South Africa


We need a new system of politics that reclaims the best of environmentalism, feminism and socialism

We need a new system of politics that reclaims the best of environmentalism, feminism and socialism
A woman carries wood for cooking fuel in KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: EPA /Stephen Morrison)

Both globally and locally, many activists now talk only of ‘anti-capitalism’ because socialism has been stripped of its earlier positive meanings. The outcome is that much political opposition is reduced to protest, rather than the formulation of alternative visions. The ‘reclaiming’ has to involve building a ‘new’ form of socialism that is democratic, ecological, ethical and feminist.

Some of the current talk about recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown through “inclusive growth” is obscuring both the climate crisis and the savage racialised inequalities which the crisis exposed and which must be addressed. The transformative potential in the notion of a “just transition” in South Africa could do so.

There are two broad approaches to the notion of a “just transition”: A minimalist position which emphasises shallow, reformist change with green jobs, social protection, retraining and consultation. The emphasis is defensive and shows a preoccupation with protecting the short-term interests of vulnerable workers.

An alternative notion views the climate crisis as a catalysing force for massive transformative change. It presents us with the historic opportunity to demonstrate that neo-liberal capitalism is unjust and unsustainable.

Beginning in 2010, the labour movement in South Africa played a key role in introducing and promoting a transformative understanding of a “just transition”. The concept was both grounded in peoples’ lived experience and aspirational; it was at the heart of a powerful narrative of hope for a more just and sustainable world, a compass to alternative forms of producing, consuming and relating to nature.

However, today the labour movement (with the exception of SAFTU), is increasingly defensive and adamant that the state’s privatised renewable energy policy is a threat because it will involve job losses and increased energy prices, while the environmental movement is increasingly adamant about the immediate closure of coal mines and coal-fired power stations and a shift to renewable energy (in whatever form) as essential to a just transition. It does not acknowledge that a deep just transition requires changes not only in the sources of energy, but also in who owns and controls various components of the energy system, as part of a redistribution of power and resources.

Reclaiming the hybridised and travelling discourses of feminism, environmentalism and socialism could give strength, and coherence to addressing the climate crisis through a “just transition”. While there is no blueprint, all three discourses contain flashes of a vision of a post-capitalist society and promote the solidarities necessary to drive transformative change.

A major difficulty is that in contemporary South Africa, all three discourses are, to some extent, contaminated. Feminism is widely viewed as elitist and individualist, environmentalism viewed as focused on the conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas to the neglect of social needs, and socialism as productivist, authoritarian and repressive.

Reclaiming environmentalism

Clearly, workers and their organisations are an indispensable force for addressing the climate crisis through a just transition. Workers bear the brunt of environmental degradation and destruction, both in terms of health and quality of life issues.

Many environmental activists are also workers and obviously potential allies in their efforts to advance workplace health and safety, and also to tackle environmental concerns of working-class communities; this recognition is at the centre of what has been conceptualised as an emerging “labour environmentalism”. This involves not only the formation of labour environmental alliances, but also the attempts by unions to develop environmental policies, to engage in member education and mobilisation around environmental issues.

But “environmentalism” carries negative connotations from a historical class-blind emphasis on the conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas. However, working-class black women are active, and often driving, environmental and social justice initiatives, confronting climate change, sometimes in survivalist, defensive and ameliorative ways, but also in challenging neo-liberal capitalism, building solidarity and promoting alternatives. They are the “shock absorbers” of the climate crisis in South Africa, experiencing most intensely the devastating impacts of rising food prices, water pollution and energy poverty. The labour movement must connect more deeply with these struggles.

Many of the new initiatives confronting the climate crisis are drawing from the travelling discourse of environmental justice which is broad and inclusive. It originated in the US in opposition to practices termed “environmental racism”, meaning the disproportionate effects of environmental pollution on racial minorities. The discourse was radicalised in the process of translation in South Africa. Fusing equity with ecological sustainability, it is foundational to many current struggles. These target the persistence of environmental racism, in the form of exposure to toxic pollution and a severe lack of environmental services in many black communities.

