Friday, January 31, 2020

South Africa’s Energy Grid Wake-Up Call, Part 3: Embedded Futures

Climate change and corruption are making the case for switching South Africa to a distributed network powered by renewable energy. This is the third of a three-part series that shows how.

See also Part 2, Circuit Overload (here or here), and Part 1, Planning for Failure (here or here).

Perhaps the only type of climate change-related article more common than the doomsday crisis story is the story about the next supposedly game-changing technological fix. This is not that (although, ok, it does reference technology). It is about the prospect of a different model for supplying the bloodline for modern society, one that addresses some of the major factors contributing to the mess that South Africa’ electricity grid finds itself in. As an alternative the centralized, asymmetrical system we have, South Africa could shift towards a dynamic embedded energy grid powered by a distributed network of largely renewable energy sources. Such a system presents the prospect for radical change to a hundred-year-old system. The transition will not be easy, but South Africa’s latest rounds of power outages teach an essential lesson: that the country can ill-afford to remain on its current path.

In order to comprehend a future built on embedded generation, one must understand the status quo. Conventional electric grids like South Africa’s are powered using centralized sources of energy, such as coal-fired power plants, gas-powered turbines and hydroelectric dams. These sources generate massive amounts of energy and that are often located far from where the electricity they produce is used. It is a highly asymmetrical system connecting a few energy producers with many, many energy consumers. While this configuration benefits from economies of scale, it also leaves the users more susceptible to failure when these plants break down or transmission is disrupted.

Enter embedded generation, also known in some parts as distributed generation.

Like a tree spreading up to millions of separate leaves to catch the sun’s light, an embedded grid relies on a myriad of small-scale and on-site power generators to produce energy. The one-way flow of energy is disrupted, and a dynamic grid in which users are also producers replaces it. Such systems require both infrastructural and legal adjustments, but the robustness and redundancy would pay dividends in climate-proofing the country.

Embedded generation’s distributed nature spreads the task of power generation, mitigating the risk of disruption of any one source. It is also incremental and can capitalize on advancements in clean renewable technologies that don’t exacerbate the climate problem. Solar and wind can be co-located next to people more easily than either massive industrial power plants or polluting diesel generators, and they are generally more efficient at converting energy into useable forms. And while the intermittent nature of solar and wind power—the sun doesn’t always shine, nor the wind always blow—has limited their usefulness in meeting steady “baseload” demand, new battery technology improvements have made great strides towards storing energy for later use. A diverse and embedded grid itself can also mitigate intermittency, drawing on different energy sources in different parts of the country to make up for lack of generation in other parts.

Embedded generation should not mean uniformity; it calls for a healthy mix of suppliers and sources at all scales, from large-scale generators to commercial independent power producers and on-site generation for self-consumption or sale back to the grid. There is also an important place for government-sponsored and community-based models and regulation to provide for the needs of all South Africans. In addition, energy efficiency measures and demand-side management, which involve curtailing waste, are also critical complementary strategies, and provide even more opportunities for commercial innovation, which can be paid for through savings created by increased efficiency. A grid that is both dynamic and efficient is better placed to confront the needs and challenges of the future. South Africa needs to start moving in that direction.

No doubt an embedded future would significantly disrupt the current financial and systematic model of South Africa's biggest electrical utility, Eskom. Eskom’s financial picture in particular, discussed previously in this series, is an important concern because the company acts not just as a generator of electricity under the current system but also as the distributor. But concern about Eskom’s financial state and the need for a coordinated distribution system shouldn’t be confused with good reasons for perpetuating an increasingly broken system. There will likely always be a role for integrated and coordinated control of the grid network, but so long as corruption and maladministration are problems, it seems prudent to minimize choke-points in the system that can be manipulated. The current system entrenches an unnecessary monopoly favoring an unbalanced approach to power supply. The financial stability of Eskom or other entity or entities coordinating the grid should be secured, but not simply for the sake of Eskom shareholders and at the expense of a more resilient energy system that would benefit all South Africans.

Eskom’s vertical monopoly on electricity is not necessary, as demonstrated in competitive energy markets like those in the United States. Entrenched business models and economic interests are not a sufficient justification for maintaining the status quo when alternative models would be better for consumers, the environment, and the industry itself in the long run. There is no overpowering basis for Eskom’s monopolization of electrical generation, and the history of state capture and poor service delivery in South Africa suggests that providing room for self-sufficiency and local control is sensible.

