Here people collect coal dust to cook and stay warm
“What is the use of being climate conscious because this duff coal is like gold to us”
Sarah Ngobeni wakes up at 6am every two to three days to push a wheelbarrow to a nearby river, about three kilometres away. She collects clay and takes it back to her shack in Extension 10 to prepare for the day ahead.
The clay will be mixed with coal dust from an old mine dump in Springs. She does this so she can generate heat for cooking and to warm up her home.
There’s a heap of this coal dust in her yard. It is called duff, and it is a by-product of coal-mining.
She takes the clay, mixes it with water and the duff, then rolls out small balls on the ground in straight lines to dry overnight. Ngobeni says a prayer in the hope that rain does not undo her work before the coal balls have dried.
Without any other form of energy there is not much of a choice for the thousands of households living in this vast settlement, which lies on the outskirts of Tsakane near Duduza.
Although some rely on illegal electricity connected for a fee of R300 per month, those who can afford it say it is not suitable for cooking or sustaining electrical appliances which require stronger currents to work.
Ngobeni sells containers of actual coal to other residents together with duff. She also sells snacks and fruits. She uses her stall’s roof to dry mielies which she picks from nearby farms to make samp to feed her family.
When she cooks with duff, she pours salt on it to reduce the smoke, she says.
“What is the use of being climate conscious because this duff coal is like gold to us,” says Ngobeni.
Sometimes she suffers from chest pains, but her cold shack, especially in winter, leaves her with no reasonable option but to use duff.
Professor David Rees, with the School of Public Health at Wits University, told GroundUp that duff can cause lung function to worsen Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, asthma and sinusitis.
People who work with coal can also get pneumoconiosis and silicosis. He points out that while this is rare outside occupational exposure, if people are regularly exposed to coal dust from making the coal for prolonged periods, this is akin to occupational exposure. “I have not read of cases from this kind of exposure but then I suppose it has not been studied,” he said.
Ngobeni and her neighbours want the government to provide them with electricity.
The community has protested but so far this appears to have made little difference. In 2021 the municipality installed 12-volt solar panels to help with phone charging and lighting. Two years later, because of lack of maintenance, the panels can hardly charge a phone nor do they light the shacks as effectively as they used to.
A few shacks away, Robert Nasio stands in a wooden spaza shop, looking out for customers to come and buy a few provisions. In his yard, he runs a small factory of duff coal. Pointing towards his stock, he is proud.
“Not having electricity has turned out to be an opportunity for some of us. They say this duff coal is bad for the atmosphere, it makes other people sick and gives them respiratory problems. Well, it hasn’t affected me yet,” he says.
Nasio brings in a truck of coal dust daily from Springs. This has been his main source of livelihood for more than a decade.
“Do you know how long we have been waiting for just electricity in this settlement? All this talk about climate – that can only make sense to the rich. We can only try and survive the best way that we can, even if it means using duff coal for the rest of our lives,” says Nasio.
While coal is the primary source of energy here, people also use paraffin, gas stoves and wood sourced from nearby forests. These all have detrimental environmental effects, especially for the people using them.
The settlement in which Ngobeni and Nasio live is one of many in Ekurhuleni where residents do not have enough energy to meet their needs. This is known as energy poverty.
In Plastic City on the outskirts of Brakpan town, an old coal mine deposit has been a life-saver for residents, who see no hope of ever getting electricity.
In the early morning and evening, residents can be seen collecting small coal pieces from the coal field to cook and make fires in their homes. The settlement has a long history of terrible fires at night, especially in winter as families try to keep warm.
Inside her shack, 60-year-old Nomsa Ndebele holds a 12-volt solar panel which households received from the City in 2021. Her shack is warm from a hot container of coal placed in a corner. She explains that the solar panel no longer works well.
“The government should give us stronger solar panels that enable us to watch TV and do other things. It would make our lives much easier,” said Ndebele.
Where government ambitions and reality collide
While the Cabinet has set targets to reduce net carbon emission to zero by 2050, climate activists have raised concerns about the struggles of people in situations like Ngobeni and Nasio, who live in urban informal settlements but don’t have access to clean energy. The plausibility of this goal is questionable given that one study points out that it will take past 2050 to simply catch up on the current formal housing backlog in the Ekurhuleni Metro.
The contribution to climate change by informal settlements is small compared to other human activities. Peta Wolpe, with Project 90, a climate activist group trying to address energy poverty, worries that in a transition to cleaner energy, people in Ngobeni’s situation will be left out.
“Now we have to transition to a low carbon future and what is being put out now is that we have to redress this carbon industry and electricity sector. But we must make sure that poor people who are already disadvantaged are not going to be further disadvantaged by this transition. That’s why we talk about a just transition,” says Wolpe.
The Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality has been battling to fix the housing problem, with many housing projects in a questionable state, says Extension 10 community representative Nina Malati.
“If our community should stop relying on coal, what would we do? It’s important to know what plan the government has for us living in informal settlements. Our families are poor and vulnerable. Alternative energy sources like solar would make life easier, if rolled out the right way,” Malati said.
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