South African environmental justice activists push toward change, one victory at a time

South African environmental justice activists push toward change, one victory at a time

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg director Makoma Lekalakala speaks at the Madrid U.N. Climate Change Conference in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg)

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The streets of Soweto Township, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, have always been a breeding ground for South African activists.

It was there that Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu began their illustrious careers. It was there that children brought the cruelties of apartheid into sharp focus in the 1976 Soweto uprising. And it was there that present-day environmental justice activist Makoma Lekalakala realized the world was an unfair place, and that she could help make it right.

There was a lot that felt inherently unjust to Lekalakala. And despite South Africa now being 25 years into democracy, there is a lot that still feels skewed, she says, a lot that still needs to be fought for.

“There’s a multiplicity of issues that really, as a social justice activist, you look at and say, ‘What can be done? What can we do? What do policies or what does legislation say in the country?’” she said. “Because some of what people were experiencing (then) and are still experiencing now is actually in direct contravention of what our beautiful constitution says.”

Today, Lekalakala is the director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, where she leads grassroots efforts to urge the government to limit carbon emissions and transition to green energy for the sake of poor and unrepresented communities. In 2018 she and Liz McDaid of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute were awarded the prestigious global Goldman Environmental Prize for their persistence in preventing the South African government from entering into a massive nuclear deal with Russia.

The work of activists like her represents a new effort to elevate environmental justice in South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid still weighs heavily on underprivileged and poorer communities.

In communities like the township where Lekalakala grew up, the government-mandated racial divide of apartheid is gone, but many communities – predominantly black – still live in crippling poverty. It is a country with the world’s highest wealth disparity, and the poor do not have the resources to take on the industrial elite when industrial smokestacks emanate harmful chemicals, nuclear reactors dispose of toxic waste, and mine runoff pollutes water supplies. In this respect, nothing has changed since the apartheid era.

Industrial plants are common in south Durban, and have led to polluted air and water. (Photo courtesy of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance)

This is the case in south Durban, which academics describe as one of the “most polluted areas in southern Africa.” The area is home to two of South Africa’s four oil refineries and about 200 smokestack industries, and residents have reported unusually high rates of asthma and cancer, including leukemia, due to industrial pollution.

It was to take on these environmental injustices that the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance — a coalition of 19 environmental justice NGOs working together to take on industry in the city — was formed in 1995, just a year after the country’s much admired, extraordinary shift to democracy.

Desmond D’Sa, the alliance’s co-founder and current office coordinator, said that the end of apartheid brought about environmental legislation that ensured protections for non-white communities for the first time. The new South African Constitution stated that everyone has a right “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being,” and eventually the National Environmental Management Act was promulgated, which created a framework for cooperation across various spheres of government to manage and protect the environment.

D’Sa added that the transition to democracy led to the establishment of better skilled pollution offices, resulting in better enforcement of the law.

“This never happened during the apartheid era,” he said.

As Lekalakala discovered in her youth, however, legislation on paper has little power if not enforced.

Jacklyn Cock, a professor emeritus in sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that many of the rights South Africans achieved in the transition to democracy exist “at a purely formal level” and the inequalities that expose poorer communities to pollution and environmental injustices have actually increased in the past 25 years due to government mismanagement.

“Many people, I think, have felt that, ‘Well, the struggle is over because apartheid is over,’ but what is over is racialized apartheid,” she said. “What is really strong in the present is class apartheid.”

UNISA Environmental Science Professor Llewellyn Leonard, an academic with expertise in South African environmental justice and sociology, agreed, saying that although laws like the National Environmental Management Act are on the books, the state does not enforce them in practice.

“If we think about governance, you can have strong civil society organizations, but if you also don’t have strong governance to enforce the laws and regulations, that really doesn’t help,” Leonard said.

Many of Earthlife Africa’s campaigns are devoted to forcing government bodies to abide by the Constitution and laws that are already in place. In 2017, the group won the first climate case in Africa by challenging the Department of Environmental Affairs’ authorization of the construction of a coal-fired power plant on the grounds that the Department did not consider the plant’s effects on greenhouse gas emissions.

Lekalakala hopes this will set a precedent so that greenhouse gas emissions will be included in future environmental impact assessments to prevent carbon emitting projects from being pursued.

Earthlife Africa has had several successes in using the judicial system. One month after the landmark climate case, the group used the courts to challenge the national government over the nuclear deal with Russia. The massively expensive deal would have expanded South Africa’s nuclear power industry but would also have produced more nuclear waste which up until then, South Africa’s sole nuclear power plant had been improperly disposing of on indigenous lands. Again, Earthlife Africa won, resulting in a cancellation of the nuclear deal and the Goldman Environmental Prize for Lekalakala and McDaid.

Earthlife Africa is unusual in this approach, as most environmental justice organizations lack the resources to pursue costly court cases, and instead frequently focus on protests and mass mobilization campaigns to make people’s voices heard.

