Rethinking Strategic Integrated Planning for the Electricity Sector in South Africa

South Africa’s electricity sector is characterised by the unique social, political, and economic legacy of apartheid, which still impacts decision-making and contemporary politics of low-carbon energy transitions profoundly. A series of processes is now converging to force the issue of sustainability to drive South Africa’s low-carbon energy transitions, which provide both a description of a process of transformation from one energy system to another and a set of tools and concepts to explain and enable such transitions. Specifically, national electricity plans are policy approaches providing opportunities for integrated goal-oriented low-carbon energy transition management. Currently, there is a pressing need to understand the potential nature of South Africa’s emergent transitions, as it is a rapidly industrialised country whose economy is among the most energy intensive in the world. This raises the question of how a ‘sustainability transitions’ framework can be conceptualised to address the challenge of low-carbon electricity transitions in South Africa. This paper, therefore, critically reviews the strategic electricity planning process in South Africa, framed within an established sustainability transitions theoretical framework. From the literature, it was observed that the challenges facing South Africa’s strategic electricity planning resulted from slow economic growth, with concomitant limited investments in infrastructure and demand for services, ambitious long-term national development planning aspirations, including related politics, differing views due to different stakeholder preferences on electricity planning, and a lack of, or misalignment between, development policies and objectives. All these theoretical and practical gaps reveal that South Africa must rethink its current strategic electricity planning practice. A conceptual complexity planning framework is proposed to ensure alignment of different, competing, complex sustainability policy objectives within the electricity planning process. The conceptual planning framework process proposed emphasises the requirement to consider South Africa’s political economy influence and its impact on the country’s electricity planning process in terms of its governance and associated decision-making processes.