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What is "Just Transition"?

Resistance to Coal and the Possibilities of a Just Transition in South Africa

This paper examines anti-coal efforts led by mining-affected communities, environmental organizations, and labor unions and considers how they could become a “counter-power” for driving a transformative, just transition.


This paper examines coal-related struggles in South Africa, asking whether resistance from mining-affected communities, the labor community, and the environmental justice movement can counteract the state’s agenda and the coal industry to promote an alternative social order. The author argues that, in the process of elite capture, the current concept of just transitions has lost its transformative potential and now represents market-driven change toward a new, privatized renewable energy regime.

The findings of this study are based on exchange workshops with representatives from these three social groups. In many mining-affected communities, dependence on coal creates socially complex, ambiguous patterns of resistance. While there is collective action against coal-related activities, resistance is not directed against coal per se but rather against environmental pollution, migrant laborers, and damage from mine blasts. There seems to be little recognition that coal mine closures are inevitable, and community members often feel that the “just transitions” concept lacks substance or a clear alternative vision to coal. The author describes the narratives and struggles within the labor and environmental justice communities as well.

The author suggests that a “counter-power” is required to build a movement for greater equality, increased sustainability, and alternative development pathways to coal. However, generating this counter-power involves linking different struggles. The author suggests that livelihoods, defined as the immediate needs of poor communities, can be the bridge for shared understanding.