As a growing chorus of observers are noting, government support is needed for the transition to a more reliable and less environmentally destructive energy grid. National law and policy necessary for enabling embedded generation and renewable sources has been fragmented, moving in fits and starts. The Department of Energy’s plan for increasing renewable energy capacity over the long-term, including embedded generation, is positive but modest, and also doubles down on building additional coal capacity. Recent regulatory changes have helped loosen the red tape preventing small-scale generators from connecting to the grid, but the country still lacks the sort of policy support and investment that has catapulted small-scale generation in other countries. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Eskom has dragged its feet in complying with existing law and in implementing distributed energy storage systems. In sum, significant regulatory and policy obstacles remain to implementing an embedded grid fed by renewable energy.

Whether or not the government is on-board, residents and businesses are already searching for embedded solutions. For Rubin, my grocer who I introduced in the first part of this series, it’s about seeking a more reliable power source for his business. The general consensus between store owners in his area is that load shedding will remain an issue. “A lot of businesses are moving away [from Eskom] and trying to get off-grid.” The cost of transitioning is an issue: “for a small business it’s really challenging because you don’t have the capital or the budget to invest in things like generators or solar power.” Nevertheless, he’s convinced it’s a change he and many others will have to undertake.

Monday, January 27, 2020

South Africa’s Energy Grid Wake-Up Call, Part 2: Circuit Overload

The climate crisis and corruption are making the case for switching South Africa to a distributed network powered by renewable energy. This is the second of a three-part series that shows how.

See also Part 1, Planning for Failure (here or here).

Climate change and corruption, two ephemeral forces lurking in the background, each composed of many discrete but interconnected events linking together to create seemingly unvanquishable scourges. Neither are unique to South Africa, yet the country appears particularly vulnerable to both. And so it was last month when intense rains tripped South Africa’s national electrical circuit, unleashing new electrical outages that hit historic highs, bringing new lows for a parastatal electrical utility already marred in scandals.

The overload of problems affecting South Africa’s electricity grid are many and varied, and include high rates of unplanned breakdowns at generation stations, massive corporate debt, increasing demand, aging infrastructure, delays in bringing on new power stations, and even potentially intentional sabotage. But despite all of the variety, the imprints of corruption and climate change in particular mark their destabilizing influence in the grid, whose own structure reveals itself to be particularly vulnerable to their impact. In other words, it is not just that the climate and corruption are clearly undermining the grid; it is also that the grid’s configuration is particularly sensitive to their impact. Last month’s outages capture a frame of this larger story.

A Grid Built on Coal, for Coal

The breaking point causing electrical outages last December came with heavy rains and extreme flooding in the eastern part of the country, causing damage to infrastructure and rendering coal supplies unusably damp at some of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. Eskom’s and the country’s problems with coal go much deeper than dampness, however. It is not news that South Africa is and will continue to become more prone to extreme weather events. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s foremost group of scientists studying the issue, has predicted an increasing likelihood of extreme weather events in South Africa, including extreme flooding in the wetter southeastern areas of the country even as the southwestern areas experiences dryer conditions.

South Africa’s own government has acknowledged what the science says about the climate crisis, and has even moved to address the issue in national and local policies. But a variety of factors challenge progress, including countervailing economic pressures and an entrenched domestic fossil fuel industry. Elsewhere, research indicates that increasing extreme weather events and other climate change factors will impact electricity grids in a way underestimated by utility officials themselves.

While on the one hand South Africa’s grid will need to deal with the burden of a changing climate, on the other hand its supply mix is exacerbating the very problem it faces, not to mention more immediate air pollution issues that affect human health. Eskom is responsible for supplying 95 percent of the country’s power, and 90 percent of its supply is generated through coal-fired power plants. Overall, coal provides more than 77 percent of South Africa’s energy needs, contributing to the country’s outsized carbon footprint.

In contrast, renewable energy accounts for a tiny fraction of Eskom’s energy mix. According to Eskom, only a tiny sliver of its own generation is derived from wind or solar, with independent power producers providing most of the still small total amount utilized. Moreover, Eskom has spent years and hundreds of billions of rands (tens of billions of dollars) building new coal power plants, which are now long delayed and far over budget. This in a country blessed with significant wind and solar resources.

