An ecological transformation is required as part of a ‘new liberation struggle’ in South Africa. This involves a ‘just transition’ from the present fossil fuel regime that is moving us towards ecological collapse and catastrophe. The article suggests that the impetus to this ecological transformation is coming strongly from two aspects of the ecological crisis: the acceleration of climate change and the spread of toxic pollution of water, air, land and food that is experienced as ‘environmental racism’. The implication is that what Von Holdt and Webster (2005) have conceptualised as a triple transition to democracy (economic liberalisation, political democracy and post-colonial transformation) requires a fourth dimension: an ecological transition to a society marked by a very different relation with nature, a relation combining social justice with ecological sustainability.
This comprehensive and transformative change could contain the embryo of a post-capitalist, eco-socialist society. Such a vision is finding concrete expression in alternative social forms, new alliances and forms of power which are promoting counter narratives of solidarity through environmental justice, energy democracy, transformative feminism and food sovereignty. These could involve features such as the collective, democratic control of production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy, suggesting decentralized energy sources with much greater potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; new relations between men and women and the sharing of resources in more collective social forms. Support for such alternatives is related to the increasing recognition that the fundamental cause of the deepening ecological crisis, which is having devastating impacts on the working class, is the expansionist logic of capitalism. Quite simply, there is a growing sense that the deepening climate crisis arises precisely from the imposition just such a perverse “logic,” one that is producing ” a crisis arising from and perpetuated by the rule of capital, and hence incapable of resolution within the capitalist framework’ (Wallis, 2010:32) . Moreover, such recognition is promoting new coalitions and forms of co- operation between both labour and environmental activists - this new solidarity, in turn, bearing the promise of a new kind of socialism that is, at once, ethical, ecological and democratic.
The ecological crisis
South Africa is a microcosm of how the ecological crisis is deepening globally. Despite 21 years of international negotiations there is no binding global agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions. On the contrary, carbon emissions are rising (61% since 1990) which means climate change is intensifying and having a range of serious impacts – particularly in Africa - in the form of rising food prices, water shortages, crop failures, and dislocation by ever more extreme weather events. This is largely because the political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by the interests of fossil fuel corporations and committed to the pursuit of economic growth at all costs (Klein, 2014). Capital’s response to the climate crisis is that the system can continue to expand by creating a new ‘sustainable’ or ‘green capitalism’, bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. The two pillars on which green capitalism rests are technological innovation and expanding markets while keeping the existing institutions of capitalism intact. Underlying all these strategies is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations, subordinated to the logic of the market and to the imperatives of profit (Cock, 2014; Satgar, 2014 ). This pattern is replicated in contemporary South Africa, a country that is ostensibly committed to a ‘green economy.’ Yet it is one of the most energy and carbon intensive countries in the world, relying on coal as the primary energy source and with a policy of supplying cheap energy to industry. The privatised oil company Sasol’s plant at Secunda is converting coal and gas into liquid petroleum and in the process creating the single greatest point-source site of CO2 emissions on the planet (Bond, 2015:6). Overall South Africa’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions are vague and insubstantial. At present over 500 tonnes of carbon a year are emitted, two new coal-fired power stations (among the largest in the world) are being built and forty new coal mines are planned, most of them in Mpumalanga and sited on some of the most fertile land in the country. Communities living close to the operative coal-fired power stations and open-pit mines (both working and abandoned) are dealing with mass removals and dispossession, loss of livelihoods, threats to food security, health problems associated with water and air pollution, corruption in the awarding of mining licences, and inadequate consultation.
In addition to coal mining, the externalisation of the costs of industrial production in the form of pollution of the air and groundwater in many communities means that a large number of South Africans are exposed to what Nixon (2011) has called ‘the slow violence’ of toxic pollution from a process that is insidious and largely invisible. Moreover, it is mostly Black South Africans who continue to live on the most damaged land and in the most polluted neighbourhoods (often adjoining working or abandoned mines, coal fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites or polluting industries, and without adequate services of refuse removal, water, electricity and sanitation). In the province of Gauteng alone, for example, there are some 1.6 million African people living on mine dumps that are contaminated with uranium and toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, aluminium, manganese and mercury. Such a pattern manifests an expression, quite clearly, of ‘environmental racism.’ At the same time it is estimated that 83% of rivers are damaged from sewage pollution, deforestation is increasing and the threats to biodiversity include the loss of 5,000 rhinos from poaching since 2008.
