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Activists say ‘no more soft approach’ to climate change, need more from Standard Bank
Climate protesters held a three-day campout at the Standard Bank Headquarters in Rosebank, Johannesburg, which ended in activists being removed by the police.
A climate protest outside the Standard Bank headquarters in Rosebank, Johannesburg, reached its third day on Thursday, 21 September, with activists refusing to leave the premises until the bank’s Group CEO Sim Tshabalala addressed them publicly.
The activists – who came from Meadowlands, Fleurhof, Mzimhlope, Bekkersdal, Orange Farm, the Vaal and Soweto – had been camping outside the main entrance of the building since Tuesday, 19 September and were calling for a live debate with the bank and for the bank to stop all investments in fossil fuel projects and redirect the funding to renewable energy.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate activists, journalist forcibly ejected from Standard Bank HQ anti-fossil fuel protest
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, according to shareholder activist organisation Just Share’s briefing on Standard Bank Group’s climate disclosures in 2022.
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.
The stand-off between protesters and Standard Bank ended with South African Police Service (SAPS) officers and private security removing the activist’s belongings and shepherding them off the premises and on to Baker Street.
Standard Bank issued an eviction notice press release on Thursday afternoon, stating that they had the protesters removed from its premises “following three days of unlawful protest which posed a health and safety risk to staff and customers” and accusing the protesters of vandalising Standard Bank property by defacing art and urinating in open areas. This has been denied by the activists saying they did not urinate and the paint was kids’ paint that could be washed off.
Activist held in building and denied legal representation
SAPS was on site, ostensibly acting as mediators between Standard Bank’s private security and the climate activists, and told the activists that Standard Bank had agreed to allow four members of the activist group to meet bank executives inside once they had packed up.
The protesters were sceptical that Standard Bank would keep its end of the deal – as the bank had said it would engage with them several times on Thursday, but did not show. The protesters did not move.
SAPS officers then began dismantling the activists’ camp (without giving lawful instruction to disperse, but asking them to leave multiple times), which was met by verbal dispute from the activists.
After he shouted “Cyril Ramaphosa supporters!” at the police, two SAPS officers grabbed climate activist Angelo Doyle and dragged him through a barricade.
After Doyle lay on the ground, SAPS carried him inside the Standard Bank building and stopped the media from following. Doyle is from Eldorado Park and is part of the activist organisation Iplant Africa, which grows sustainable food gardens for the community.
Doyle was held inside the Standard Bank building for four hours, from 4pm to 8pm, before being taken to Rosebank Police Station.
“The whole point of us being here is that we want to be present when he’s charged, and facilitate his release,” Vuyokazi Yokwe, an attorney from Right to Protest, who is representing Doyle, said while he was still being held.
“But they are currently refusing legal representation access to our client.”
An activist told Daily Maverick that the SAPS took Doyle to the police station at 8pm without informing them.
Asked why the meeting between Standard Bank and the activists, as suggested by SAPS officers, did not take place, the bank’s spokesperson Ross Linstrom told Daily Maverick that it was open to peaceful and lawful dialogue.
“Extinction Rebellion made a clear decision to attempt to engage outside these terms. Standard Bank did not appoint the SAPS as mediators to act on our behalf and neither did we suggest or commit to a meeting with their leaders. The SAPS were called in to enforce the law and took steps of their own accord. Having said that we do remain open to further engagements,” said Linstrom.
He referred questions on why Doyle was kept inside the Standard Bank building for four hours to the police. Daily Maverick understands that Doyle was only officially charged late on Thursday night. A request for comment was sent to the police and will be included in the article if received.
Extinction Rebellion requests address from Standard Bank CEO
On Thursday, Grace Alter, Extinction Rebellion’s national coordinator, sent Standard Bank CEO Sim Tshabalala an email urgently requesting that he come outside the building to address the protesters.
“We are outside your Rosebank offices demanding that you answer to the people gathered here. Your security presence is disproportionate, and your utter refusal to communicate with the people directly affected by your decisions is negligent and disappointing,” read the email.
Alter reiterated Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a live debate on Standard Bank’s environmental policy, in addition to its commitments and actions towards addressing climate change.
