South Africa Risks Cutting the People Who Matter Out of its Climate Crisis Response

Activists are trying to push the government to move past Western remedies, and include ordinary people in the solution.
South African climate change crisis response
Photo courtesy of Muthi Futhi

South Africa has an abundance of natural resources, and is the 14th highest carbon emitter in the world. The Climate Action Tracker rates the country as “highly insufficient”, meaning its actions are not at all consistent with holding temperature rises below 2°C.

But it’s still a leader in Africa’s climate space, shifting from fossil fuels to renewables as part of a broad economic and social development agenda. “Whatever is done in South Africa,” Bukelwa Nzimande, an environmental commentator who used to work at Greenpeace Africa, told VICE News, “can be replicated in other regions, from a policy perspective.”


In an attempt to tackle the climate crisis with local solutions that move past Western remedies that don’t fit South Africa’s needs, the government has turned to the private sector and experienced environmental activists, but a lot of ordinary people who will be needed to execute the plan have been excluded from this conversation.

“As long as the conversations and the discourse [on the climate crisis] are at a top-level, and are extremely technical and in a language a lot of people don't understand, this space will forever be divided,” Nzimande said. “The voices that we hear are going to be the educated, the elite upper-middle class, which really doesn't serve a huge majority of the people in the country. It really doesn't speak to the people who are considered vulnerable, poor and the ones that will be just disproportionately impacted by climate change. At the same time, if we don't see a green recovery or push for a cleaner future, they are the ones who are basically going to suffer the most.”

This lack of inclusion of the most disadvantaged traces back to a divide in South Africa that spans across class, inequality and literacy. “People have been through so many crises that to them the climate crisis is not something they have a drive to fight because they have had to deal with inequality their whole life,” Nzimande said.

The green movement in South Africa emerged from ideologies based on how the West understood environmentalism. Nzimande said it’s now on everyone to ensure ordinary people start grasping the severity of the crisis and embrace the movement – instead, organisations oftentimes just parachute into the field with specific ideas of how the solution should be. “Not enough resources have been put into going to people, having conversations and asking them what they think the problems are and…assisting them to shape solutions,” Nzimande said.


South Africa has committed to the Paris Climate Agreement, adopted the Power Producer Procurement Programme and approved the Integrated Resource Plan. But implementation requires alignment across government.  “In walking the commitment out there needs to be alignment between, for instance, the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy Right, in dialogue with corporations within the fossil fuel space, and the Ministry of Environment,” Nzimande said. “But those two are completely divided, they sing a different tune, and they don’t speak the same language”.

And without a common line across government, holding industry accountable becomes problematic. As for the policies put into place, their focus has mainly been on adaptation, leaving mitigation behind and a plan to face what many see as the elephant in the room: energy production.

Eskom, the 100 percent state-owned electricity utility, operates 30 power stations with a total capacity of 44,172 megawatts (MW). If New York uses an average of 11,000MW a day, Eskom’s capacity is capable of supplying electricity to just four New York-sized cities.

South Africa is not only a hub for green innovation, but also a country with a long mining history. It is then only logical that to be progressive, the country uses local resources already at its disposal. In recent years, debates about transitioning from fossil fuel to clean energy have gone hand in hand with social justice, shifting the debate from green transition to a more socially just transition.


Speaking at a recent event, the Minister of Public Enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, said that revamping clean technology, which had halted in recent years, should focus on the impact on hundreds and thousands of workers and community members that stand to be hit in some way in the next 10 to 15 years.

“The broader energy community needs to focus a lot more on what a just transition actually means in the current context,” Pravin said. “How both investors and others participate in creating the conditions that are necessary. Also, [on] the resources that are going to be required to ensure this just transition that not only South Africa is talking about, but the rest of the world is talking about as well." 

Eskom’s chief executive, Andre de Ruyter, said: “It is clear cut that renewable energy has to play a key role in our energy portfolio going forward and this is, of course, even if you are completely impervious to the environmental benefits associated with renewable technologies".

Turned into action, this could see Eskom not working in isolation or monopolising the power industry in South Africa but actually implementing a long-awaited shift towards renewables.

The traditional way of providing electricity through power plants and laying out power lines has been in existence for at least 150 years. SustainSolar – an SME specialised in containerised, pre installed solar systems – believes this model is outdated. “Look at Africa, parts of SouthEast Asia, Central America and so on, the central grid approach has not reached everybody and it had over 100 years to do so,” said Tobias Hobbach, the MD for SustainSolar.


Indeed, for effective implementation of these ideas and programmes a need to bear in mind regional and cultural ramifications rises.

“The analogy that the decentralised power industry or rural electrification players are using is that of cell phones being introduced leapfrogging telephone access to communities that were still miles and miles away from the next landline,” Hobbach said. “Nobody is pulling landline wires anymore anywhere in the world, because we have cell phone masts. Not even fibre is being trenched through remote locations, we're going 4G, 5G straightaway, so we see a leapfrog initiative by jumping, by basically skipping, a technology and embracing the next. So it is in that context that we think decentralised power generation does not only open an opportunity to cleaner, more sustainable technology, but it gets energy to the end client faster, more, more reliably.” 

Another crucial aspect of the path towards sustainability in South Africa is tradition.

Traditional plant cultivation has both the effect of mitigating the local consequences of climate change and avoiding the extinction of natural resources. The Muthi Futhi Trust is a community-based business cultivating, harvesting and processing African medicinal and cosmetic plants. It supplies both national and international markets with over 30 species of indigenous medicinal plants, to avoid letting them go extinct in the wild and to provide women and communities with an income to kickstart virtuous development.


Muthi Futhi is now run by Gill Whittington Banda, continuing her husband’s vision. “When my husband died, it was emotionally very difficult,” said Gill. “I had three kids in school, little money and no knowledge on traditional medicine.” Seeing the impact that even a little amount of money can do on marginalised communities, though, is what kept Gill, and Muthi Futhi, going.

The business, which started with funds from the EU and the Green Fund in South Africa, is now self-sufficient.

Starting off with 30 employees, Muthi Futhi has employed 12 women out of a village of 300 people for the past 10 years, some of whom are the only people in households of 10 or 12 to receive an income. The project has provided the women with a stable income and a flexible schedule that can support their families. “You know that is against all odds, because they are in a rural location, and they say it changes their life,” Gill added.

In 2016, Gill set up Zuplex – a cosmetic business that uses Zulu plant extracts supplied by Muthi Futhi. “We like to see ourselves as a social enterprise, not just a business,” Gill said. “There's a stewardship component, like doing more on cultivating species that are under threat, it’s not just thinking about money money money, you know, but also doing something more, a broader contribution.” This project shows that there is a way of blending modern initiatives with traditional approaches.

The international interest in Africa is booming in general, and in the cosmetic industry in particular. “They see Africa as the last frontier, with possibly some sort of post-colonial, you know, exploitative view,” Gill said. “The point is that there's a lot of interest in Africa, and we don't want to just be selling raw materials and depleting the resources here. We want to add scientific and manufacturing value to it.” 

As the current chairs of the African Union, there couldn’t be a more perfect time for South Africa to show leadership on climate change, and that a pan- African, inclusive and local approach towards a green and just transition is possible. “We never only started with one geography in mind, to be honest, the idea from the start was Africa's 54 countries. Creating a solution from Africa for Africa with a very pan-African approach,” Hobbach said.