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People first: Getting to the root of degrowth in South Africa (Part Two)


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

What would degrowth in South Africa look like? What do South African ‘degrowthers’ — or even those who do not identify themselves thus, but agree with the movement’s policies — want?

This is Part Two in a two-part series. Part One can be read here.

John F Kennedy’s environmental adviser, the economist Kenneth Boulding, once quipped that “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”.

Boulding saw the slow rise of consumerism during his early childhood in England and when he moved to America, he witnessed first-hand how manufacturers and advertisers constantly pushed the envelope to get people to buy and consume more stuff every day. 

Belief in the Keynesian concept of continued population growth and productivity was unshakeable.

Boulding’s contemporary, the Austrian Joseph Schumpeter, would later develop a theory on production known as “creative destruction” — the tendency for new innovations to rapidly replace old ones and render them obsolete. 

American firms leveraged America’s post-World War II global dominance to export GDP obsession, rapid innovation, hyper-consumerism, privatisation, supermarketisation, Macdonaldisation and other free-market policies to the rest of the world.

As free-market GDP growth became the dominant orthodoxy globally, hyper-consumerism led to two things: 1) ecological collapse with kneecapping of ecosystems’ capacity to renew themselves; and 2) rising wealth inequalities around the world.

In “Laudato Si on Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis says this about the global economy’s “rapidification” and throwaway culture:

“Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which starts with an analysis of the Marikana massacre as a symbol of wealth disparity in South Africa, shows that the wealth gap between the rich and the poor has increased exponentially over the past two decades. 

He believes that without major interventions, this trend is set to continue.

Another one of Boulding’s contemporaries, John Maynard Keynes, noted before Piketty that free markets do not really possess self-balancing mechanisms, and so the state (or some other countervailing force) has to intervene to make proper adjustments for the good of society in general.

In the face of environmental degradation, pollution and accelerated privatisation of commons (with the dramatic rise of private water companies for example), some people started calling for a new kind of society in the 1960s. 

The degrowth movement was born precisely to amplify the calls for this new society.

Although the word degrowth causes consternation in some quarters where people link it to regression, deprivation, post-growth and even stagnation, it is really about a new relationship between humankind, its environment and the commons, as André Gorz once noted, and as I showed in the definitions section (Part One) here in Daily Maverick

It is definitely not a call for the abolition of free markets, but rather a call for a different type of free market.

From Gorz to Serge Latouche, José Bové and even Nicolas Hulot, what degrowthers want is really a more just and inclusive society where there is less ecocide and more deliberate focus on human beings’ wellness.

And this brings us to economics and accumulation in a South African context. South Africa’s economy is driven largely by fossils and intensive agriculture that is heavily reliant on water, pesticides, capital, fertilisers and mechanisation.

The problem with this accumulation logic is that most of the generated wealth is funnelled to a tiny minority while large swathes of the population remain poor. The three richest South Africans own wealth equal to the poorest 28 million. 

There further has to be greater investment in and more efficient use of commons (water, electricity, public transit systems, parks, recreation facilities, etc) with community members playing an integral part in managing all these resources. 

According to Statistics South Africa, 30.6 million South Africans were living below the upper-bound poverty line of R992 per person per month in 2006. 

Although there has been an improvement in the data, about 35 million people still lived below the new upper-bound poverty line of R1,227 in 2019

The Covid-19 pandemic has further complicated this picture with more than 2.2 million jobs lost in 2020. Everybody agrees that this is unsustainable.

What would degrowth in South Africa look like? What do South African degrowthers — or even those who do not identify themselves thusly but agree with the movement’s policies — want? Gorz argues that it is not sufficient to just say what you are fighting against — you have to state what you stand for.

The first order of business for degrowth in South Africa is obviously rapid migration from coal power to clean energy. 

Of the 51,309 megawatts (MW) of electricity that is generated in South Africa every year, only 4,533MW comes from clean, renewable sources. The country’s coal-power fleet, the seventh biggest in the world, accounts for 80% to 90% of the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

South Africa emits about 512 million metric tonnes of fossil carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per annum — the highest in the developing world per capita. At the same time, we know that the southern African region is heating rapidly due to these emissions, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has called for capping these GHG emissions below 1.5%.