Extinction Rebellion is also demanding that the bank commit to ending all new coal finance by 2024, in line with global efforts to combat climate change.
In Standard Bank’s statement, Virginia Magapatona, the bank’s head of communication and reputation management, said that the organisation is open to creating opportunities for discussions about climate change with stakeholders in a peaceful and lawful manner. Magapatona said Extinction Rebellion’s attempts at discourse fell beyond those terms.
“The bank is well on its way to delivering on our commitment to mobilise R50 billion in sustainable finance by the end of this financial year. For every Rand of loans extended to non-renewable energy, Standard Bank has loaned more than R5 to renewable energy,” said Magapatona.
“South African law creates many lawful and peaceful avenues for individuals and groups to express their views and to register their displeasure in protest. None of these were followed by Extinction Rebellion.
“Standard Bank is always open to dialogue on the concerns of our various stakeholders but expects that this dialogue be held peacefully and lawfully.”
Activists want more from Standard Bank
But for activists on the ground, Standard Bank’s commitments were not enough. Zaki Mamdoo, the coordinator of the #stopEACOP campaign, told Daily Maverick that a lot of the activists at the protest travelled far and sacrificed a lot to demand that the bank take bold steps to address climate change.
The corporation is one of the three financial advisers for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP)project, which will begin construction in 2025 and span 1,400km between Uganda and Tanzania. While the project claims to represent an investment of $4-billion across the East African countries, it is anticipated that EACOP will cause far-reaching damage to people, nature and the climate.
For Mamdoo, the destructive potential of the EACOP necessitates that activists take a sterner approach when confronting fossil fuel projects and the corporations that back them.
“I think it’s clear that this kind of action is needed. The softer approach, where we operate within the bounds of the regulations to protest at a designated place within a certain time has not worked. We’ve been at Standard Bank multiple times before, and we’ve been ignored time and time again. So, we’ve been forced to escalate the nature of our actions and take a stronger approach,” Mamdoo said.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Kumi Naidoo forcibly removed from Standard Bank HQ after protest over crude oil pipeline project
Mamdoo added: “The important thing to emphasise is that we all know that [the climate] crisis is becoming a lot worse, corporations like Standard Bank continue to put their money into new [fossil fuel] investments and incredibly destructive projects, and we can’t afford that because there is a realistic and viable alternative, which is to fund a deep just renewable energy transition.”
Why are they protesting
When asked why they took three days out of their personal and professional lives to protest, a climate activist from Eldorado Park, Russell Florence, said, “30 to 40 years from now, our children and our grandchildren will be facing the devastating consequences of our actions. And I believe that it’s my duty to do whatever I can for the community.”
He added, “As an activist, we understand that money corrupts. We’ve seen it in our own country. So we work on a volunteer basis. We are wanting to be self-reliant.”
Mamdoo also sought to dispel the notion that many of the protesters joined the demonstration because they were paid to be there.
“No one has been paid or bought to be here. Comrades have come because we are at a crossroads where we know we have no other choice. A lot of these communities where comrades are from are communities which are essentially ground zero.
“They’re at the front lines of extraction, so they understand the lived reality of being in close proximity and being subjected to the exploitation and harm that the fossil fuel industry causes.”
One of those activists on the front line was Lucky Thwala from Orange Farm, part of the Sisonke Revolutionary Movement.
“Orange Farm is a very vulnerable community,” said Thwala.
“People don’t have electricity – we don’t have clean electricity. We are fighting to get new renewable energy”
Sandra Magadlela from United Front Meadowlands said she was there because she was tired of breathing in the polluted air that they are forced to breathe due to fossil fuels being used to produce energy.
When asked about the sacrifices she had to make to be at the protest for three days, Magadlela said while she had to leave her family for a few days to be part of the protest, she was with “this larger family – the activists that are fighting. I’m old now. I’ve been fighting for many years.”
“So now I won’t stop, just because I’m old,” reflected Magadlela, “I will continue to fight for my kids, and the next generation.”
“What kept me going is I still want to know what the bosses at Standard Bank are gonna say,” said Magadlela. DM