Our Burning Planet


Green decent work agenda, social protection and land reform the bedrock of climate crisis transformative resilience

Green decent work agenda, social protection and land reform the bedrock of climate crisis transformative resilience
Illustrative image | Sources: Construction cranes over a multistore complex in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 6 March 2018. (Photo: EPA-EFE / KIM LUDBROOK) | A worker walks through a construction site in Saldanha Bay on 15 February 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

‘Resilience’, like so many other terms used in the environmental debate, has been mainstreamed, misused and co-opted to varying degrees in different contexts. ‘Transformative resilience’ allows us to think beyond the potentially regressive interpretations of the word and to highlight its transformative potential to help protect households and communities from the uncertainties and volatilities of climate change impacts. 

Through its sixth and latest assessment cycle reports, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that the human influence on our climate has been unequivocal, the scale of these changes is unprecedented and many of these changes are irreversible. While mitigating climate change — through a just transition away from fossil fuels — has been the defining response, the need to build resilience against the inevitable effects of a changing climate is a central point in the latest report of the IPCC’s Working Group II

Resilience — notwithstanding disagreements over its definition — is a pillar of adapting to climate change (adaptation). A resilient socio-ecological system ‘retains core structures and functions in the face of significant disturbance, while still retaining options to develop.’ At its core, resilience refers to the ability of social, economic and ecosystems to anticipate, prepare for and respond to hazardous events, trends or disturbances.

This raises normative questions of ‘resilience for whom and for what’ — in a nutshell, does building resilience to a changing climate entrench or transform our existing social, political, economic and ecological systems? Who benefits and loses from this? 

Without a thorough interrogation of these questions, resilience measures risk preserving the unequal status quo, as climate impacts cannot be disentangled from their developmental impacts. Not only would this be extremely unjust, but, as stated by the IPCC, to simply advance coping strategies that prioritise “‘bouncing back’ is an increasingly insufficient goal,” as it must be complemented by adaptation strategies of ‘bouncing back better’. 

We need to think about whether the existing state of a socio-ecological system is desired and who benefits from it. Bahadur et al. (2013) have identified several characteristics of resilience:

  • A high level of diversity in terms of adaptation and livelihood options;
  • Effective governance and institutions that are connected across scales;
  • Embracing uncertainty and change, rather than resisting it; and
  • A high degree of equity.

South Africa’s history and political economy have made the country extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and to the risks that a transition away from fossil fuels entails. While this applies to the economy and society as a whole, certain racial, gender and class communities are more vulnerable to these risks than others. Therefore, while resilience needs to be built in across the system, attention must be paid to particularly vulnerable individuals, households and communities. This requires a transformative approach to resilience, one founded on transformative social policies aimed at achieving socio-ecological well-being, a state defined as sustained ecological resilience in which “human needs are met and the quality of life of individuals is maintained.”

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In what follows we propose a framework for pursuing a transformative social policy agenda that speaks to South Africa’s political economy by situating resilience as the centrepiece of our just transition framework. The framework embodies the first and last salient features of resilience identified by Bahadur et al. (2013) and outlined above (i.e. a high level of diversity in adaptation and livelihood options, as well as a high degree of equity). 

First, we outline how South Africa’s political economy has contributed to the vulnerability of its people in the face of multiple socio-ecological crises.

South Africa’s political economy and socio-ecological crises

Three features of South Africa’s political economy have contributed to the country’s socio-ecological crises: the fossil-fuel-dependent system of capitalist accumulation, the prevailing macroeconomic framework and the related spatial inequality.

South Africa’s high carbon emissions are rooted in a fossil-fuel-dependent system of capitalist accumulation termed the minerals-energy complex (MEC). At one level, the MEC is the dominant industrial structure comprising key sectors in mining, energy and related industries with strong inter-sectoral linkages, operating in isolation from (particularly) labour-intensive non-MEC sectors (excluding finance). 

At another level, the MEC is constituted by vested interests within the state and fractions of capital that shape economic policy in their favour through conflict and compromise. While non-MEC service sectors — particularly, retail, telecommunications, and business services — have grown since apartheid, these do not provide a basis for ‘structural transformation’: the ability to shift the economy towards more productive, labour-intensive, higher-skilled and higher-value-added activities. This growth path has itself been shaped by the interests of a financialised MEC, prioritising, for example, liberalisation over industrialisation.