The result is a country overdependent on Eskom for power and on coal for energy, at a time when most of the rest of the world is seeking to ratchet down carbon emissions in the face of the climate crisis. Yet the system built on coal is also built for coal, with highly centralized and asymmetrical generation and distribution networks reliant on massive coal mines and mammoth coal-fired power plants. It is unsurprising then that this model’s best approach to satisfying the country’s energy needs is through more extractive mining and coal-leaning industrial-sized generation. The unfortunate consequence, as last month suggests, is a lack of resilience in the system and higher susceptibility to large-scale blackouts when a small number of generation sources are disrupted.

Choke Points and Monopolies

Were it that South Africa’s over-reliance on coal was its only issue. Eskom’s track record of poor execution and delivery of projects is no secret, but the troubles appear to go beyond mere maladministration. Early last year, South African media exposed the findings of an unpublished report by South Africa’s anti-corruption Special Investigating Unit concluding that in 2008 Eskom officials intentionally ignored coal supply issues to induce a “self-created emergency” leading to South Africa’s first experience with load shedding. Having precipitated a crisis, Eskom officials apparently bypassed normal procurement processes to enter into shady energy contracts with third party coal providers at massively inflated rates.Another 2015 report by the international law firm Dentons indicated that similar contracting irregularities may have been implicated in further load shedding events in 2014. South African media have also highlighted how politically connected businessmen have profited from contracts whose terms are unfavorable to Eskom. In some cases, these parties have either delivered poor quality products or services, or have not delivered at all. Eskom’s history with other large infrastructure projects is similarly suspect. For instance, its aborted deal regarding new nuclear generation has likewise faced its own corruption scandals.

Meanwhile, Eskom faces staggering debt and a financial model that has struggled to keep up with mounting maintenance and repair issues, another factor in the December crisis and other load shedding events. The financial viability of utilities such as Eskom is based on increasing profit margins from the sale of power to customers while lowering marginal production costs through largescale centralized generation. In other words, Eskom’s strategy is to make more and sell more (coal-fired) power in order to make up for financial shortfalls, or else seek direct help from the government and, ultimately, tax-payers.

Certainly, problems regarding corruption and financial solvency do not stem solely from the highly centralized and vertical nature of South Africa’s grid. It is easy to see, however, how such a structure and Eskom’s “too big to fail” role in the electricity market would create opportunities for graft and mismanagement. Monopolies over technical and managerial expertise and information, as well as over centralized public services themselves, can help facilitate opportunities to illegally leverage that power, while highly bureaucratic systems detached from the communities they serve are prone to abuse because of a lack of accountability. Eksom’s role in maintaining the grid, and its operational and financial structure, create the very choke points and monopolies that can be easily used in the service of corruption.

In a country and world increasingly susceptible to extreme weather events, the already thin margin of error in managing a national electrical grid becomes threadlike. Scientists warn us to expect climate change to magnify problems caused by Eskom’s history of mismanagement and over-reliance on a centralized system built on coal, a prime contributor to the atmosphere’s CO2 levels. Yet South Africa’s grid is tethered to coal and a highly centralized structure that go hand-in-hand, leaving it exposed to the corrosive effects of climate change and corruption. The question is, are South African’s willing to accept more of the same? 

Up next: Part 3, Embedded Futures.

Friday, January 17, 2020

South Africa’s Energy Grid Wake-Up Call, Part 1: Planning for Failure

The climate crisis and corruption are making the case for switching South Africa to a distributed network powered by renewable energy. This is the first of a three-part series that tells that story.

The warning was as sudden as it was shocking. “We regret and sincerely apologise that stage 4 load shedding will move to Stage 6 load shedding as from 18:00 today, as a result of a shortage of capacity,” South Africa’s national electric utility Eskom announced via social media late one Monday afternoon last month. The cause: damage to infrastructure and coal supplies from heavy rains and flooding in parts of the country. With that, South Africans were given twenty minutes’ notice that Eskom was turning off the lights on more than a third of the country for the indefinite future. Residents, companies, and even municipal utilities for large cities such as Johannesburg were left scrambling to prepare and locate undisclosed schedules for when their areas would experience outages. And, predictably, people took to Twitter to vent their frustration—often, as is the case here in South Africa, through gallows humor.

The cascading effects of a major power shortage were made obvious immediately after Eskom’s announcement. The major telecommunications company Vodacom notified the public that the batteries backing up its cell phone towers might not bridge the gap between load shedding events at a Stage 6 level, potentially leaving people without their primary means of communicating and obtaining information. The byzantine nature of Eskom’s scheduled outages prompted news outlets and app developers to produce their own maps and features to help people figure out how long they would be in the dark.

