Opinionista Alex Lenferna 1 June 2020

Environmentalists must learn to say #BlackLivesMatter

Racial injustice permeates every corner of our society and environmental issues are no different. At the heart of environmental injustice is racial injustice of many forms, and if we are to truly tackle environmental injustice, then we must also tackle racial injustice.

With Collins Khosa and so many black people being disproportionately brutalised and killed at the hands of police and military in South Africa; with George Floyd and so many black people being disproportionately brutalised and killed at the hands of police in the United States: the world over, we see time and time again that black lives are treated as disposable. We see why we must say that #BlackLivesMatter.

Saying Black Lives Matter is not just about police brutality though. It is also about political and economic systems that devalue black lives, black land, black culture, and blackness. If we are to truly recognise that black lives matter, then we must work to fix and, if necessary, overturn those systems.

Indeed, racial injustice permeates every corner of our society, and environmental issues are no different. At the heart of environmental injustice is racial injustice of many forms, and if we are to truly tackle environmental injustice, then we must also tackle racial injustice.

Take the climate crisis, for example. Greenhouse gases are predominantly caused by and benefit the rich and wealthy whiter global North individuals, corporations, communities and countries. The impacts, however, are disproportionately felt by the poorer, black and brown global South.

Study after study shows that those on the frontlines of climate change, of pollution, and of harmful extraction are disproportionately black and brown people. That is not a mistake or an accident of geography. The global economy is run on the devaluation of black lives and black land, often in the service of predominantly white capital and interests.

In the end, environmental injustice is in many ways an extension and continuation of colonial injustice. While colonial structures have mutated into new forms, they often still serve the purpose of exploiting black land and people to benefit predominantly the global North. Let us look homeward, to South Africa, to think a little more about this.

Here in South Africa, there is much outrage from many (not all) white people about land expropriation without compensation (EWC). Yet many of the same people are quiet when it comes to black peoples’ land rights being violated by mining companies.

When Gwede Mantashe rolls back the rights for communities to free prior and informed consent, many of those same EWC opponents are eerily quiet. That may have something to do with the fact that the communities that will be impacted are mainly black. That helps explain why groups like Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) must declare that #BlackLivesMatter.

Perhaps then what is most offensive about EWC for many (but not all) white people, is not the violation of property rights per se, but more specifically the violation of the property rights of white people. That’s not to say that we can’t have legitimate concerns about the details of how EWC will be enacted and who it will benefit. There are important concerns that need to be raised.

It seems though that many EWC opponents are simply blasé about black people’s land being taken or degraded to serve the interests of capital, of corporations, and (disproportionately) of white people who most benefit. God forbid though that a white man’s (even unused) land be taken to serve the interests of justice and redistribution to help mend the deep inequalities that still permeate South Africa.

There is a parallel to claims of white genocide, where some white people rage against the murder of white farmers, claiming it constitutes genocide. While every murder is a tragedy, deserving outrage, what’s erased from the white genocide narrative is the fact that black South Africans are dying at higher numbers, both absolutely and proportionately, i.e. there’s no white genocide.

In both cases of selective outrage, white lives and white land seem to matter much more than black lives and black land. When white lives and white land are treated as sacrosanct, as more valuable, can we not see why we must say that #BlackLivesMatter? It is because black life is so often treated as less valuable.

Looking upon this reality, white environmentalists must learn to say that black lives matter and act like it too. They must do so, especially because the history of environmentalism in South Africa is one replete with racism. It is filled with examples of black communities being displaced in order to protect a racist vision of pristine nature as being free of people, particularly black and brown people.

In the end though, it is not just white environmentalists or white rightwing groups that are driving forward environmental injustice and racism. It is also a task being carried out with undemocratic zeal by the likes of Gwede Mantashe and the ANC. For example, on the first day of lockdown, while everyone was distracted, Mantashe put forward an amendment to the Mineral Resources Development Act which worked to strip communities of their right to say no to mining projects.

The bill signed away rural people’s rights by empowering the old apartheid bantustans and the patriarchal tribal authorities that govern them. In doing so, it subjects people living in rural areas to the undemocratic dictates of traditional leaders and traditional councils who now have the right to sign away communities’ land in deals with mining companies, often with little if anything by way of consultation or consent from the broader community.

The amendment attempts to side-step a vital precedent-setting court victory that the community of Xolobeni won against Mantashe. The North Gauteng High Court ruled against Mantashe in favour of Xolobeni’s right to say no to an Australian corporation’s titanium project. The court held that the government must get the full and informed consent of mining-affected communities. 

Not one to take no for an answer, Mantashe has sought to quash the rights of communities through amending the regulations. That amendment was just the latest chapter in an ongoing effort by the ANC to undermine the rights of communities. Perhaps even more egregious was the passing of the ANC’s Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill late last year. The bill was passed by the ANC despite wide-scale protest from land rights activists, who more aptly named it the Bantustans Bill.

The bill signed away rural people’s rights by empowering the old apartheid bantustans and the patriarchal tribal authorities that govern them. In doing so, it subjects people living in rural areas to the undemocratic dictates of traditional leaders and traditional councils who now have the right to sign away communities’ land in deals with mining companies, often with little if anything by way of consultation or consent from the broader community.

Whereas it was once white colonial administrators that did the task of displacing black communities to serve foreign corporations, now the ANC gladly takes the baton and runs with it, undermining democratic rights in the name of serving international capital. The ANC’s slide into corporate-backed neo-apartheid should be a deeply worrying signal for our young democracy.

In particular, Mantashe’s latest move, which slid under our noses at the onset of lockdown, is an undemocratic slap in the face. It is an underhanded attempt to quietly pass laws which would not hold up to the light of public scrutiny. While we cannot currently leave our homes, we cannot sit idly by and allow further erosion of our constitutional rights.

In whatever ways we can during lockdown, we need to raise our voice against Mantashe and the ANC’s apartheid-style landgrabs. And when we can safely protest again, I hope that black and white South Africans will take to the streets in protest. 

To quote Nelson Mandela: “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” DM

Dr Alex Lenferna is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in philosophy focused on climate justice from the University of Washington. He serves as climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org. He writes this in his personal capacity. 

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