This pattern of ecological damage is likely to increase with ‘Operation Phakisa (meaning ‘speed up’) which involves R60 billion worth of deep sea oil and gas exploration. Government recently granted prospecting licenses for marine phosphate mining which involves extensive dredging of the seabed. Yet the fact is that “if South Africa permits seabed mining, we will become the only country in the world to allow such a destructive practice” (Roux, 2015:7)! Simply put, we are moving in this and other ways towards ecological catastrophe because government remains wedded to the dominant interests of the mineral- energy complex. More positively, however, this is also the precise context in which new, potentially transformative social formations are emerging in contemporary South Africa.
Confronting the ecological crisis: new alliances, forms of power and organisations
The ecological crisis – as is also the case with the social crises of deepening poverty and unemployment, upheavals within the labour movement, new political groupings and growing grassroots dissatisfaction with the conventional political structures - is driving new initiatives. What is distinctive about these latter initiatives, however, is that they focus on building popular power, on developing new forms of solidarity including formal and informal alliances and coalitions and a regional focus, by using their great symbolic power and a strong normative charge in order specifically to dramatise both the causes and the consequences of the present very severe ecological crisis. Organised around concrete issues in the everyday experience of working people, especially rising food and energy prices, they are producing a ‘politics of everyday life [as] the crucible where revolutionary energies might well develop.’ (Harvey, 2014) For there is a growing emphasis on moving beyond denunciation to formulate alternative narratives of food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformative feminism and environmental justice, all of which could be building blocks for an eco-socialist order. For example, several organisations are not only mobilising opposition to fracking but also are “exploring alternatives which will foster energy sovereignty and transformative development while protecting the natural resources and people of the Karoo” (campaign statement by Black Thursday Southern Cape Land 13.7.2015). Meanwhile, other organisations are promoting concrete post-carbon alternatives such as the Earthlife’s Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project and combining water harvesting, food sovereignty and clean energy, through installing, maintaining and training women on the use of biogas digesters and PVC solar power units.
Note, too, that some of these new alliances or coalitions are between formerly antagonistic groupings, such as those concerned with conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas on the one hand and those concerned with social and human needs on the other. An example is the struggle against the proposed open cast Fuleni Coal mine slated to stretch over 3550 hectares close to Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, one of Africa’s oldest game reserves and central to rhino conservation. There local women have mobilised with the support of conservation organizations, forming the iMfolozi Community and Wilderness Alliance. (There are also powerful counter-forces involved in this struggle of course, with interests in the coal mine including “Glencore and BHB Billiton, the world’s largest commodity trader and mining house respectively” [Bond, 2015:9]). Another example of disparate groupings uniting is the Save Mapungubwe Coalition which was formed to safeguard the Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site, from an Australian–based mining company, Coal of Africa. The diverse coalition included environmental NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) as well as local people. Thus the new alliances are beginning to close the historic gap that had tended in the past to split the movement for effective environment-related initiatives along a fault line between two (sometimes antagonistic) streams: those organised around the discourse of conservation and those organised around the discourse of environmental justice; fortunately this divide is no longer as evident as it once was.
Many of these new social formations are against different forms of extractivism. For example the women struggling against threatened removals linked to the establishment of the Fulani coal mine are being assisted by WoMin (Women in Mining) which is a new regional alliance of organisations which emphasizes solidarity among women. Recently it convened a gathering of activists from some 24 different organisations in the region and called for building ‘popular alliances against Big Coal” and a new form of development “that recognises and supports the work of care and reproduction”. (WoMin Declaration 24.1.2015). A women’s wing of the new organisation Mining Affected Communities in Action (MACUA) has also been established. Such organisations are responding to the way in which black, working class women have become the ‘shock absorbers’ of the climate crisis, experiencing most intensely the devastating impacts of rising food prices, water pollution and energy poverty. And they are attempting to build ‘counter power’ that could develop into of a new form of transformative feminism.