Here in the City of Cape Town, where I reside and which is recovering from a historic drought, City officials warned that the outages could affect the metropolitan water supply. Portions of the city’s water system were in fact shut down for hours just as people started fixing dinner, as I later heard from a friend in another part of the city with firsthand experience.

Eskom, a massive South African state-owned enterprise, implements intentional rolling power outages, known as load shedding, as a precautionary measure when it determines that demand will outstrip supply, thereby avoiding an overdraw on system capacity that would trigger an unplanned total power failure of the national grid, a calamity that it says would take weeks to rectify. The unique nature of electrical power grids necessitates a minute-by-minute, country-wide assessment of the balance between power generation and largely predictable swings in consumption, which are dictated by the rhythms of daily life. It is an admittedly delicate dance that necessitates quick reactions. Hence the laughably short warning provided to the public last month.

Load shedding has become a burdensome, if occasional, part of life for South Africans over the past decade. However, December’s Stage 6 event was unprecedented in scale and duration, resulting in large swaths of the country experiencing no power for much of a night. Designated load shedding levels beyond Stage 4 hadn’t even been discussed publicly until earlier this year. Stage 8, theoretically the highest and most painful level provided for, would result in half of the country being without power, although some experts say that full system failure could occur even before Stage 8 is reached.

Foremost in the minds of many South Africans is the impact on the economy and livelihoods. South Africa’s economy, the second largest in Africa, has been wobbly over the past several years, hampered by security issues, high income inequality, and corruption. Its electricity woes are not helping. The World Economic Forum has noted the country’s inefficient electricity supply as a challenge to its economy. Load shedding brings an acute dimension to this shortcoming. Altogether, estimates of the impact of load shedding events on South Africa’s economy put the cost in the tens of billions of Rands (billions of U.S. dollars) last year.

In order to get a better sense of the economic impact at the ground level, I got in touch with Paul Rubin, the owner of a local organic bulk foods grocery that I shop at in Cape Town’s City Bowl. When I asked him if he had a minute to share his experience with load shedding as a business owner, he asked if I had an hour. Rubin called the effects of the load shedding crippling, particularly for local stores like his. While a grocery might not strike someone as the most electricity-dependent enterprise, an outage can affect critical elements such a refrigeration and payment systems.  “There’s no warning. It just starts… and it’s a mad scurry to try and survive.” Another local business manager I spoke with echoed Rubin’s sentiment.

The toll is not just economic, but also social and even psychological. Hospitals, schools, and libraries all may be drastically impacted. Traffic lights and streetlamps darken, impacting safety and security. People look on with dread as their cell phone batteries drain down. The modern city and modern life, fueled by electricity, can feel isolating and hostile without it.

The perils of infrastructure failure are distributed unequally in an unequal society. South Africa, you may have heard, has an economic inequality problem. It is in the unenviable position of being world’s reigning Gini Coefficient champion (a common measure inequality). As with other types of infrastructure and public service delivery, the burden of Eskom’s power cuts is borne disproportionately by South Africa’s poor. Larger companies and those living in upscale apartments or in households that can afford diesel generators or solar panels are able to ride out load shedding, albeit with an impact on their wallets. South Africa’s impoverished communities, which were poorly served as a point of policy under the Apartheid era, are now facing power cuts without the resources to mitigate the impacts. Inequality is now enforced by the market as well as the grid.

Eskom’s December foray into uncharted territory was short lived. By the next day, Eskom had reduced the load shedding schedule to Stage 4, and it kept it at a now tame-seeming Stage 2 for most of the remaining week before returning to normal by the weekend. However, industry and official forecasts predict that load shedding will continue to occur for the foreseeable future. As predicted, the country has continued to experience load shedding events, including for much of early January.

In today’s society, where electricity literally powers our way of life, the suddenness of load shedding is more than an inconvenience. Power outages have real consequences on people’s livelihoods, well-being, health, and safety, and their increased frequency and intensity suggests dramatic changes are needed. In order to get there, South Africans need to heed the wake-up call and learn what we can from the past in order to change course. It’s time to stop planning for failure, and instead start planning for the future.

