On this page you will find a collection of opinion pieces. Opinion pieces provide detailed viewpoints written by groundWork staff and researchers. Most of these items will also appear in the press, both print and online.

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The Nation needs more than Band-aids, Mr. President - Giving communities power to demand inclusion in decisions made about their lives is key

Avena JacklinBy Avena Jacklin - 14 April 2020

Government is putting people’s democratic rights to know and to say ‘no’ under sustained attack. Government ministers are dodging their democratic duties to consult people and promote public participation by deliberately excluding communities affected by their decisions. Their constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being is undermined in the process along with their rights to information, free speech and assembly.

Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, attempted pushing through the Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill by publishing it on the 24th of December 2019 when most people were on holiday. That did not work. Seventeen community groups registered their objections to a Bill that favours industry, weakens environmental protections, is heedless of the climate crisis and cuts public participation short.

The Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) then arranged consultations exclusively with corporate and legal respondents for the 9th of March in Pretoria, excluding community groups whose livelihoods, land rights and water catchments will be compromised. Officials said it was each person’s duty to call the department to ask if there was a consultation process and if they may be included. The DMRE had no plan to consult with communities nationally. In the event, the corporate and legal consultation was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into South Africa and the president declared a National State of Disaster.

In a separate process on amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and draft guidelines on the resettlement – that is, removal – of mining affected communities, community consultations in Emalahleni, Mtubatuba and Kriel were called off without explanation. Following a lengthy struggle to access information on the amendments, communities from Springs, eMalahleni, Middelburg, Wonderfontein, Phola and Ermelo gathered to meet DMRE officials at the Witbank Civic Centre on the 12th of March.  

The DMRE, however, did not show up and it was left to municipal officials to tell community delegates that the meeting had been cancelled. Deeply frustrated, people then marched to the DMRE offices to demand an explanation for the cancellation and to establish clear processes for consultation with fence-line communities. With the police present, acting DMRE regional director Mashudu Maduka addressed them and blamed the municipality and the department’s national policy unit for the failure to communicate as they were leading the process on consultations. More police were deployed and communities were asked to leave with no further communications.

These patterns of exclusion run deep through all sectors of our government. At the Durban Climate Change Strategy Workshop hosted by the eThekwini Municipality Council in February, attendance was by invitation only and the most vulnerable communities living near rivers, in congested townships with water shortages, fisher communities, food gardeners and small business were excluded from consultation processes due to what consultant Derek Morgan termed “budgetary constraints”.

There are many ways to engage the public, disseminate information and create awareness, including radio and partnering with community organisations and tertiary institutions that work in these areas. Such means are being used by the presidency during the COVID-19 State of Disaster at no cost to government. In the time of climate crisis – with storm surges, floods, heatwaves, fires and droughts – the most vulnerable will need the most support. But we are not prepared. Government’s response is crippled with inadequate disaster planning and very little in the way of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

On the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy, doubled the Sulphur-dioxide (SO2) pollution allowed from coal fired boilers, raising the minimum emissions standard to 1000 mg/nm3 just five days before the limit of 500mg/nm3, agreed a decade ago, was due to come into effect. The new standard is 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s. The department’s primary intention is to protect Eskom and Sasol, both of which have worked to obstruct implementation of the minimum emission standards.

This is the second time round for the Department. In 2018, it promulgated the SO2 doubling without inviting public comment. groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, then took it to court and the department backed down. It withdrew the measure but immediately published a second notice allowing a minimal 30 days for public comment. This allowed desktop submissions for those with internet but excluded the communities most immediately affected by Eskom’s and Sasol’s pollution.

Lowering the standard will result in a heavy burden of disease including about 680 premature deaths every year. That does not count the impact of COVID-19. It is now well understood that people whose lungs are compromised by pollution are more vulnerable to the virus. And the latest research from Italy indicates that pollution helps spread the virus as it is carried by particulate matter.

The long struggle against the autocratic colonial and apartheid regimes and for a democratic practice embracing human rights, inclusion and transparency is being undermined. The Constitution calls for a participatory democracy that enables all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.  This includes closing the loop through feedback processes and continuous reporting between initial public participation and final action in a form that is responsive to people’s needs.  Freedom of information is fundamental to this process.