Conservation and community
Other coalitions that link conservation and community groups are focusing on strategic litigation in ways that are also empowering. For example a coalition of eight civil society and community organisations represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER,) have instituted legal action against the Minister of Mineral Resources following his granting of a coal mining right to Atha-Africa Ventures inside the sensitive Mabola Protected Environment. CER and the older organisations such as the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies are thus building the capacity of communities in their demanding of their rights (and the enforcing of mining companies’ obligations) in terms of the Constitution, NEMA, the National Water Act, new mining requirements, and other applicable laws” - as well as other “avenues of recourse for violations of environmental rights” (CALS, 2014:30).
Furthermore, new alliances between labour and environmental activists are emerging. Many trade unionists emphasize the links between the climate crisis and neo-liberal capitalism, for example, something that found organisational expression in two COSATU committees established in 2010 and comprised of representatives from all affiliates and from key environmental organisations. These structures have survived the turmoil in COSATU and succeeded in promoting shared research into coal mining, chemicals and poultry farming between NUM, CEPPWAWU and FAWU. Indeed, following discussions at a workshop in Durban in July 2011 on climate change, the Central Executive Committee of COSATU at a meeting on 22 – 24 August 2011 attended by national office bearers, representatives of the 20 affiliated unions and 9 provincial structures, adopted a Climate Change Policy Framework which stated its commitment to a ‘just transition’ and stressed that capitalist accumulation has been the underlying cause of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore of global warming and climate change (COSATU, 2012). Two broad approaches to such a notion as ‘a just transition’ exist. There is a minimalist position, one that emphasizes shallow, reformist change laced with talk of green jobs, social protection, retraining and consultation. The emphasis here is defensive and shows a preoccupation with protecting the interests of vulnerable workers. An alternative notion views the climate crisis as a catalyzing force for massive transformative change towards socialism. Now expelled from COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) supports this latter vision by arguing for a socially owned renewable energy sector and other forms of community energy enterprises where the full rights for workers are also respected. This social ownership approach means energy being claimed as a public or common good that can take a mix of different forms such as public utilities, cooperatives or municipally-owned entities!
Currently NUMSA is strongly promoting the notion of energy democracy as being, precisely, a building block towards socialism. ‘An energy transition can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public – energy democracy. A transfer of resources, capital and infrastructure from private hands to a democratically controlled public sector will need to occur in order to ensure that a truly sustainable energy system is developed…Energy democracy offers perhaps the only feasible route to a new energy system that can protect workers’ rights and generate decent and stable jobs, make just transition real and be responsive to the needs of communities.’ (Sweeney, 2012:3). An understanding of a ‘just transition’ simply limited to the goal of ‘a low carbon economy’ could contain the embryo of a very different order, of course. But it could also mean the expansion of the present privatized renewable energy programme in which electricity becomes totally unaffordable for the mass of South Africans. As a NUMSA official pointed out, “Renewable energy at the service of capital accumulation could result in even harsher patterns of displacement and appropriation of land than those brought about by other forms of energy” (Abramsky, 2012:349). In the South African context a more expansive and progressive notion is spreading, however, one that is understood to involve resisting the agenda of the fossil fuels corporations and reclaiming the energy sector as part of ‘the commons’, of public resources that are outside the market, and of real democrat control. In this new context different experimental forms of social ownership of energy are beginning to emerge all over the country. Another example of unions and environmental organisations collaborating is the Climate Jobs Campaign which has collected 100,000 signatures in support of creating jobs to address both poverty and climate change. Based on meticulous research, it has demonstrated that by challenging capitalist ownership in favour of community owned projects a target goal of three million such jobs is a possible one.