Up next: Part 2, Circuit Overload.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Confronting the City of Cape Town’s PHA “Myths”

What level of condescension is implied in calling something a myth? In his arguments before the Western Cape’s High Court on 15 October, the City of Cape Town’s advocate Ron Paschke laid out a series of what he called myths that he argued underly the case against a proposal to develop 472 hectares of land located in the southern portion of Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA).

The dispute at issue is between a developer proposing to turn the site into a 15,000-home mixed use community called Oakland City, and the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (PHA Campaign), a grassroots farmers’ organisation that is contesting the proposal. The City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Province are also parties to the case, having sided with the developer in opposition to the PHA Campaign in court. The City and Province both deny that they inappropriately approved aspects of the Oakland City proposal.

All of advocate Paschke’s asserted “myths” are rebuttable, but the following ones in particular (slightly rearranged) reveal fundamental misconceptions regarding the essence of the PHA Campaign’s arguments.

“The Oakland City site is part of the PHA”

Incredibly, the City argued in court that the Oakland City site is not actually part of the PHA, despite a long history of documentation, and even the City’s current proposed heritage zone designation, that indicate otherwise. The Province’s own study describes how since the 1960s the PHA, including the Oakland City site, has been designated as horticultural land.

It was not until the past few years that the City and Province took a number of actions to chip away at the PHA’s boundaries. In particular, the City hangs its hat primarily on a change to its Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework in 2012, presaged by a similar 2011 Provincial decision, that shifted the “urban edge” of the city to include the Oakland City site, thereby severing it from the PHA territory. These actions, the PHA Campaign contends, were unlawful and contrary to national law and policy.

The City’s reliance on the 2011/2012 urban edge shift to support the Oakland City site’s deletion from the PHA is akin to renaming District Six. The City cannot so easily erase the site’s historical and physical, not to mention legal, connection to the PHA. The Oakland City site is by no extent of the imagination urban; rather its use and features follow the trajectory, now disrupted, of the rest of the PHA.

“The Oakland City site is farmland that provides food for Cape Town”

The City and Province argued that none of the Oakland City site has been farmed, verbally footnoting that there has previously been “illegal” farming on a small portion of the land. One reason the land isn’t being farmed right now is that the owner—the developer—will not permit it. This is in contrast to farmed areas on adjacent land also held by developers.

What the City and Province also did not note was that a significant portion of the Oakland City site has been sand dune mined and then neglected, rather than rehabilitated to productive farmland as required under the law. Historically, PHA farmland has been established according to a process of sand dune mining followed by rehabilitation for farming purposes. This process has slowly progressed in patchwork form over the decades. It is therefore unsurprising that portions of the PHA have not yet been farmed.

The City made much in its arguments before the court that the Oakland City site is not currently producing food or jobs, and that it is not suitable for farming. The Oakland City site shares the same general physical, hydrological, and climatic features as the rest of the PHA, including what the Province’s own study states is the best suited land for agriculture within 120 kilometres of the city. Portions of the PHA has been farmed for well over 100 years, long before the introduction of modern fertilizers and water systems that the City argues is necessary for its cultivation. Governmental and non-governmental studies alike demonstrate the importance that the PHA plays in food production for the city, as a producer for particularly food-insecure populations and as regulator of broader market prices for the city.

“Farming is beneficial for the aquifer”

The City argued that farming the Oakland City site would pollute the aquifer with fertilizer and chemical runoff. The City never actually conducted an assessment regarding farming as an alternative to the proposed development. Instead, the government relied on the Oakland City site’s reinvention as an “urban” area to avoid considering farming uses, thanks to the previously mentioned urban edge shift in 2011/2012. This means neither the City nor the Province has properly weighed the costs and benefits of urban development versus farming.

There is evidence that the aquifer is impacted by ecologically damaging farming practices. This is not a reason to stop farming, but instead to shift our farming practices to more sustainable means. Claims that small-scale commercial organic farming cannot work sound very similar to the arguments against the shift to carbon neutrality. To say that we must take action to avoid imperiling the environment and our future is not to say it will be easy, but that does not mean it cannot or should not be done. Moreover, such a shift in farming practices is possible. For example, in Munich, city officials have engaged in a decades-long project to protect their aquifer and source of water through sustainable farming practices above its recharge zone.

“Development is undesirable and will endanger the aquifer”

The City’s advocate made much of the benefit that the development proposal’s 15,000 homes would bring to the city. But are these homes for the poor? Will they house the thousands of people living in informal settlements within and around the PHA? Are they located near existing infrastructure? Will they be efficiently located and address Cape Town’s spatial fragmentation and traffic congestion?