The multiple social (unemployment, impoverishment, poverty and inequality) and environmental crises that South Africa faces result in part from the MEC and an orthodox macroeconomic framework. Structural unemployment and impoverishment define the economy, in part, because the MEC is dominated by upstream sectors that are highly capital-intensive; that is, they employ more machinery than workers. The MEC is also highly concentrated, with a few major firms enjoying preferential access to key resources such as minerals, land, water and energy. 

Thanks to liberalisation of the financial sector and capital accounts, investments by companies linked to the MEC are mainly in short-term and speculative financial assets, rather than in employment-generating productive activities, particularly ones that do not harm the environment. 

The highly financialised nature of the MEC exacerbates existing wealth inequality. Added to this, the sidelining of public investment, and the waste of public resources through corruption and maladministration has been reinforced by austerity measures, reducing the ability of sustainable and productive sectors to create jobs. The MEC is part of a system that also exploits Black labour through low wages and poor working conditions and devalues reproductive labour without bearing the social costs. Finally, the MEC has contributed to environmental degradation and climate change due to its appropriation and intensive use of subsidised fossil-fuel-based energy.

Supported by apartheid segregation policies, the MEC has also shaped the geographical location of economic activity, the urban working class and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The historical location of mineral endowments in Johannesburg and Tshwane spurred the growth and concentration of industrial activity, particularly heavy industry manufacturers, in these regions. However, inefficient and unequal land use, resulting in urban sprawl, and inequalities in public service distribution have contributed to high GHG emissions from transport, as industrial activities are far from the coast for international trade. 

Spatial inequalities are prevalent in rural areas too. Ownership of and access to land in South Africa is highly unequal, deeply racist and largely private. This continues a history that has systematically deprived Black people, and particularly Black women, of land access, ownership and security. 

The country’s market-based land reform has been ineffective at bringing about equality. On the one hand, the restitution process has been slow and has reinforced gender inequality, with evictions of farmworkers and women increasing since 1994. On the other, land and market reforms have deepened the concentration of rural land ownership by white, capital-intensive farmers.

Three pillars of resilience for a transformative just transition

We have reviewed how South Africa’s political economy has contributed to the socio-ecological crisis. This section will outline three pillars as part of a transformative social policy agenda for prioritising resilience, responding to the existing conditions of South Africa’s political economy. 

In what follows, we outline how policies for a green decent work agenda, social protection and land reform would help build resilience for a transformative just transition. A green decent work agenda would contribute to resilience by supporting the creation of sustainable livelihoods and decent jobs in climate mitigation and adaptation interventions. 

Social protection provides safety nets for vulnerable communities to cope with climate change impacts. Finally, secure access to productive land reduces exposure to climate risks, building resilience by helping people adapt so they can create livelihoods, strengthen their food security through subsistence farming or improve their access to credit by using their land as collateral.

Pillar 1: Green decent work agenda

A green decent work agenda (GDWA) can contribute to climate resilience in two ways. First, a GDWA contributes to resilience by creating sustainable livelihoods (in climate-mitigating and adaptation sectors) that empower workers to adapt to climate shocks. While a livelihood encompasses material and social capabilities and incomes necessary for a means of living, a sustainable livelihood is one that can cope and recover from socio-ecological shocks or crises and improve current and future capabilities and assets without compromising the natural resource base.

Second, a GDWA supports job creation in climate-mitigating and adaptation sectors that can also build resilience. Climate-adaptation sectors include not only water conservation and harvesting, drought proofing, flood control and the protection and creation of climate-resilient infrastructure (roads, buildings) but also social services (health care, education). 

Work that promotes resilience must be not only green but also decent. The International Labour Organisation’s Decent Work Agenda (DWA) best demonstrates how workers’ well-being can be promoted through decent work regimes. The DWA comprises four pillars: job creation, social protection, labour standards and rights at work, and social dialogue, all important contributors to a worker’s sustainable livelihood and well-being. 

The three following complementary policies are needed to promote green decent work (adapted from Straus et al. 2021).

