriculture-destroying drought in much of an already water-scarce land – with periodic, intense flooding in the rest of the country. Last year Cape Town, my home town and the second largest city in South Africa, almost ran out of water—the dams this year are filling up, but we’re told the trend is towards longer and more frequent drought. Climate change has also been linked to the wildfires in 2017 that displaced 10,000 people near Knysna. Floods in Durban in 2019 killed 70, collapsed buildings and caused landslides. And South Africa has done, comparatively, extensive planning for climate change adaptation. Earlier in this year, in neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Cyclone Idai, a cyclone made more intense by rising temperatures, killed over 1,300 people, destroyed 700,000 hectares of crops and was swiftly followed by a cholera outbreak that affected more than 4,000.
Most galling in the face of government inertia on Eskom’s contribution to the catastrophe in the making is that South Africa has abundant solar and wind resources.
I bought myself a whiskey from the sad bar and said cheers to another year. The whiskey was peaty and smoky, aptly industrial, and carbon-y. By this point my interest in exchanging money in order to watch swoopy-eyebrowed women scoop up plastic chips was waning, and I was drawn to the bright lights and capitalist poetry of the slot machines: Hot, Fire, Fast, Extra, More, Triple Red-Hot Triple Seven. There were also distinct fantasy themed machines, centered on winged beasts: Ultra Stack Dragon, Dragon’s Gold, and Extreme Dragon. What better mascot for this place than a creature that breathes fire and hoards gold?
At the end of the night, back in my hotel room, I admired the view: the refinery in all its glory. Eight gas flares aflame, smoke chugging out of four cooling towers, their smooth flanks lit from below by spotlights. From the time of Beowulf, dragons have been defined by their cunning, their greed and arrogance. Intelligent, powerful beyond ken, and scorning the morality of puny, irrelevant humans. An existential threat to the village.
The dragon-slayer rides out to face the dragon alone, while normal folk lose their composure and flee in terror. The analogy is inexact; this dragon is of our own creation, for example. But feeling trapped in the tangle of industry, corruption, carbon and jobs and drugs, the snarled threads of interconnected damage and inertia, are causing many of us to lose our composure and try to flee. Yet I’ve decided that I’ve reached the perfect age at which to ride out and fight. I hear it requires some cunning and is best done at the moment of greatest danger. You wait in the path of the Great Wyrm and pierce its soft underbelly only when it is directly above you. You don’t hesitate. You strike upwards.