The answer is no. The City’s own analysis concludes that the PHA’s high water table effectively makes subsidized housing on the site cost-prohibitive, and developers are under no obligation to provide any. The development will require completely new infrastructure, including roads, water and sewage pipes, and electrical lines. In a city with 10,000 other well located housing opportunities, and with a damning legacy in spatial segregation, poor service delivery, traffic congestion, and strained public coffers, putting houses in the middle of designated farmland seems like a particularly unsuitable option.

In truth, this development proposal follows a line of poorly planned developments offered under the guise of solving the City’s housing problems, but which in fact perpetuate the social and spatial dislocation of the city. In this manner the Oakland City project mirror’s the ill-fated Wescape project, which proposed thousands of homes in Cape Town’s hinterland within a nuclear fallout area. The PHA, including the Oakland City site, is similarly unsuitable for largescale urban development. One need only to read Crispian Olver’s new book on corruption in Cape Town to get a sense of the fishiness of the Oakland City project proposal.

“The High Court can decide to protect the PHA”

Finally, the City’s counsel also argued that the judge sitting hearing the case is not empowered to question the City’s policy decision with respect to the designation of the Oakland City site as “urban”. This runs in direct contrast to the position the City takes in its most recent amendment to the Municipal Spatial Development Framework, in which essentially defers to the court, stating that if the court rules in the PHA Campaign’s favor, the site should be considered again to be part of the PHA. More broadly, the City and the Province have committed in writing to protecting and investing in the PHA. Their arguments in court suggest otherwise.

Critics of the PHA Campaign complain that it doesn’t represent all farming interests in the PHA. They are correct on that point. The PHA Campaign isn’t interested in repeating mistakes of the past, either with respect to the city’s urban development or harmful farming practices. What the PHA Campaign does embody is a vision for the PHA as supporting Cape Town at the vanguard of sustainable, food-secure, socially just cities.

The City’s asserted myths about the PHA do not hold up against the weight of evidence. More than that, they themselves distort and obscure the harm the City’s actions continue to perpetuate against the interests of its people. Who is really peddling in myths?

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Cape Argus on 17 November, 2019. The full version was subsequently published by BizCommunity on 19 November, 2019.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Reflections on PHA's Day at the Cape Town High Court

It’s been a little over two weeks since the PHA Food and Farming Campaign had its day in court against the developer seeking to develop 472 hectares of the Philippi Horticultural Area. The Cape Town High Court heard both sides in a saga that has been going on for about a decade. In court on the side of the developer were the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape Provincial government, who were denying that they inappropriately approved land use decisions regarding the proposed development.

I sat in for both days of the trial. As a PHA Campaign supporter, at times it felt like watching your favorite football team playing, wanting your sheer will to push them to victory. It was hard sitting through the government’s statements. The City in particular made much about the so-called “myths” underlying the PHA Campaign’s case, which of course I found very biased in favor of the City’s position. Fortunately, they allow phones in the courtroom here, and social media provided an outlet during the hearing. (I’ll hopefully be able to share a rebuttal of the City’s arguments soon.)

The PHA Campaign had a healthy presence outside of the court, making clear that there is broad support for its cause. While the PHA Campaign itself organized a strong showing, a number of people answered the general call to the public to show up, which was really heartening to see. There were some creative outlets for protest.

Shortly after the case ended, some commercial farmers from the PHA published a piece clarifying that the PHA Campaign does not represent them. Unsurprisingly, opinions regarding the PHA, even within PHA residents and farmers themselves, is fractious. Nazeer Sonday, the small-scale farmer behind the PHA Campaign, does not ascribe to the mono-crop farming systems used by current commercial farmers, and for that he is often derided as insignificant or not taken seriously. Discounting small-scale farming is a common theme in Big Ag, as is eloquently put by two PHA activists in this recent piece from the Argus. I don’t hold it against these other farmers to clarify their position, and I understand their own hardship farming within the PHA, which, like much of the rest of Cape Town, faces significant security risks. These are compounded in the PHA, which is rural and therefore less monitored, by neglect by the state charged with protecting its people.

I do believe that there is an opportunity to not just save the PHA, but to cultivate it into an example for sustainable peri-urban agriculture. In doing so, I think there is room for everyone to benefit. Hopefully the Cape Town High Court will take the first step by throwing out a speculative attempt to chip away at the PHA.