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Thoughts About Our Times in South Africa

14 July 2021 - groundWork has always been in solidarity with people at the frontline and fencelines of struggles against environmental injustice and corporate power.  Environmental injustice has been brought about by the power of capital – together with the political elite – seeking to force and use labour and nature to turn a profit.  They have done this by excluding people from democratic decision making, externalising the costs of their pollution onto people and our environments and taken control of public goods and enclosed these. They have done this for profit while also preventing those excluded from this profit seeking system to escape the clutches of capital.  This cannot be denied.

Evidence abounds: from the Guptas, Karpowership and the mines not wanted by community people yet forced upon them, to Sasol given leeway to pollute and harm people’s health because they need profit, and government forcing people to pay for basic services and water, knowing that they do not have the money to pay for it, while spending billions to finance business rescue bailouts for entities looted by them, their comrades, and cronies.

So given this context, how does environmental justice feature in the mayhem and looting in our country? Many commentators have spoken about why we are in this mess. From Abahlali baseMjodolo, South Africa’s leading social movement for people living in shacks, to ex-head of Stats SA, Mr Pali Leholhla on The Watchdog.  They are clear that over the last 27 years, government has ignored the people and the stats highlighting the challenges of the poor and the youth.  Our leaders have failed to deliver. According to New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, government and the elite also ignored the reality of the growing numbers of unemployed and hungry people. The Zuma incident was therefore the ‘spark to the tinder’, they argue.  But it is important to recognise that ‘the ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve,’ as Cyril Madlala reflects upon in The Daily Maverick, and the current crisis is therefore broader than Zuma and has been a long time in the coming.  

groundWork condemns violence in all its forms.  Today we see the destruction of property as well as violence in the form of vigilantism that makes us despair. We believe that the government has failed in its duty to respond to the very many warning signals, as they have sought to instead fight for ‘the prize’ of control within the ANC.  As Marikana was preceded by years of infighting of the unions – who were more worried about ANC politics, as the then general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, put it prior to Marikana, the July ’21 events are preceded by a government that cannot govern for they are squabbling over the spoils.

It must also be noted that the mass looting and destruction is not something new; we have witnessed it at all levels of governance: locally, regionally and nationally. And this time it spilled over to another level of society: into the comfort of middle class suburbia.

So how do we respond?  

In groundWork’s 2005 publication ‘Whose Energy Future’,  we state ‘that elite power to determine is neither stable nor inevitable and that it is always and everywhere contested and renegotiated’. The events of the last few days could mark a new beginning – albeit it so brutal – if we choose to together build a new tomorrow through dialogue across the nation as Abahlali baseMjondolo has called for.  We went on to say that the only way to ensure that renewable energy does become a meaningful response to the crisis, is by ensuring that it ‘taken up by the masses of the poor in a project that they define and drive’ and ensuring it connects ‘with movements struggling for deep transformation of the way the world works.’ So I slipped renewable energy into this debate and you wonder why.  Well, because the failure of our energy system, and the abuse of it for elite profit, is at the core of our problem in the context of environmental justice. Ironically, when the Makro premises in Springfield were looted, so too were the many solar panels that they installed in their parking lots.

Over the years we have been in ongoing dialogue with communities living next to the polluting petro-chemical industries in south Durban and the Vaal, people living adjacent to abandoned burning mines on the Highveld; waste pickers working on waste dumps and in the streets; residents forced to live with toxic waste being dumped in their neighbourhoods; and people organising and building a new tomorrow so that they are recognised.  People are planting their own food, connecting and producing their own electricity, reconnecting to the grid when they are cut off because they cannot afford to pay, and connecting into water systems where government has failed to deliver.  People are taking action and building systems that they can rely on.

As a result of these dialogues we have sharpened our thinking over the years. Together with community formations, we have developed some starting points for a community-driven open agenda for a just transition that can hold and nurture a response to the events of the past few days, to the 27 years of a failing democracy, and to the 342 years of colonialism, starting with the landing of the Dutch East India Company who set up shop as the first corporate in this part of the world.  This dialogue is found in various groundWork reports, the one most pertinent to this debate being Down to Zero: The politics of just transition.  Here we detail 12 departure points for the just transition which are:

  1. Building a new energy system;
  2. Rehabilitate mines and the mining regions;
  3. Make people’s food gardens central to a healthy food system;
  4. Call for and challenge for food sovereignty, i.e. break the back of corporate control of food;
  5. Reconstruct and build settlements that can respond to climate change – floods and heat waves;
  6. Plan so that work and amenities are in people’s reach so that walking and cycling is possible, and develop safe reliable transport for long distance;
  7. Create a zero waste economy, stop the throwing away culture and develop high levels of recycling and composting of waste and respect and recognition of waste pickers;
  8. Create a common, caring and effective health care system for all with professionals who are vocal against polluting practices and policies that harm people’s health;
  9. Protect the income of retrenched workers;
  10. Introduce a Basic Income Grant;
  11. Think about the economy in a new way that does not fixate itself on growth but rather is centred on the well-being of people; and,
  12. Demand an open democracy that allows for meaningful engagement and dialogue with local government who will bear the brunt of developing a climate change response and, as one witnesses now in the aftermath of the recent violence, the anger of people. 

Underpinning these are our principles and values that call for a future in which we seek to dismantle patriarchy and build gender justice, and where the youth, with their vibrancy and energy, are given more of a leadership role in defining our future.

This is an open agenda, not a groundWork agenda.  Our NGO partners, namely the Centre for Environmental Rights and Earthlife Africa, are discussing this with us and the people we collectively work with on the ground and in the spaces of struggle.  This open agenda is something that one can see in the response by Abahlali baseMjondolo and groundWork endorses their call for a need for dialogues throughout the country to build peace and justice.  A dialogue is needed amongst all South Africans in all forms that allow for the building of a new and vibrant democracy.

We hope we learn from this pain to build a future of peace and solidarity amongst all in South Africa.

This opinion piece is issued by groundWork.