Maverick Citizen


How to foster a truly just transition

How to foster a truly just transition
Thousands of citizens and activists marched to Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, forming part of a global movement that demands an end to the age of fossil fuels and embraces a new age of renewable energy and climate justice. (Photo: Leila Dougan / Daily Maverick)

A just transition must include participatory justice. This means giving voice and bringing into fruition that agency. The very principle of participation is at the cornerstone of South Africa’s history and culture, and is at the core of the country’s democracy. But whether people truly have a voice (directly or indirectly) on key decisions remains questionable.

The east African Luo proverb “Alone a youth runs fast, with an elder slow, but together they go far” bears important lessons for society’s path to an inclusive and green future. The climate crisis is here. Not only is it affecting people’s health, but it is damaging the ecosystems that support our lives and livelihoods, including our food systems, waterways, waste sinks, as well as fauna and flora with which we co-exist. 

Yet, despite being aware of the urgency and planning for a different and more sustainable and inclusive future, we are not doing so at the pace or scale required. A significant reason for this lies in a lack of collective leadership and citizen agency.

Driving our high greenhouse gas emissions is the extraction and use of fossil fuels, specifically coal, underpinned with the exploitation of people and nature. We can no longer question whether there will be a coal phase-out or, indeed, whether climate change affects us. Both are happening globally and in South Africa. 

The imperative today is that the transition to a green economy must be just — whereby those negatively affected by the existing system should not, once again, endure the costs of the transition. Given our pervasive legacy of poverty, unemployment and inequality, pursuing equity and justice means many people should be protected and, in fact, better off through the transition. They should also be included in the process, in making decisions, in making the changes. They should be given agency — agency that is supported and borne out of strong and clear leadership.

The South African Constitution and almost all government policies and frameworks give intention to that agency. They call for public participation. A just transition must include participatory justice. This means giving voice and bringing into fruition that agency. 

Our democracy is still young and is anchored in a parliamentary system which incorporates both representative and direct participatory elements. The very principle of participation is at the cornerstone of South Africa’s history and culture and is at the core of the country’s democracy. But whether people truly have a voice (directly or indirectly) on key decisions remains questionable. 

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Local government matters for consultation

At the local level, various structures are in place to facilitate community participation, from ward committees to forums, to public comment processes, such as those involved in municipal integrated development plans. 

Yet, local government officials have repeatedly stated that public participation processes are largely a compliance or tick-box exercise, often because of limited capacity and a breakdown in the relationship between governments and their constituencies. Officials feel constrained by their key performance mandates and lack of political support. 

Communities feel unheard and ill-informed. 

To change this trajectory of failed or poor participatory processes, more awareness, education and time must be given to authenticate and achieve participatory justice within a just transition — supported and augmented by leadership that listens and gives direction. 

We require leadership that is visionary, inclusive and driven by integrity and humanity, a leadership that is working towards a common goal and not driven by ego. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (Photo: Esa Alexander /Gallo Images)

There is a balance between listening to the people and still being able to lead and make key decisions. As the now late Desmond Tutu stated, “the good leader in our African tradition was the one who listened to various and diverse points of view and would then sum up describing the consensus he believed had emerged. Everyone felt they had been listened to.” (Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture, 2006). 

Indeed, change is a process that is not easy, where interests, conflicts and opposing positions have to be managed. Critical in such a process is collective agency with direction. But, ultimately, hard decisions ought to be made — these might not accommodate all views. If we look back at the struggle against apartheid, many decisions were borne out of consultation and the engagement of the people with sound leadership at the helm. 

In looking back at public participation since democracy, it is evident we have neither been successful in delivering participatory democracy as envisioned in the Constitution and nor has our leadership been able to enable this to happen.

What is needed to effect such a fundamental transformation of our society and economy?

Delivering participatory justice is in essence a democratic process. It is embodied by a set of fundamental ethical principles and decision-making processes that should treat all stakeholders with respect and equality. This is critical to ensure that people feel safe to engage and take part in proceedings, free of discrimination, intimidation and threats. 

People should be given the platform and required support to exercise their agency. This is critical to level the playing field, as stakeholders do not have the same resources and ability to take part in decision-making processes. While this process is, in itself, unlikely to redress historical inequalities, efforts should be made to make the engagements as inclusive as possible. 

Furthermore, information should flow freely, be easily accessible by everybody and easy to understand by all. This forms the basis of a transparent and impartial process. 

And, finally, systems must enable accountability and trust, at the national, community and firm levels. For decisions to be upheld and implemented, stakeholders must have trust (and effectively vested interests) in their success — this calls for trust at a leadership level. 

If we are to really implement the justice side of a just transition, then we need to find a way to develop a social compact that truly has the voices of all the people and all stakeholders, with the guidance of sound leadership. It is about co-creating with transparency. It is about working with what is viable in today’s world and what we need to urgently change to protect our planet and country. How we do that is a huge challenge and will require us to mend the broken chain of leadership and stop working in silos. 

We need to find a way that replicates the Mexican wave in a soccer match. A wave that seamlessly moves in sync and harmony across a stadium of thousands of people. A wave that is not arbitrary, that has strong leadership at its helm that encompasses both the elder and the youth. 

How we achieve that is society’s next big task in a country filled with opportunity. DM/MC

Peta Wolpe is an urban energy and climate change practitioner. Gaylor Montmasson-Clair and Muhammed Patel are senior economists at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies. Lauren Hermanus is the director of Adapt, leading the Just Urban Transitions project.

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