This government is the extension of the economic relations of colonialism and, as in the colonial period, it requires restrictions on people’s rights of access to information, free speech and assembly. The path to justice is now cluttered with commercial confidentiality, enshrined in the Competition Act, coupled with state secrecy, with the apartheid era key points repackaged as the Critical Infrastructure Act. The infrastructure in question is mostly the infrastructure of extraction.

In understanding what is possible, what can be done, we look to the landmark case where communities stood firm on their right to say ‘no’. On 22 November 2018, following a long struggle to protect their ancestral land from mining, the Amadiba community won a court ruling that government may not issue a mining license on their land in Xolobeni, on the Eastern Cape coast, without their consent.

Issuing directives, gazetting regulations and granting authorisations while excluding those whom the system makes vulnerable is a disease of a political past that is spreading through the cracks of a negligent and reckless official leadership. Washing, sanitizing and band-aiding will not heal a suffering nation. But developing more resilient communities with the power to demand inclusion in the planning and decisions that are made about their lives and the future of their children will bring us to a more equal, more connected and healthier society a society based on open democracy.

Avena Jacklin is groundWork’s Climate and Energy Justice Campaigner

This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury and Pretoria News. The press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Coronavirus Underlines Health Inequalities in Society - Covid-19 will hit the poor hardest amid already high levels of malnutrition, TB and HIV

By: Bobby Peek, 30 March 2020

As with the climate crisis, the coronavirus marks out the connections and disconnections of our profoundly unequal society.  It arrived in South Africa with middle class travellers but it will not be confined to the richer classes.  Around 60% of South Africans are poor, according to official statistics, and they carry a very high burden of disease starting with malnutrition, HIV and TB.  People’s health is also compromised by high levels of pollution in the environmental sacrifice zones where our electricity is generated, our fuel is refined and minerals are mined and smelted.  And while the richer minority have access to high quality health care, poor people do not. They rely on a public health system that is weakest where the need is greatest.  Ironically, more government money goes into the private health system that serves the minority than into the public health system that has been subject to austerity budgeting for over two decades.

The coronavirus has disrupted profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. However, this gives us an opportunity to make our world more equitable and to test our just transition to a society with decent jobs for all, universal healthcare, and energy systems that benefit people and the biosphere. 

We have to change systems that place profit over health and wellbeing.  We have to recognize and address the political, social and economic factors that govern how health or illnesses moves through our communities.  For example, many people living in informal settlements have no access to running water, making frequent hand washing very difficult, and crowded living conditions make social distancing almost impossible.

In 2007, the groundWork Report warned that economic depression provided the best hope for a credible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It observed that this was the ultimate expression of unsustainable development accompanied by environmental injustice. This was borne out in the 2008 financial crisis and is again proven with the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Without profound change in the ruling economic system, the costs will be passed to the poor.

We should not be afraid in this time. Most of what to do immediately about coronavirus is already known: wash your hands; don't touch your face so often; stay home.  While individual action is important, it will not stop an epidemic. Only collective action will. Organize locally to care for each other and prioritize reaching and supporting the most vulnerable communities.

Additionally groundWork has taken the following decisions to help slow down the pandemic.

Effective from Thursday, the country has been on lock down.  But will this mean all domestic workers and casual workers get paid; how do we support staff with logistics and additional costs, to build a new work routine, and keep a sense of community during this time; how do we look after our children at home and how does life continue meaningfully.

We understand that we are a privileged NGO and many of our community partners do not have the ability to take the needed drastic action that we can and that is now asked of them.  While our meetings with partners have all been called off, and we are urging our partners not to hold any local community gatherings that were planned we realise it is important for people to organise at the neighbourhood level to ensure that everyone is informed of the crisis and what they need to do and to organise mutual support.  As NGOs we need to figure out how to support community organising as appropriate – way beyond this 3 week lockdown.

In this time of crisis we must be vigilant and find ways of ensuring that democratic practice is strengthened rather than weakened.  One of the practical ways of doing this is for government and corporates to roll-out, as a matter of urgency free wi-fi and data across townships so that people stay in contact and build democratic practice in new forms.  Corporates must drop data charges.  Government must not use this time to push through projects that people have questioned and are not just.  Developments that require public meetings and consultations must honour these processes, and government and corporates must not use this crisis to deny democratic participation.

