Proposal: The History of the Environmental Justice Movement in South Africa

September 11, 2012

Democracy, Education, Heritage, history, Land

A neglected part of our history has been the struggle for environmental and social justice in South Africa. Unlike the mainstream “nature conservation” movement, environmental justice is rooted in the notion that without social justice, the ‘de-linking’ of nature from people is a flawed methodology in approaching the issue of the environment.
The original meaning of the word “Green” encompassed much more than Nature – it included the philosophical approach to the planet, which included the rights and struggles of peoples; a body politic that embraced progressive thinking; a clear understanding that economics is a mythological ‘science’ as it (amongst others) externalises much of what passes as profit in the form of negative impacts on air, water and soil, with the concomitant health and quality of life of people; that it is just that natural resources are first used to satisfy basic human needs prior to any use of the environment for profit; and that any business is not automatically acceptable, unless and until its impacts are benign at a minimum.
The background to this thinking can be clearly seen in the founding documents of Earthlife
Africa in 1988, arguably the oldest environmental justice grassroots organisation in Africa.
Previous groups tended to be focussed on single issues, such as Koeberg Alert Alliance, formed to fight nuclear power.
a) Reverence for the Earth: developing an attitude and behaviour, this is respectful of, and nurturing towards the environment in all its diversity.
b) Grassroots Democracy: equal and active participation by all in decision making and mutual responsibility for implementation in all human and environmental relations.
c) Rejection of Discrimination: ELA rejects all forms of discrimination.
d) Solidarity: Solidarity and co-operation with people struggling against oppression and exploitation particularly through democratically organised representative organisations.
e) Non-Violence: promoting peaceful solutions to conflict.
f) Ending Exploitation: fundamentally rejecting abusive power relations.
g) Freeing of Human Potential: encouragement of spiritual development, personal and social growth and the freeing of human potential.
From the above, it is clear that environmental justice is rooted in a notion that is significantly different from what is often, but mistakenly, called “environmentalism” – usually meaning conservationism.
Given that the struggles of such organisations have been responsible for many strides in human rights in South and Southern Africa, it would be just that this history is captured and documented, before key people, such as founders and early supporters, are no longer with us. Already, much in the way of organisational memory has been lost, so the timing is urgent.
The proposer is prepared to assist in this process, carry out the research and contact those who have been, or are, involved in the struggle. No funding has been identified at this time.
Proposer: Muna Lakhani

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