In this second blog of our series on South Africa beyond the ballot, Carl Death takes a look at the place of green issues on the political agenda. He argues that whilst environmental issues are at the heart of many of the socio-political challenges facing the country, they received little direct attention on the campaign trail. This could well change, given the rising importance of climate change, but it will require pressure from political activists.
Environmental politics was not high on anyone’s priorities during the 2014 election campaign. Ask most South Africans if they are interested in ‘green’ politics and they are likely to either laugh, or an enthusiastic minority might start telling you about their latest birdwatching or hiking trip in the Drakensbergs. But if you ask people whether they are care about land, food, water, clean air… the answer is usually different. Many of the big topics which dominated the 2014 election campaign – jobs, corruption, poverty, education, mining, land reform – have an environmental dimension. South Africa faces pressing challenges on a whole range of environmental issues, across many of the ministerial portfolios, from climate change to the shift to a low carbon economy, from biodiversity conservation to the provision of clean water and sanitation to everyone, from urban housing to rural land restitution. A challenge for activists and civil society and politicians is to ensure that such issues are a higher priority at elections in 2019 and 2024
Despite the low levels of publicity, there have actually been a range of important policy commitments in recent years on environmental issues. On the 1 January 2016 South Africa is scheduled to introduce a new national carbon tax, although this proposal has been under discussion for several years and has been delayed several times, most recently in Pravin Gordhan’s February 2014 budget speech. But it is intended to change behaviours rather than raise revenue, and many such measures (going even further than the meagre provisions in the proposed carbon tax) will be required if South Africa is to get anywhere close to its 2009 promise to reduce CO2 emissions 34% and 42% below business as usual emissions growth by 2020 and 2025 respectively.
Whilst investment in renewable energy sources – particularly wind – has been rapidly stimulated by the provision of renewable energy feed-in tariffs (REFIT, now REBID) through which independent power producers can generate electricity for the grid, South Africa remains massively coal-dependent, and the construction of vast new fossil fuel power plants at Kusile and Medupi will lock the country into a particular carbon-intensive development path for the foreseeable future.
One way in which climate change will shape the next few decades in South Africa is therefore through new policies (such as the carbon tax and REBID) and new international agreements (there is the possibility of binding emissions targets being agreed even for developing countries in the post-Kyoto climate treaty schedule to emerge in 2015). But climate change will have even more direct impacts on South African temperatures, rainfall, sea level, disease vectors and natural disasters. In the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change the projected temperature rises in South Africa by 2100 were 2°C forcoastal areas and 6°C for the interior. Maize yields are predicted to drop by a third by 2050 and more frequent droughts will wipe out cattle herds. If political debate about climate change was muted at the 2014 elections, it is likely that it will be increasingly prominent in 2024 and 2034
There are some signs that ANC policymakers are paying increased attention to environmental issues. In 2014 the Yale Environmental Performance Index ranked South Africa 72 out of 178 countries, but reported a 6% improvement in environmental indicators over the last ten years (particularly in water and sanitation, biodiversity conservation, and environmental health). South Africa was even ahead of the curve in announcing a new ‘green economy’ programme in 2011 which aimed to create 300,000 ‘green jobs’ in the next 10 years: in 2012 governments around the world at the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development made the green economy one of the two main themes of the negotiations. Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel claimed that as part of South Africa’s New Growth Path, the ‘green economy can create a large number of jobs, provide a spur for industrialisation and help to create a sustainable future for this and the next generations’.
But without sustained pressure from activists and civil society, politicians are unlikely to make some of the tough decisions necessary to produce a safe, sustainable and just environment in South Africa. Without political pressure businesses are unlikely to implement the necessary environmental safeguards and clean-ups, as recent cases of acid mine drainage, urban air pollution, and hazardous waste dumping make clear. South Africa has strong networks of campaigning environmental organisations, such as Earthlife Africa, GroundWork, and the Centre for Environmental rights, and it also has its environmental ‘heroes’: in April 2014 Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance was awarded the prestigious international Goldman Environmental Prize, and Kumi Naidoo (also from Durban) has been the Executive Director of Greenpeace International since 2009.
However, there are still deep splits – in supporter base, campaigns, outlook and tactics – between environmental justice movements and South Africa’s large, well-resourced and established conservation organisations. On the other side of the political spectrum, urban movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Anti-Eviction Campaign are also concerned with environmental issues – housing, basic services, crime and security, and transport – although they are not seen as ‘greens’. Closer links could also be forged with new movements amongst rural and landless groups, such as Tshintsha AmaKhaya, Mawubuye Land Rights Forum, and Ilizwi Lamafama, despite previous tensions between environmentalists and the Landless Peoples Movement at the 2002 Johannesburg Summit. The future of the land in South Africa is crucial to environmental justice, and it is politically potent as the successes of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters in the 2014 elections shows.
In 1993 the ANC’s Bill of Rights declared that the ‘land, the waters and the sky and all the natural assets which they contain, are the common heritage of the people of South Africa who are equally entitled to their enjoyment and responsible for their conservation’. The struggle to realise this right will define the coming decades of politics in the Rainbow Nation.