Climate activists, journalist forcibly ejected from Standard Bank HQ anti-fossil fuel protest
A protest at Standard Bank’s headquarters in Johannesburg on Tuesday descended into chaos when a group of human rights and climate activists, as well as a Daily Maverick journalist, were forcibly removed from the building by security personnel.
Activists from Extinction Rebellion arrived at the offices of Standard Bank — the largest bank on the continent by assets — in Rosebank, Johannesburg, on Tuesday to call for the bank to stop all investments in fossil fuel projects and redirect the funding to renewable energy.
The protesters entered the bank’s headquarters a few at a time so as not to alert security personnel.
Once gathered, the piercing sound of a whistle marked the start of the occupation, which saw protesters converging on the building’s reception area, linking arms and breaking into chants demanding climate justice.
While the protest started as a peaceful manifestation of civil disobedience, protesters and private security quickly clashed when authorities became heavy handed, and a protester was injured.
Russell Florence, an Extinction Rebellion activist from Eldorado Park, was dropped on his head by security guards when they carried him out of the building, and Florence lost consciousness.
Security workers whisked Florence to the building’s medical bay, where he was kept for several hours.
Standard Bank spokesperson Ross Linstrom told Daily Maverick on Tuesday, “Standard Bank initiated medical assistance out of an abundance of caution. The person in question has since rejoined the small group of protesters outside of Standard Bank’s building.”
Speaking to Daily Maverick on the sidelines of the protest, Florence said, “We sat [in the reception area] and peacefully made the point that for our future, for our children’s future, we don’t need dirty energy.
“Security came, and we passively sat, and I was dragged by my feet and hit my head on a previous injury.”
He accused the bank and paramedics of using undue force while treating him and tying him to a gurney in an ambulance against his will.
Responding to the allegations, Linstrom said, “We can confirm that our personnel are well trained to assist in dealing with security-related situations and therefore deny that force was disproportionately used.
“Where protesters feel their rights have been impinged, they should lay a charge with the relevant authorities or report the matter to the bank so that we can take the matter further.”
While covering the protest, Daily Maverick journalist Lerato Mutsila was manhandled by security guards and a Standard Bank employee who claimed to be the head of security, a woman who gave her name as Karen.
Karen wrestled Mutsila — who identified herself as a reporter from Daily Maverick — and forcefully snatched her cellphone from her hand. She deleted all the footage of the protest that Mutsila had captured. Five security guards then grabbed Mutsila and ejected her from the building.
Linstrom said, “Standard Bank respects and is a strong supporter of media freedom. In the event that journalists approach us through the proper channels, we are open to engaging with them.”
After being booted out of the building, the activists continued their protest outside it.
Malik Dasoo, the Extinction Rebellion activist who organised the protest, said the plan was to camp outside Standard Bank buildings until the bank met their demands.
Dasoo said Extinction Rebellion had tried unsuccessfully to engage with the bank about its continued investment in fossil fuels on eight occasions.
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“We are ultimately here to demand one thing, which is that Standard Bank must not finance any new and additional coal by 2024. It [fossil fuels] is killing our people. It is not improving energy access, it’s just making money for a small group of people.
“We want them to put the money they put into fossil fuels into renewable energy for poor communities. Communities like Orange Farm, Sebokeng, Meadowlands and Mzimhlophe, these are the areas that we work in and they need energy now,” Dasoo said.
The activists also demanded that the bank must agree to “a live debate with activists and experts on fossil fuel financing, where they will be held accountable for their investments and urged to commit to a transition away from coal financing by 2024”.
In a letter to Dasoo, Kirston Greenop from Standard Bank said, “Standard Bank will, in a responsible and respectful way, engage with the concerns of our various stakeholders, with due regard to proper processes.
“In the meanwhile, in light of the unprotected nature of this protest, we kindly request you to immediately, and by no later than 13h00, leave our premises, failing which we will take such action as may be advised.”
After Standard Bank threatened to take unspecified action, Julia Fish from Fund Our Future addressed the dwindling crowd outside the building. Fish said, “If we are doing an illegal act, the jurisdiction is with SAPS, not private security. They [private security] do not have the authority to arrest, assault or remove us. This is public space, and that’s what we recognise.
“We have done nothing illegal, and we will remain until we are treated with the respect that we demand. Only once we have been deemed to be doing something illegal by the government of this country and by the police officers, and they give us a lawful Act, then we will [leave]. But until then, we will remain here.”
The private security personnel, with the help of officers from the South African Police Service, threatened to forcibly remove the protesters at 1pm, but the deadline passed, and no action was taken.
Twelve activists, including Dasoo, remained for the rest of the day and by nightfall had set up tents about 10m from the entrance, having committed to sleep overnight until the bank adequately addressed their demands.
Why Standard Bank?
“They have the highest potential to meet the country’s transition requirements given their enormous balance sheet,” Dasoo said.
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According to shareholder activist organisation Just Share’s briefing on Standard Bank Group’s climate disclosures from 2022, Standard Bank’s exposure to coal mining, oil, gas and power generation from fossil fuels increased by 22% from 2021 to 2022, with total exposure at R119.4-billion, compared with R97.6-billion the previous year.
As a result, Just Share found that Standard Bank’s exposure to fossil fuels was about 4.5 times higher than its exposure to renewable energy.
However, Linstrom told Daily Maverick that this assumption was incorrect, stating that “for every rand of loans extended on non-renewable energy, Standard Bank has loaned more the R5 on renewable energy”.
Linstrom said that Standard Bank had mobilised more than R28-billion in sustainable finance for its clients, of which 40% was for clients in African regions.
“Recently, the bank raised R6.6-billion in green and sustainability-linked Treasury finance to support the group’s sustainable finance initiatives,” he said.
“The bank has thus far mobilised R82.5-billion in sustainable finance since January 2022 relative to our R250-billion to R300-billion target by 2026.”
However, Emma Schuster, a senior climate risk analyst at Just Share, said, “The bank references its renewable energy exposure versus its fossil fuel electricity exposure, but of course the bank’s exposure to fossil fuels beyond electricity is crucial.”
According to Standard Bank’s latest climate report, the bank’s financing of fossil fuel power generation (what it calls “non-renewable energy”) is only a portion of its financing of fossil fuels, which includes other activities such as exploration, extraction and production.
“So whilst it may finance more renewable power than fossil fuel power, its contribution to funding renewables pales in comparison with its funding of fossil fuels, including coal mining, and oil and gas exploration, extraction and production,” Schuster noted.
Standard Bank’s climate policy
“We aim to actively support Africa’s transition to a lower carbon economy, mitigate the impact of climate change and improve access to reliable and sustainable energy sources, a critical factor in Africa’s economic growth and poverty alleviation,” Linstrom told Daily Maverick.
“Our climate policy commits the group to achieving net zero carbon emissions from its portfolio of financed emissions by 2050. We are also working toward net zero across our operations by 2040 for existing operations and 2030 for newly built facilities.”
Linstrom added that Standard Bank was a founding signatory of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) Principles for Responsible Banking, and co-chair of the banking board responsible for overseeing the effective implementation of these principles.
However, Just Share’s analysis of Standard Bank’s climate policy noted that the UNEP FI’s 2021 recommendations for credible net-zero commitments state, “Net-zero commitments which are not explicitly tied to, or do not follow specifically 1.5°C IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] carbon budget (as derived from the consensus of IPCC 1.5°C scenarios) should not qualify as credible.”
In its analysis, Just Share said that as Standard Bank Group’s net-zero commitment did not follow the IPCC’s 1.5°C carbon budget, “The bank cannot therefore claim that its policy is ‘Paris-aligned.’” DM