Selling out our green heritage

South Africa needs a new champion to nurture the bond between people and planet, and fight off corporate greed, says writer and researcher Glenn Ashton.

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After 1994, the new government was keen to demonstrate its green credentials in line with its constitutional commitment to environmental protection and sustainable use of natural resources. But how green does our political commitment remain?
‘Environmental conservation’ was seen as just another tool of oppression under apartheid, with many forced off their land for national parks, making it critical to reframe the green debate away from colonial attitudes of exclusion and privilege.

The 1990s were an opportune time to re-examine our common environmental heritage. It was fortuitous that the first Rio Earth Summit, an important global green gathering, took place in 1992 amid negotiations for our democratic dispensation. Several future South African leaders attended and influenced our emerging environmental legislation.

As a result, we finally gained access to internationally recognised norms, such as public participation in environmental decision-making, environmental justice and the recognition of inter-generational rights. While the tripartite alliance actively drafted the new legislation, other parties came on board to a greater or lesser degree. The official opposition largely aligned itself with the perspective of funders and supporters, providing a stronger focus on corporate than community rights.

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Interestingly, no real semblance of a ‘green party’ emerged in South Africa. This is perhaps a sign of how alien the concept of environmental rights remains among the public, who continue to grapple with the complexities of political enfranchisement. If so, it is unfortunate. The principles of social justice and grassroots democracy are intrinsic to green politics, extending beyond the obvious focus on ecological sustainability.

Shifting sands
Recent SA voting patterns have failed to mirror emergent green trends of political structures in the northern hemisphere. Green politicians form an important part of Greece’s left-wing Syriza coalition, and are strong in Spain and Italy. This is also echoed in the UK, where changing political values have driven support towards the Greens.

To make sense of the evolution of environmental management in South Africa, one has to reflect on the shifting sands of political thinking. There is remarkably little difference between the ruling party and the official opposition, each of which are founded on similar free market, neo-liberal ideologies.

A sufficiently strong voice, to provide a countervailing balance, has yet to emerge from either the political diaspora or the existing social movements. Most South Africans remain preoccupied with survival and have neither the time nor expertise to deal with often complex environmental concerns.

However, the coalescence of an emergent new left from the ranks of Numsa and the United Front may provide some momentum towards stronger environmental oversight and enforcement. The reality is that poor environmental conditions primarily affect poorer and working class areas, such as south Durban, Sasolburg and Vanderbijlpark.

Unfortunately, big business has effectively captured the environmental debate through ‘greenwashing’, by usurping the stage from rich and poor alike. It has direct access to the political sphere, exacting influence through the non-transparency of our political funding regime and (the promise of) seconding elected officials into lucrative positions.

Weak laws
Corporate South Africa has single-mindedly focused its profit-driven motives on weakening environmental legislation and oversight wherever possible. This has manifested in several supplements to our National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) and, more importantly, the dilution of its regulations. Today, it is barely recognisable from its original iteration, having transformed from a primarily consultative process to a largely authoritarian ‘tick the box’ exercise.

Consider the Air Quality Act and its regulations. The Act was promulgated in 2004, six years after NEMA. However, the regulations and amendments enabling real action to be taken against polluters were finalised only in 2014, with some serious horse-trading behind the scenes, particularly by embedded lobbies such as Eskom, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

To further add insult to injury, our biggest polluters, Eskom and Sasol, immediately launched legal action, seeking exemption from emission regulations. The state rewarded them with a further five years to comply. Those affected by acid rain, pollutants and poor health remain marginalised.

This erosion of the fundamental environmental management principles has steadily sapped the morale of those fighting for environmental justice. Because our economy is so dependent on mineral extraction, environmental management conflicts have undermined the relationship between the Department of Mineral Resources and the Department of Environmental Affairs, which once jointly handled mining applications, resulting in a cockeyed compromise.

Ostensibly to streamline the process (read ‘to facilitate processes for the benefit of mining companies’), the entire regulation of mining applications has now been handed over to the Department of Mineral Resources. This goes far beyond a simple conflict of interest. How can a department that promotes mining simultaneously provide stringent, independent oversight?

Silencing voices
These examples illustrate how the social and environmental sphere has been sacrificed on the altar of economic pragmatism. Coal mining has been permitted at world heritage sites such as Mapungubwe, adjacent to the oldest national park in the country, Hluhluwe, and is gradually eradicating the extremely sensitive Mpumalanga Lowveld wetland, the Waterberg and other areas.

Affected community voices have effectively been silenced. Worse, because of the structure of environmental regulation, the applicant, be it mining company, property developer or government, has every advantage in putting its views front and centre and always gets the last chance to comment, diluting external concerns.

The past decade has seen a marked weakening of public participation in environmental governance, on the one hand, and a strengthening of environmental oversight by specialised units such as the Blue and Green Scorpions on the other.However, these units tend to take on environmental transgressions so egregious that no alternative remains except for the state to take action, and then often only after the horse has well and truly bolted.

We have established and implemented some excellent environmental legislation over the past 20 years. But, overall, environmental governance has taken a back seat to free market fundamentalism. It is a trend aided and abetted by both the historical and the emerging plutocracy, neither of which have ever shown sufficient awareness of the necessity to preserve the ecosystems that support us all.

As our green rapidly withers to brown and grey, we desperately await a new champion to nurture the bond between people and planet.

Adapted from an article published by the South African Civil Society Information Service. Email Glenn Ashton at [email protected].