In fact, the hybridized and travelling discourse of environmental justice originated in the US in opposition to practices termed there to represent ‘environmental racism.’ It has been further radicalised in South Africa through a rather messy, haphazard process of translation that has linked the core principles of social justice, equity, heath, human rights, democratic participation, accountability and ecological sustainability. Environmental justice struggles thus involve a range of mobilising issues although the most common demands and claims relate to ‘rights’ and health - a demand related to the constitutional framing of the human right in the post-apartheid constitution proclaiming the right of all ‘to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing’ (Section 24 of the Bill of Rights). Of course, much popular mobilisation is related to access to services such as water and energy and are localised, episodic, discontinuous and are not initially clearly framed as ‘environmental ‘struggles. Nonetheless, the effort to so address them could provide an ideological basis for further unified collective action. The possibility of a unified environmental movement
At present there “is no clearly identifiable, relatively unified and broadly popular environmental movement in the country”. (Death, 2014:1216). However this might be changing and here, as elsewhere, a unified environmental movement could, “in alliance with others, pose a serious threat to the reproduction of capital”. (Harvey, 2014:252). Clearly coal, as the main driver of the ecological crisis in the form of climate change, constitutes a particularly powerful ground for unified action. Formal alliances in opposition to coal began in 2013 in a partnership between groundWork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights to challenge Eskom and these are growing. The issues of land dispossession, health impacts through water and air pollution, loss of livelihoods, corruption in the granting of mining licenses, and inadequate consultation with frontline communities are some of the grounds for unity. The expansion of coal mining on some of the most fertile land in the country also raises the issue of increasing food insecurity.
Thus, while coal is a cause, food insecurity is acknowledged to be one of the most serious consequences of climate change. Popular mobilisation against the present food regime in South Africa is expanding. It is increasingly acknowledged that the co-existence of hunger (53% of the population officially classified as experiencing hunger either regularly or intermittently) alongside food waste (a third of all food produced!) and ecologically unstable land use (because of the continuing dependence on fossil fuels) is profoundly unjust. One of the growing initiatives resisting this current food regime is the Food Sovereignity Campaign, dedicated to mobilising grassroot communities, and engaging in activist schools and study groups, in establishing food gardens and in developing innovative strategies such as bringing together grassroots experiences and ‘expert’ evidence, as in the case of the 2015 People’s Tribunal on Hunger, Food Prices and Landlessness. Indeed, in the South African context food sovereignty is “an anti- capitalist emancipatory practice” (Satgar, 2011:1). The foundational concept of food sovereignty includes agro- ecology and ‘the putting of the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.’ (Angus, 2009:53). It involves a comprehensive attack on corporate industrialised agriculture and its social and ecological consequences since the attempt to regain social control, power and democracy in the food system is a direct challenge to capitalist relations. It could also involve a challenge to patriarchal relations by the black working class women who, as we have seen, have heretofore been consigned to the status of ‘shock absorbers’ of the food crisis.
Indeed, there is congruence between the struggle for ‘food sovereignty’ on the one hand and the logic of eco-feminism on the other: both emphasize working with rather than against nature. Furthermore the necessary challenge to corporate power also links easily to a socialist-feminism which recognises that to free women means deep, transformative change. And embryonic forms of a transformative feminism incorporating these elements and giving them representation are indeed emerging. This implies the role of women acting in solidarity for collective empowerment rather than for individual advancement as part of a challenge to both corporate and patriarchal power…while also serving “as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms” (Hooks, 2015:22).
Collectively, then all these initiatives that confront the ecological crisis are demonstrating an alternative paradigm, a different relationship both between human beings and also between human beings and nature: what Hilary Wainwright (2014) terms “power as transformative capacity.” In fact, the ecological transformation that is essential in South Africa involves linking the principles of justice and sustainability and implies that the socialist emphases on class solidarity and collective ownership with democratic control must be connected to two other imperatives: gender justice and the creation of a new narrative of the relation between nature and society. The conceptual building blocks of eco-socialism: food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformational feminism and environmental justice are gaining momentum. New social forms emerging around these ideas embody fragments of the necessary vision of an alternative post-capitalist future.
Jacklyn Cock is an Honorary Research Professor in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) and Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and a long standing environmental activist. Her best known publications are, Maids and Madams: a Study in the politics of exploitation (1980) and The War Against Ourselves. Nature, Justice and Power (2007).
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