South Africa: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

Originally established as a stopover point for Dutch traders on the spice route to the Far East, South Africa has overcome a number of massive obstacles to emerge as a modern economic powerhouse.

The country’s economy was largely based on farming until the late 19th century when the discovery of enormous gold and diamond deposits changed everything. From 1948 to 1991, South Africa's political system was defined by apartheid – a policy of severe racial segregation. In 1994, Nelson Mandela became president of a South Africa defined more by equality than inequality.

Over the last two decades, South Africa’s economy has been bolstered by healthy high-tech equipment and heavy machinery industries. The country’s growing affluence has also led to a period of rapid urbanization.

With a 1,500-mile coastline that wraps around the southern tip of Africa, South Africa’s narrow, low-lying coastal zones dominate much of the country’s geography. Eventually, the coastal plain gives way to a mountainous escarpment that leads to a high inland plateau.

Environmental Issues of South Africa

South Africa has mined its countryside for more than a century, and that long legacy of mining has taken a major toll on the country’s environment. Other sources of environmental issues in South Africa include agricultural practices and a lack of inland water.

Solid wastes are produced after gold is divided from its ore, and these materials are usually put into enormous dumpsites, while liquid waste is amassed in a pit. This waste contains radioactive uranium in trace amounts, which when inhaled, induces serious health conditions like lung cancer.

The Cullinan Mine is famous for The Cullinan diamond, the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found, at 3106.75 carats.

The Cullinan Mine is famous for The Cullinan diamond, the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found, at 3106.75 carats. Image Credits: Felix Lipov/

Chemicals employed in the mining process also deposit dangerous contaminants inside the soil and water table. Stream assessments around Johannesburg and Soweto have discovered that the water contains dangerous toxins like uranium, arsenic and cyanide. Land near these areas has also been made sterile for farming. Overgrazing of livestock after apartheid has only made matters worse.

Because of the steepness of South Africa’s Great Escarpment, many of its rivers have a very high runoff rate and thus contribute to serious soil erosion. In addition, the demand for water has called for several dams to be built. With a high rate of future economic development and population growth projected, South Africa may have challenging times ahead in meeting water demands. Inadequate freshwater is connected to other issues like loss of forests, normal habitats and climate change.

Environmental Policies of South Africa

Announced in November 2010, South Africa's New Growth Path called for an economy that is more inclusive and environmentally sustainable. One of the plan's priorities is to spur environmentally-friendly economic growth by expanding the creation of technologies for solar, wind and biofuels. In 2011, South Africa released the Green Economy Accord to enhance green partnerships within the private sector.

GCIP The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme for SMEs and Start-ups in South Africa

GCIP The Global Cleantech Innovation Programme for SMEs and Start-ups in South Africa. Video Credits: Global Cleantech Innovation Programme South Africa/YouTube

In 2012, the government unveiled a large infrastructure program centered on energy, transportation and water. The Integrated Resource Plan caps emissions from the energy sector and calls for almost 50 percent of new power installations to come from renewable sources by 2030.

The New Growth Path also called for the clean technology sector to generate 300,000 jobs by 2020. These jobs would be found in the infrastructure improvement, natural resource administration, energy efficiency, and emissions control sectors.

Clean Technology in South Africa

The 2014 Global Cleantech Innovation Index revealed South Africa is a ‘below average’ country when it comes to clean technology innovation.

While the report dubbed South Africa, Russia and other countries as “Laggards”, it did say these countries are showing growing support systems for clean technology innovation being developed, in terms of committed renewable energy targets being established and clean technology being prioritized in innovation incubators. The report noted South Africa in particular does not have a public research and development budget and usage of private funds.

South Africa: Environmental Issues, Policies and Clean Technology

Despite experiencing twice as much sunshine as Germany, where over 15% of energy is generated from renewable sources, as of January 2015 only 593 MW was produced from solar power in South Africa - Germany produced 38,754 MW as of May 2015. Image credit: Danie Nel /
South Africa still have a long way to go to achieve their clean technology goals - around 77% of energy in the country is generated from coal burning power stations. Image credit: Therina Groenewald /

A Clean Future?

South Africa is still very much a developing nation, and multiple reports indicate the country still has a way to go until it truly realizes a clean future.

According to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global economic downturn, internal push for job creation and emissions commitments are driving South Africa's continuing clean technology policies.

Global Cleantech Innovation Index suggested South Africa and other below average countries must adapt to the growing demand for energy from renewable sources. The report also said South Africa should connect its clean tech start-up community and foster connections to clean technology hubs around the world. The report also suggested the South African government to reach out and become more involved in the global clean technology market.

Sources and Further Reading

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Brett Smith

Written by

Brett Smith

Brett Smith is an American freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Buffalo State College and has 8 years of experience working in a professional laboratory.


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  1. Ruth Walsh Ruth Walsh United States says:

    Good job

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of

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