We urge government to immediately deal with the mass transport system as a matter of utmost urgency and take action to ensure that people who have no choice to use this system are supported and that the taxi industry itself is supported to ensure safety of their passengers.

We are very mindful of the escalation of the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic.  We need to take extraordinary measures in order to protect our staff and families, especially in consideration that our public transport and fragile healthcare system put our vulnerable communities in particular at risk.  We are working closely with our healthcare partners though our GGHH campaign to make their systems more robust and to meet the most pressing of our environmental health challenges.

We wish you all strength through this challenging time.

This article appeared in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Mining’s Toxic Legacy for the People of Dannhauser - Profits extracted leaving behind poverty and polluted land and water

By Nkanyiso Mthombeni and Robby Mokgalaka - 16 March 2020.

A very sensitive matter that has surfaced in Dannhauser KwaZulu-Natal which is a small coal mining town in northern part of the province. The town has suffered close to a century of coal mining and has had several issues of environmental injustice cases that have haunted the people and the communities at large way back from the apartheid past to our democratic present.   Mining has brought sadness and poverty to the people of the area.

Like apartheid forceful relocations and grave extraction without proper rituals and compensation to the families concerned is the practice of the past and of present.   Abandoned and unrehabilitated mines are scattered around our lands.  The coal and corporate profit has been extracted and the people are left with polluted lands, water and poverty. 

One such mine is the Durnacol Mine that closed 24 years ago but the community remains with the discarded heap of mine waste and that blows across people neighbourhoods and pollutes the are that people rely on for life.

The state of the Durnacol community has been low-balled - abandoned - by the Amajuba District and Dannhauser Municipality and nothing has been done in challenging Department of Mineral and Resources and Energy to come on board and do something about the hazardous state of the abandoned mine.

As we fight the expansion of mining activity in our communities, we urge people to see the extraction sector as an enemy.  We have seen recent mining rights proposals increasing in the very same region that has been struck by this mining catastrophe in the past and present.

Peoples’ health is compromised on many levels.  Of great concern is government’s community health care hospital built in Dannhauser, just 2km from the Durnacol abandoned mine. The Department of Health should provide hospitals that make people well, and not ill.  It should be a place of healing not illness.  This government facility which started its operation in 2015, is now posing a huge threat to its workers and the community that it’s delivering services to. I've been approached by the workers who are seeing fatal cracks on the walls of this building widening day by day and they now fear for their safety. The sad part is that this infrastructure is only 5 years in existence and had cost R90 million to build, on a shaky ground that was previously heavily mined. The facility is now a threat to the community and employees of the Department of Health. The reason the building is in this state is because this was an old mining site, and the walls are cracking as the land subsides after mining.  The Durnacol shaft number 2 was right where the hospital is now built.

Sadly, some members of the community are not aware nor suspicious as this matter has been treated with utmost secrecy – the public has no information or report on the situation.  There is a clear lack of democracy and closure of public spaces to get this information.  We need an open democracy that allows informed questioning of the decision-makers and policy-makers who continue to grant mining rights in the area and around this region. The authorities completely fail to acknowledge the sad reality which mining exposes society to which is poor health, polluted lands etc.  Thus people are challenging what is happening and workers are also joining in supporting these challenges.  The call for no mining in our communities is becoming a broad call.

This case is a textbook symbol of environmental injustice and deadly costs that results from mining activity.  These experiences also increases the sensitivity of the community to resist such 'development', bearing in mind the aftermath.

I've been fortunate to be referred to the system manager of the hospital about the state of this building – he is fully aware of it. The Department of Health is also downplaying this issue, the hospital being built on a mining area and the fact that this puts people’s lives at huge and unnecessary risk.  I hope that the struggle to improve the hospital is related to our struggle of challenging the ongoing mining of coal in the area.  The links must be considered and understood in the context of our demand to campaign to keep the coal on the ground.

It is evidently clear that the government prioritizes mining companies and their activities at expense of the wellness and safety of people. The destruction of the environment by mining and impact on the lives of people have long been brought to the attention of the government, but always fell on deaf ears.