To reverse this trend quickly, President Cyril Ramaphosa can launch an era of rapid renewables growth by working together with all provinces to set up independent power producer (IPP) projects around the country. 

Deliberate effort must be made to prioritise IPPs owned by large sectors of the population, including trade unions, women’s groups, cooperatives and ordinary workers rather than foreign venture funds.

The best way to allay the fears of energy-sector workers who wonder what will happen to them after Eskom is unbundled is to encourage them to become shareholders in these projects, among other things. 

Consider this: most of rural America was electrified by cooperatives, not big business. Another example: the most recent expansion of the Suez Canal was financed by ordinary Egyptians who poured an eye-watering $9-billion into the project.

The second degrowth priority is to help reduce the carbon footprint of the next two biggest polluters in the country, i.e. agriculture, forestry and other land use (Afolu) and transport. 

The Afolu sector, which consumes 60% of the country’s water and contributes 5.2 million tonnes of CO2e, must be incentivised to adopt more efficient irrigation systems and plant more cover crops. This will ultimately help them save a lot of money in the long run as the periods between droughts shorten and climate change accelerates.

Similarly, new urban projects should build more integrated suburbs where people do not have to travel long distances to get to work, school or retail and recreation centres. 

The precious stones, mobile phones and cars we buy also have human costs. Every time we replace a mobile phone we probably invest in conflict minerals from eastern DRC.

There further has to be greater investment in and more efficient use of commons (water, electricity, public transit systems, parks, recreation facilities, etc) with community members playing an integral part in managing all these resources. 

With better integrated cities, people get to spend more time with their families and loved ones. As part of the government’s integrated spatial planning, the land reform programme should prioritise and accelerate transfer of smaller plots to more beneficiaries in priority nodes where equipment centres and processing cooperatives also exist to support them. 

Ownership of land and economic empowerment of the poor and marginalised is absolutely important, especially in rural areas where job opportunities are few. People must be given the chance to own their own small part of South Africa where they get to build their own South African dream. Land and homes anchor people to a long-term project and give them hope.

Third, as we migrate to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, machines are replacing humans in a growing number of jobs. However, a majority of South Africans have never experienced full participation in the economy. 

They exist on the fringes, un- or underemployed. Surely we can engineer policies that educate better, pay better wages and spread wealth more evenly? 

More people should be supported to learn new skills to help them adapt to the changing needs of the workplace. In time, more people could move to home offices permanently, work less and/or even become their own bosses. 

With more time on their hands, people can take up hobbies that cultivate their minds and help slow down memory loss, dementia, Parkinson’s, depression and other conditions.

Finally, degrowth is about a different ownership and usage of “things”. We can consume less. Fast, disposable fashion has a cost. 

An increasing number of farmers are committing suicide in India because they cannot pay back back the loans they contracted to buy inputs and cotton GMO seeds. 

The precious stones, mobile phones and cars we buy also have human costs. Every time we replace a mobile phone we probably invest in conflict minerals from eastern DRC.

So there you have it. Degrowth is not anti-growth. Degrowth is in fact growth, but a different kind of growth, one that puts a majority of the people first.

We can fund it by taxing the wealthy more and by redeploying a bigger slice of the national budget to some of the priorities listed above. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    This and the previous article are so important. Growth driven economic theories and strategies will not produce sustainable societies and in reality are major contributors to the mess that the world is in today. The writer should be encouraged to expand the articles into a full blown strategy so that its ‘Economist’ opponents will start to take note

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    That free-market capitalism creates ugly externalities is increasingly recognised. The problem lies in the incentives that govern it. What degrowth has to accomplish is to change incentives so that they align better with society’s well-being. The main channels I see in order to create those are activism, culminating in legislation, and government policies and practices. But implied are masses of incentive changes, and they must be smart, in order to not create their own side-effects. (De-carbonation is just one aspect, and see how difficult that is on a global scale. We need more equality, but are still going in the wrong direction.) Yes, the goal is laudable, but we require leadership that is an order of magnitude better, and therefore better voters. This is a long haul thing. Do we have the time?

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