Reclaiming feminism

Feminism is widely seen as problematic and sectarian. “Gender equality” is a thin notion which is inadequate to the task of transformation. The multiple, extreme and racialised forms of inequality in South Africa demolish any conception of feminism as limited to challenging patriarchal power. As American author bell hooks wrote: “Feminism, as liberation struggle must exist apart from, and as a part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms.”

Until the current heteronormative model of gender relations is truly challenged, women’s oppression will continue. A feminist social reproduction perspective directs attention to women’s position within the labour force, to their low-paid work as nurses, cleaners and teachers as well as their unpaid work in the household. This could counter a powerful masculinism within the labour movement which takes a variety of forms, from the trivialisation of “women’s issues”, demeaning treatment, sexual harassment and marginalisation, to violence.

Reclaiming socialism

A diverse socialist tradition has historically made strong claims regarding human emancipation, justice, democracy, freedom and equality. Karl Marx conceived of socialism as “an association of free human beings which works with common means of production”. For Marx, “socialism is the point where we begin collectively to determine our own destinies. It is democracy taken with full seriousness rather than democracy as (for the most part) a political charade.”

But for many people, socialism is discredited because its claims have been marred by a history of authoritarianism, productivism, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. In the Soviet Union especially, productivist methods, both in industry and agriculture, were imposed by totalitarian means while ecologists were marginalised or eliminated.

Both globally and locally, many activists now talk only of “anti-capitalism” because socialism has been stripped of its earlier positive meanings. The outcome is that today much political opposition is reduced to protest, rather than the formulation of alternative visions. Hence the “reclaiming” has to involve building a “new” form of socialism that is democratic, ecological, ethical and feminist.

The potential of civil society to build an eco-feminist socialism

There is no blueprint for a democratic eco-feminist-socialism; such an alternative has to be built from the bottom up in a process of participation. However, several core values, which contrast with the values of neoliberalism such as materialism and an intense individualism, could provide a kind of compass for a vision of an alternative social order.

The aim of the struggle for socialism is, in the first instance, to replace a society based on profit by one based on satisfying the social needs. This would involve access to decent work, quality and affordable education, healthcare, public transport, housing and energy. At the core of a democratic eco-feminist-socialism is the link between the principles of sustainability and justice. To illustrate: The key question about ecological sustainability is not only to protect limited resources, but to ensure that resources are used for the benefit of all, not only the privileged few.

A democratic eco-feminist-socialism implies that the socialist emphasis on collective ownership and democratic control of productive resources must be connected to several other imperatives: Gender justice, participatory democracy, and a new narrative of the relation between nature and society grounded in the acknowledgment that humans exist as part of an ecological community.

This involves rethinking economic growth and development (particularly extractivism). Finally, an eco-feminist-socialist society could be based on relations of trust, cooperation and reciprocity, rooted in a confidence in human beings – in the capacity of both men and women to reason, to share, to learn from mistakes, to cooperate, to care for each other and, most importantly, a confidence in our capacity to work together to create a more just and equal world. 

This confidence implies social relationships that are marked by solidarity, meaning a commitment to collective empowerment rather than individual advancement. It is diametrically opposed to capitalism as a system which thrives on the cultivation and celebration of the worst aspects of human behaviour – selfishness and self-interest, greed and competition. Socialism celebrates sharing and solidarity.

To achieve this, we need a new political imaginary. We have to move beyond “denunciatory analyses” to ask “what do we want?” As Donna Haraway once admitted: “If I had to be honest with myself, I have lost the ability to think of what a world beyond capitalism would look like.”

The outcome is what has been called a “double blockage”: The lack of an alternative vision prevents the formation of an oppositional movement, while the absence of such a movement precludes the articulation of an alternative.

Exploring alternatives, strengthening analytical and strategic capacities for a more unified collective action from below is where a revolutionary potential lies. This is the potential within the notion of a transformative “just transition” driven by civil society. Change is inevitable. As Jason Moore writes: “Capitalism will give way to another model – or models – over the next century.”

Our challenge is to draw from reclaimed notions of feminism, environmentalism and socialism to ensure that the change is both transformative and just. DM

Jacklyn Cock is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand where she is also Research Professor in the Sociology of Work Unit (SWOP).


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