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The just transition: Our people are already taking acti...

Defend Truth


The just transition: Our people are already taking action and building systems they can rely on


Bobby Peek is a recipient of the Goldman Prize Africa (1998). He is the director of groundWork and Friends of the Earth South Africa.

Throughout South Africa, people are organising and building a new tomorrow — planting their own food, producing their own electricity, reconnecting to the grid when they are cut off, linking into water systems where the government has failed to deliver.

Non-profit developmental organisation groundWork has always been in solidarity with people at the frontline and fencelines of struggles against environmental injustice. Environmental injustice has been brought on by the power of capital — with the political elite — seeking to force and use labour and nature to turn a profit. They have done this by excluding people from democratic decision-making, externalising the costs of their pollution on to people and our environments, and taken control of public goods and enclosed these.

They have done this for their profit while also preventing those they exclude from escaping to live outside of this profit-seeking system. This cannot be denied.

Evidence abounds: from the Guptas, Karpowership and the mines not wanted by communities, yet forced upon them; to Sasol given leeway to pollute and harm people’s health because it needs profit; to the government forcing people to pay for basic services and water, knowing that it does not have the money to pay for it, but then turning around and splashing billions to finance business rescue bailouts for entities looted by it, its comrades and cronies.

So, the question we ask ourselves is: “What does this narrative have to do with the general mayhem and looting that is presently being witnessed?”

Many commentators have spoken about why we are in this mess. From Abahlali baseMjondolo, South Africa’s leading social movement for people living in shacks, to the ex-head of Stats SA, Pali Lehohla, on The Watchdog. It is clear that over the last 27 years, the government has ignored the people. Our leaders have failed to deliver.

According to New Frame, a non-profit, social justice publication based in Johannesburg, the government and the elite also ignored the reality of the growing numbers of unemployed and hungry people. Zuma’s jailing was “spark to the tinder”. So while it is important to recognise that “the ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve”, as Cyril Madlala reflects in Daily Maverick, one has to realise that this is broader than Zuma and has been a long time coming.

At the outset, groundWork condemns violence in all its forms. Today we see the destruction of property as well as violence in the form of vigilantism that has emerged in response. We believe that the government has failed in its duty to respond to the many warning signals, as it has rather sought, as the ruling party, to fight for “the prize” of control within the ANC.

As Marikana was preceded by years of infighting within the unions — who were more worried about ANC politics, as the then general secretary of Cosatu, Zwelinzima Vavi, put it prior to Marikana — the July 2021 events are preceded by a government that cannot govern, for it is squabbling over the spoils.

It must also be noted that the mass looting and destruction are not something new — we have witnessed this at all levels of governance, locally, regionally and nationally. This time it spilt over to a different level of society.

So how do we respond?

In groundWork’s 2005 publication, Whose Energy Future? we state that “elite power to determine is neither stable nor inevitable and that it is always and everywhere contested and renegotiated”. The events of the past few weeks could mark a new beginning if we choose to build a new tomorrow through dialogue across the nation, as Abahlali baseMjondolo has called for.

We went on to say that the only way to ensure that renewable energy does become a meaningful response to the crisis, is by ensuring that it is “taken up by the masses of the poor in a project that they define and drive”, and ensuring it connects “with movements struggling for deep transformation of the way the world works”. So I slipped renewable energy into this debate and you wonder why. Well, because the failure of our energy system and the abuse of it for elite profit is at the core of our problem. It was interesting to note that when Makro premises were looted, so were the solar panels that they installed in their parking lots.

Over the years, we have been in ongoing dialogue with communities living next to the polluting petrochemical industries in south Durban and the Vaal, people living adjacent to abandoned burning mines on the Highveld, waste pickers working on waste dumps and in the streets, residents forced to live with toxic waste being dumped in their neighbourhoods and people organising and building a new tomorrow.

People are planting their own food, connecting and producing their own electricity, reconnecting to the grid when they are cut off because they cannot afford to pay, linking into water systems where the government has failed to deliver. People are taking action and building systems that they can rely on.

As a result of these dialogues, we have sharpened our thinking over the years. With community formations, we have developed some starting points for a community-driven open agenda for a just transition that can hold and nurture a response to the events of the past few weeks, to the 27 years of a failing democracy, and to the 342 years of colonialism, starting with the landing of the Dutch East India Company that set up shop as the first corporate in this part of the world.

This dialogue is found in various groundWork reports, the one most pertinent to this debate being Down to Zero: The politics of just transition. Here we detail 12 departure points for the just transition:

  1. Build a new energy system;
  2. Rehabilitate mines and the mining regions;
  3. Make people’s food gardens central to a healthy food system;
  4. Call for and challenge for food sovereignty, ie break the back of corporate control of food;
  5. Reconstruct and build settlements that can respond to climate change;
  6. Plan so that work and amenities are in people’s reach so that walking and cycling is possible, and develop safe reliable transport for long distances;
  7. Create a zero-waste economy, stop throw-away culture and develop high levels of recycling and composting of waste and respect and recognition of waste pickers;
  8. Create a common, caring and effective healthcare system for all, with professionals who are vocal against polluting practices and policies that harm people’s health;
  9. Protect the income of retrenched workers;
  10. Introduce a Basic Income Grant;
  11. Think about the economy in a new way that does not fixate itself on growth but rather is centred on the wellbeing of people; and
  12. Demand an open democracy that allows for meaningful engagement and dialogue with local government which will bear the brunt of developing a climate change response and, as one witnesses now in the aftermath of the recent violence, the anger of people.

Underpinning this are our principles and values that call for a future in which we seek to dismantle patriarchy and build gender justice, and where the young, with their vibrancy and energy, are given more of a leadership role in defining our future.

This is an open agenda, not a groundWork agenda. Our NGO partners, namely the Centre for Environmental Rights and Earthlife Africa, are discussing this with us and the people we collectively work with on the ground and in the spaces of struggle. This open agenda is something that one can see in the response by Abahlali baseMjondolo, and groundWork endorses their call for a need for dialogue throughout the country to build peace and justice. A dialogue is needed among all South Africans in all forms that allow for the building of a new and vibrant democracy.

We hope we learn from this pain and build a future of peace and solidarity among all in South Africa. DM/OBP


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All Comments 2

  • Well said. Change is needed. But please change the idea of a Basic Income Grant. A ‘Basic Income Grant’ (BIG) is an oxymoron. Income is earned – a grant is a donation, like the child support grant. We rather need a Community Services Income (CSI) where services to one’s community earn credits or an income. A BIG is not affordable without some societal value being generated. Government should channel seed money to social service organizations to set-up service sectors, viz alien veg control, litter collection, road repair & maintenance, painting of government buildings, roadside and pavement flower bed maintenance, etc, etc. The harder you work in a community service area the more you may earn.

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