    • Green macroeconomic policy, comprising fiscal and monetary policies, which help to generate green decent work by augmenting the aggregate demand for, and aggregate supply of, socio-ecologically useful goods and services. Deliberately expanding aggregate demand can create green jobs by changing the level and composition of expenditure towards socio-ecologically useful goods and services. This can be achieved through expenditure-raising policies (e.g. government spending, monetary policy measures) supported by revenue-raising policies (e.g. commensurate wealth, land and carbon taxes). It can also be achieved through expenditure-switching policies (e.g. exchange rate management, import tariffs) that promote domestic production and exports over imports.Using macroeconomic policy to directly target expanding aggregate supply can generate the conditions necessary for green jobs. This can be achieved through measures to increase the availability and quality of factors needed in the sustainable production of socio-ecologically useful goods and services. For instance, adequate spending on human development, especially health and education, is critical to ensuring that workers are available and have the skills needed for green jobs. Similarly, physical investment, for example, in improved water management systems, will make industries such as agriculture more resilient.
    • Green industrial policy, supported by green macroeconomic policy, must restructure the MEC to move it away from fossil fuels, reduce GHG emissions and diversify the productive base towards socio-ecologically useful goods and services that promote socio-ecological well-being through their employment intensity, carbon neutrality and support for climate resilience. Climate policy should promote the creation of these decent green jobs in sectors such as climate-resilient infrastructure (railroads, buildings), social services (health care, education) and water conservation and harvesting. Localisation measures, such as public procurement, subsidies and technological transfer, can be used to build capabilities in these sectors.
    • Green labour market policies can build climate resilience by directly supporting worker well-being and enterprises. Green labour market policies can help improve the balance between the demand and supply for labour in environmentally sustainable productive activities.This can be achieved, for example, through measures that support human capabilities (e.g. skills training). Moreover, green labour market policies can support worker well-being through measures that improve worker conditions to create a green decent work regime. These measures include minimum and maximum requirements for working time, equal opportunity and treatment, safety in the work environment, access to social protection (e.g. paternity and maternity leave, pensions, unemployment insurance), social dialogue, living wages and work stability and security.

A job guarantee is an example of how job security can be augmented in the face of climate and transitional risks.

Job guarantee

Assurances have been offered about the number of jobs that will be created through renewable energy generation based on a range of models. A job guarantee is a public employment scheme which can improve resilience to climate change by minimising the impoverished worker’s exposure to transition risks, transferring these risks to the state as the employer of last resort. This scheme can be a safety net to smooth income fluctuations and accumulate assets to manage climate-related shocks. Moreover, it can be part of public employment schemes in the construction, maintenance and provision of public goods that increase resilience. By providing guaranteed alternative work opportunities, the scheme also shifts power relations towards the empowerment of workers in the labour market.

Pillar 2: Social protection

Social protection can provide safety nets for vulnerable communities in the face of climate change. Furthermore, social protection improves resilience, reducing economic pressures and inequalities that vulnerable communities face by providing access to financial resources, such as unemployment insurance, pension grants, saving schemes or cash transfers. Social protection builds direct resilience through absorptive capacity, anticipatory capacity and adaptive capacity. 

For example, during and after climate disasters such as flooding, heat waves and droughts, absorptive capacity allows vulnerable communities to absorb and cope with shocks and stresses. In contrast, anticipatory capacity builds direct resilience and allows communities to plan and prepare for climate shocks to reduce the impacts. 

Finally, adaptive capacity, according to Bahadur et al. (2015), provides long-term resilience, as it enables communities to learn and adjust after a climate disaster to reduce vulnerability to similar shocks in the future, thereby helping them adapt to multiple and long-term climate risks. Thus, social protection is also a key element in a just transition.

In South Africa, research is currently being undertaken to support the implementation of a universal basic income guarantee (Ubig) as a way to provide social protection to citizens. Unlike social grants or welfare support only offered to a selected group based on certain financial criteria, the Ubig provides a minimum income in cash to everyone in South Africa to meet their basic needs. In addition, the Ubig is substantial enough to cover basic needs, while current social grants barely cover households’ basic necessities. 

Thus, in communities affected by climate change impacts, a Ubig could make the jobless and those at risk of losing their jobs more resilient. Successful rollout of the Ubig will be essential for a just transition that addresses South Africa’s three biggest challenges — inequality, unemployment and poverty — which will all be exacerbated by climate change. 

Pillar 3: Land reform

Climate change places additional pressure on land, particularly on land-based livelihoods, biodiversity, infrastructure and food systems. Global findings show that inclusive and redistributive land policies can provide security and flexibility for adaptation in the face of climate change. 