It is easier for people to become concerned about environmental justice issues if they can relate them to personal struggles in their own lives, Lekalakala said.

“If people are living in poverty, and they don’t have water, it becomes easier to explain why there’s so much drought and you link the drought to people’s everyday struggles,” she said, making it easier “for people to also be part of a movement to make a difference and bring about change.”

Cock noted that in South Africa, a number of political organizations are advocating for environmental justice but are using more universally accessible terms.

“Many of the issues that people are protesting about – access to clean water, access to refuse removal, to street lighting, to good roads, to housing, let alone adequate food – many of those are what we would call environmental justice issues but they’re seen as service delivery issues, so they’re not framed in that light,” she said.

Members of Earthlife Africa protest Eskom’s reliance on fossil fuels in February 2020. (Photo courtesy of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg)

Cock suggested that many activists in South Africa do not use environmental terms to describe similar issues because of the apartheid baggage of environmentalism in the country.

“During apartheid, environmentalism was understood as protecting threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas and it neglected human needs,” Cock said. “So to some extent, environmentalism was a contaminated ideology, for a lot of poor black people particularly.”

Rupert Koopman, a botanist serving as the conservation manager of the Botanical Society of South Africa, said conservation in South Africa has a difficult past, with suspicion arising from its Eurocentric history and the country’s legacy of land dispossession that allowed previous governments to set aside large tracts of land for national parks. In some instances, such as Kruger National Park, black people were moved off park land in living memory. Land claims on portions of the park have been processed in terms of post-1994 land redistribution legislation. Several claims remain unresolved.

Its association with the country’s history of dispossession makes conservation a sensitive topic, he said. Violent removals of people off the land has determined who has access to it and this has made it difficult to persuade black communities to embrace conservation widely, even now, so long after the new dispensation. But this is changing through outreach work by organizations like the Botanical Society, and as the narrative around the value of biodiversity is becoming more widely accepted.

Lekalakala said that the notion that black communities have not been interested in conservation oversimplifies the issue and overshadows indigenous connections to the land.

“If people today are challenging companies who want to mine in their lands, doesn’t that mean that people are protecting their lands?” she said.

She believes strongly that environmental justice is interconnected with other social justice issues.

“All the issues that are confronting us are interlinked, so it’s just very difficult to disentangle social, economic and environmental issues and make them separate,” she said. “They all are one.”

One additional challenge facing especially rural communities is that in some cases, when the environmental fight is against industry, traditional leaders are not on the side of the protesting community.

D’Sa put it even more strongly.

“Chiefs and indunas can become killers,” he told New Frame in April. “So we have to be aware that any exposure of the work that we’re doing to help communities comes with a risk. The chiefs are being paid off by these mining companies and threatening to kill people. Many activists have had to move out of their areas.”

According to Leonard, the power of mining companies comes from the fact that they supply one of the most valuable resources in South Africa: employment. The unemployment rate in South Africa is one of the highest in the world, at 29.1%. The percentage of South Africans aged 15 to 24 who are not employed or pursuing education or training is even higher, at 32%.

From the research he has done on the mining industry in St. Lucia — noted as South Africa’s first World Heritage Site — Leonard discovered that a weakness of the local environmental justice activism was the lack of youth involvement.

“When I spoke to them, they said the leaders don’t consult them so they are on the fence whether they should support mining or whether they should get involved in this movement because nobody’s speaking to them,” Leonard said of the youth in St. Lucia. “They said if the mines are giving them an opportunity, they’re going to take it because there’s no opportunities anywhere.”

Leonard added that environmental justice solutions must address not only issues like pollution but social and economic inequalities as well.

“If you don’t address issues such as social justice and unemployment, then that’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “We’re going to have a big problem.”

Leonard also said that youth engagement is critical, not only that they should be consulted in decision-making but involved in all parts of activism. One good example of this, he said, is the South Durban Alliance, which has specifically involved young people in water quality assessments. D’Sa is also joined by seven young activists on the alliance board.

“The youth have surprised me as they have come out in numbers to all climate change and environmental issues that affect the people, especially pollution,” D’Sa said.

One instance of this was in 2014, when the alliance successfully rallied the community to protest the environmental health implications of constant pollution from Wasteman’s Bulbul Drive toxic landfill site. The landfill was shut down, and D’Sa was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for his use of public hearings and water quality tests to put pressure on industry.

Another success was forcing oil giant Shell to replace rotten pipelines in Durban, drastically reducing the plant’s sulfur pollution.

D’Sa said people repeatedly warned him he could not win against the giants of industry. “But,” he told New Frame, “we showed even a small man can win.”

Lekalakala said her biggest achievement has been galvanizing ordinary people into action and inciting others to become environmental justice activists.

“It’s not work,” she said. “It’s pursuing one’s ideals.”

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