Over the past few years, annual general meetings of shareholders in listed companies have become a common platform for environmental and climate activists all over the world. As long as they are able to purchase a share in that company, activists and affected people are able publicly to confront and challenge the leadership of companies whose operations cause environmental harm and contribute to global heating.
The questions to corporate leaders often require such companies to invest in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, more sustainable operations, and in people and in the rehabilitation of the environment which it has sought to exploit and pollute. Since these are usually costly investments that reduce profits, companies are inevitably slow and reluctant to make the commitments activists demand.
Last week, a number of environmental activists attended and participated in Sasol’s AGM, asking critical questions about Sasol’s failure to address the impacts of their pollution on the health of affected communities, as well as the company’s massive climate impacts.
The whole affair had a sense of wearisome indignity: ordinary people and activists who have for years tried to get Sasol to curb its massive environmental impacts in Secunda, Sasolburg, South Durban, Mozambique and its contribution to the climate crisis globally, still trying to have their voices heard; and senior executives and board members, glib and arrogant, spending as little time responding with as little information as possible, and committing to as little action as possible.
Outside the AGM, activists from Secunda and the Vaal, who suffer the health impacts of Sasol’s pollution in those areas every day, peacefully gathered outside the gates of a large office park, asking to be let inside in order to hand a memorandum directly to the chairperson of the Sasol board and so that their lawful demonstration could be directly outside the building in which the AGM was held. They were prevented from doing so because inside private property, with police and private security on hand, their peaceful gathering was apparently a little too far beyond established norms.
If one of South Africa and the region’s biggest polluters were properly regulated and held to constitutional imperatives, instead of appeased and included in government’s climate negotiation team, would activists and affected communities have to go to this kind of length just to be heard? Should concerned parents, whose kids are sick from air pollution, have to travel from Secunda and Sasolburg at 6am, only to be prevented from accessing private property and having their protest heard, despite an overwhelming police presence, because it is inconvenient for private property owners?
When the Sasol board chairperson decided after an hour of questions that only a further four out of 20 questions would be allowed, overruling objections from activists who had travelled a long way to raise important questions, the whole process seemed a sham — a reinforcement of unequal power relations between the company and those who sought to challenge it.
It did not feel, sitting in that room, that Sasol was accountable to its shareholders, or to the people whose lives were affected by its operations. It did not feel like the dignity of those who were acting in the public interest was being respected and protected, or that people outside really had the freedom to demonstrate, and to present their petitions.
It certainly did not feel as if everyone had rights to an environment which is not harmful to their health or well-being, or that the environment would be protected for present and future generations.
Instead, there was the tedious exhaustion of having to raise questions with the second-highest greenhouse gas emitter in the country, but which has only now started to develop a “roadmap” to address its climate impacts.
This is despite a new report from climate scientists that says that the world is on track for a temperature rise of more than 3°C, which will bring mass extinctions of species, and make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. This is despite the UN Secretary-General, speaking at the 2019 Climate Change Conference in Madrid, saying that “we stand at a critical juncture in our collective efforts to address the climate emergency, and either we stop this addiction to coal or all our efforts to address the climate crisis will be undermined.”
While we recognise that corporations like Sasol are important stakeholders in our economy and that it employs good people working towards sustainable solutions, their efforts need to be scaled up massively, and urgently.
If anything is clear after its AGM, it is that Sasol will not take adequate measures fast enough without strong climate regulation — and bear in mind that we know from the experience with air pollution standards that Sasol will likely spend the next decade trying to set aside regulation designed to compel it to reduce its GHG emissions.
This show of corporate power, inaction and disdain cannot be allowed and tolerated within a constitutional democracy and within the context of a global climate emergency.
What we cannot do is continue to allow corporations to leverage power and control over those who are only seeking to protect our people and our planet. The age of unmanaged extraction and pollution by corporations under the guise of maximising shareholder value is over. We need a new way for business and for those who should be governing it. DM