Given the unequal access to land, most South Africans are extremely vulnerable to a variety of shocks and crises, including floods, fires and droughts. People are forced to reside on marginal, degraded or unproductive land, which increases their exposure to risk and reduces their adaptive capacity, as marginal land cannot be used for livelihood creation, food security through subsistence farming or collateral. 

Lack of access to land forces people to live in informal settlements with non-existent or poor-quality public services, increasing their vulnerability to climate impacts. In combination with other factors we have discussed, unequal access to land severely undermines the well-being and resilience of individuals, households and communities. It also puts significant pressure on people who have precarious access to land and risks rolling back the small gains made in land redistribution. 

Building a more resilient and just land system will require radical redistributive land reform and associated extension and public services. A just land system allows for transformative resilience from climate impacts as people’s adaptive capacity is strengthened. This occurs partly through the ‘traditional’ goals of land reform, such as poverty and inequality reduction, which in themselves increase resilience.  

Land distribution addresses inequality as one of its root causes. It is not only about redistributing wealth but also one of the means of producing wealth, and the power that resides with it. This can bring restorative justice in the context of South Africa’s history of dispossession, in both material and intangible ways. 

Furthermore, secure access to land provides residents with the flexibility to introduce climate-adaptation measures, including through traditional knowledge systems; allows for increased diversification of livelihoods; protects people from eviction or loss of land during times of crisis or disaster; provides incentives to invest in the land; and, through the recognition of communal rights, allows for cooperation and security among communities. 

However, transformative resilience through a just land system cannot be achieved through market-based mechanisms and a focus only on ‘commercially viable’ enterprises, as has increasingly defined South Africa’s land reform strategy

South Africa needs a pro-poor, state-led redistribution agenda. This includes prioritising land for farmworkers, labour tenants and landless people in both rural and urban areas; improved legislation, monitoring and evaluation to address the extensive corruption and slow pace of land reform; and financial resources focused on providing resources and capacity support to recipients, not on buying back land at high prices. 

Furthermore, land reform policies must be coupled with water rights, sustainable housing and transport infrastructure to truly empower people, particularly ones living in rural areas, with the adaptive capacity required. This must be done with participatory land-use planning which combines climate change projections, the needs of communities and prospects for mitigation and adaptation measures, such as agroecology and agroforestry, water-saving, landscape diversification, biodiversity conservation and improved soil, crop and livestock management.

Resilience, like so many other terms used in the environmental debate, has been mainstreamed, misused and co-opted to varying degrees in different contexts. Transformative resilience allows us to think beyond the potentially regressive interpretations of the word and to highlight its transformative potential to help protect households and communities from the uncertainties and volatilities of climate change impacts. This requires fundamentally changing the structures which underpin South Africa’s vulnerabilities. 

By doing so, the three pillars we have outlined — a green decent work agenda, social protection and land reform — can provide a safety net of resilience, acting in complementary and mutually reinforcing ways to support well-being in an uncertain and volatile world. This shifts the focus away from requiring people to continuously adapt to precarious living conditions and instead aims to transform the structural inequities and injustices largely responsible for fuelling vulnerability in the first place. DM/OBP

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five , Part Six, Part Seven and Part Eight

Basani Baloyi, Senior Researcher and Climate Energy and Infrastructure Programme Lead IEF. Katrina Lehmann-Grube, former Previous Researcher at IEJ, Hlengiwe Radebe, Civil Society Organisations Engagement Officer at WWF-SA. Prabhat Upadhyaya, Senior Policy Analyst, Climate and Plastics at WWF-SA.

This essay is part of a series that explores challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a specific focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. The series is being published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multistakeholder just transition conference on 5 and 6 May. This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.

This essay was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the Climate Ambition to Accountability Project  and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.


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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Tracy Bailey says:

    Excellent analysis and exposition, thank you. Politically, I wonder where the political vision, will and capacity for implementation might come from to lead us in these directions?

  • Miles Japhet says:

    This is such ideologically driven unworkable nonsense. Look at the facts. Poorly educated militant workers leaves SA unable to compete against economies with low labour unit costs. Farming at subsistence level traps people in poverty. Low cost food can only be produced by large scale highly sophisticated farming operations. Redistribution destroys basic rights and the economy in the process – see how successful Zimbabwe has been in impoverishing it’s people. Academics like you are a threat to the poor.

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