South Africa’s energy sector finds itself in a gridlock situation. The sector is controlled by the state-owned utility Eskom holding the monopoly on the generation and transmission of electricity, which is almost exclusively produced from domestically extracted coal. At the same time, the constitutional mandate enables municipalities to distribute and sell electricity generated by Eskom to local consumers, which constitutes a large part of the cities’ municipal income. This is a strong disincentive for city governments to promote reductions in energy consumption and substantially limits the scope for urban action on energy efficiency and renewable energies. In the present case study, we portray the current development in South Africa’s energy policy and trace how deadlocked legal, financial, and institutional barriers block the transition from a coal-based energy system toward a greener and more sustainable energy economy. We furthermore point to the efforts of major South African cities to introduce low-carbon strategies in their jurisdictions and highlight key challenges for the future development of the country’s energy sector. By engaging with this case study, readers will become familiar with a prime example of the wider phenomenon of national political–economic obstacles to the progress in sustainable urban development.

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