Back in 2015, various national Portfolio Committee representatives were invited by groundWork to visit the Highveld to witness for themselves coal-affected communities in the area and hear from community people from around the country about the coal mining impacts on their lives. Only few Portfolio Committee members turned up and very little has been done to date.

In 2017, groundWork again assisted the coal-affected communities to visit the national parliament to convey the same message to the various Portfolio Committees, hoping that the attendance from the Committees would improve, there was still less attendance and from those whom we engaged with, yet there was less action.

In 2018 Newcastle, groundWork also assisted the affected communities by developing memorandums to hand over to Mr. Gwede Mantashe (Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy) in both the KZN Mining Indaba and Mining Charter consultation event, calling upon the Minister to take action against the Ikwezi coal mine that has forcefully relocated people and dug out their graves without proper consultation, the minister failed to respond to the memorandums and the mine is still operating and nothing has been resolved. The government don’t care about the people when it comes to mining, it only cares about mining in the pretext of profit making under the guise of development. If it is development, why are people left to suffer at the expense of this development? Who is this development for? 

We need a development plan for South Africa, not an extractives plan.

Nkanyiso Mthombeni is a community activist from NEJA (Newcastle Environmental Justice Alliance) in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal and Robby Mokgalaka is groundWork’s Coal Campiagner

This opinion piece appeared in the The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News, and can be viewed in newsprint format here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Africa Under Threat from Plastic Dumping


WHEN China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos.

In 2017, according to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, South Africa was exporting about 315 000 tons of plastics waste. Until then wealthy countries had become accustomed to exporting plastic waste problems, with little thought or effort to make sure the plastic went towards being recycled responsibly and did not end up harming people or the environment in less developed countries.

In particular, North Americans and Europeans exported not just their plastic waste, but the pollution that goes with getting rid of it. However, the plastic waste, once exported, did not just "go away" inevitably mismanaged in poorer countries, it ended up clogging public infrastructure, causing public health problems and most visibly circulating globally in our oceans.

A recent report by a global zero waste alliance called GAIA found the impact of plastic waste exports to Asian countries alarming. Global South countries simply don't have the policies, capacity or infrastructure to safely manage their own waste, let alone the deluge of plastic and hazardous waste that the Global North has thrown at them.

With more Asian countries closing their doors to dumping of plastic waste, Africa is now in a position of threat. Recently Senegal has been receiving waste from the US, and more recently Liberia had received waste from Greece. This leaves us in a difficult situation. Undoubtedly, any plastic waste dumped into African countries will to begin with being burnt as a means of treatment and disposal, or designated as a secondary fuel source for industries such as cement plants, never designed for such a purpose.

Open burning of waste is common in Africa and is among the least desirable waste management practices globally because of danger ous potential health impacts. Similarly, burning waste in cement kilns releases a harmful class of chemicals called dioxins and furans. They last a long time in the environment and stay in the food chain. One of the major sources is the open burning of municipal waste. These chemicals are also known for their reproductive and endocrine disruption properties.

There are global waste treaties that seek to address the global trade in hazardous waste. In 1989, the Basel Convention was agreed in Switzerland as a global response to unrestricted global toxic waste. However, the original treaty did not ban the trans boundary movement of hazardous waste but instead required prior informed consent.

To address this gap, the second meeting of the parties adopted the Ban Amendment, to prevent member states of the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development OECD , the EU, and Liechtenstein exporting hazardous wastes as defined by the Convention to less developed countries. It came into effect last year.

Similarly, the Bamako Convention is an African Regional treaty in 1998 prohibiting the import into Africa of any hazardous including radioactive waste. The reason African nations entered into this agreement was because of continued toxic waste exports to Africa from developed countries most notably the Probo Koala case in Ivory Coast.This is because of the failure of the Basel Convention to prohibit trade of hazardous waste to less developed countries. History taught us that global waste treaties cannot alone protect us: neither the Basel convention nor the Bamako Convention were or are sufficient to protect our global commons from plastics and toxic waste mismanagement.

Peek is groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA Director

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times and Pretoria News, and can be viewed in newsprint format here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

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