Our Burning Planet

Opinionista

Telling the story and spreading the word of South African environmentalism

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Benjamin Klein was born in Durban and moved to Cape Town in 2011 to pursue studies in Law and English. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and writes intermittently for South African media on topics related to literature and the arts and social and environmental justice.

As environmental crises gain increased visibility in South Africa, we must not forget the ability of stories to guide us towards new forms of collective action.

How can literature and other varieties of storytelling contribute to the struggle for environmental justice in South Africa?

One answer lies in the ways stories can help us navigate shifting identities and relationships with the natural world at a time of escalating climate change, land degradation and biodiversity loss, and at a time when the imperatives of economic development sometimes appear to eclipse the needs of impoverished environments and communities in a country still struggling to address the injustices of its past.

As a medium that has long articulated the dreams, hopes and desires of the nation’s people, South Africa’s rich history of storytelling — from African oration to the stories communicated by novelists, filmmakers and activists — can help us align demands for environmental justice with the ongoing project of decolonisation. It is what the literary critic Wamuwi Mbao has recently defined as “an organising tool for addressing the distance between the world as we would like it to be and as it is now”.

Decolonisation, as Mbao argues, requires us to reflect on the “protocols for thinking in common” that shape our society by drawing attention to those who have been excluded from these processes. To decolonise our relationship with the natural world, it would follow, is to reflect on the “protocols for thinking” that dominate decisions about land and the environment in our current dispensation, and in turn to draw attention to those whom such thinking excludes.

It is thus also to reflect on whose versions of environmental justice should be allowed to hold currency. As Lesley Green, director of the Environmental Humanities South group at the University of Cape Town (UCT), has argued, decolonisation requires confronting the ‘contested ecologies’ inscribed within the concept of environmental justice itself.

South African civil society groups and environmental NGOs have played an important role in raising the profile of environmental justice in South Africa since the late 1980s when the decline of apartheid, combined with newly gained political freedoms, provided the space to engage with environmental issues in a socially and politically relevant manner. The task of widening the range of possible meanings that environmentalism can take, and hence reflecting on whose versions of environmental justice should be allowed to hold currency, however, remains an ongoing battle.

Recent South African environmental justice struggles, including the struggle of the Philippi Horticultural Area (PHA) Food and Farming Campaign against development in Philippi, the struggle of local residents against Australian-owned sand mining in Xolobeni, and against the extension to the Tendele coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal, each engender their own story and narrative about environmental injustices. For the PHA Food and Farming Campaign, to cite one example that has been highly publicised of late, private development aided by the city of Cape Town in the Philippi farmlands threatens an alternative conception of ecologically responsible local development, in which communities may benefit socially and economically from nurturing the soil. The story of humanity as tasked with protecting the land from corrosive development is at the heart of the campaign’s efforts.

More recently, the adoption of South Africa’s first Climate Justice Charter in August 2020 by civil activist groups called on South African people and institutions to adopt an “Earth-centred conception of what it means to be human”, rejecting the protocols of thinking that have shaped the country’s role in exacerbating the climate crisis (South Africa remains one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of coal). These stories each have the ability to guide South Africans towards new forms of collective action.

But what does it mean to take this diverse array of environmental storytelling generated by artists and activists seriously? And what does it mean to learn from such stories in a way that is relevant to South Africa’s violent past and present, and equally faithful to its future? Within a regional context, stories about people as ‘Earth-centred’ and ecologically bound to the soil and land cannot be told without troubling some of the most foundational myths of our country’s modern colonial history.

Colonialism, after all, introduced to South Africa a singularly powerful story about the exact opposite of this ‘Earth-centred’ identity, one that continues to shape contemporary life. This is a story familiar to most of the industrialised West, namely the story of human society’s fundamental separation from a bounded conception of nature that exists to be domesticated, exploited and consumed in the interests of progress.

Throughout South Africa’s colonial history, this story about the otherness and exploitability of nature was inseparable from the realities of racial injustice. The particular model of racialised industrial capitalism that was to emerge out of the discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 19th century was indeed premised on the disposability of black bodies and the earth itself. As Lesley Green has remarked in her recent book on South African environmentalism and decolonisation, these protocols of thinking underlay two of the most emblematic institutions of the 20th century, namely the ‘nature reserve’ and ‘native reserve’, both of which were designed to segregate ‘colonial culture’ from ‘subhuman nature’.

The dismantling of apartheid brought newfound political freedoms to South Africa’s people. But it would be suspect to claim that the turn to democracy has properly brought about that “decolonising of the mind” that the great African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was to write about in the 1980s within the context of African decolonisation, let alone that decolonising of the protocols of thinking that underlie public framings of environmental crisis. The most spectacular recent case in point is the City of Cape Town’s handling of the 2015-2018 drought crisis.

As a literature student and member of the Environmental Humanities South group at UCT during the early stages of the crisis, I was particularly struck by the sensationalist rhetoric that was being used to frame the drought as a deadly face-off between people and the natural world. This rhetoric was cemented by then-mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille’s announcement on 17 January 2018 that the city had reached its point of no return, and that “Day Zero” (that now-entrenched term in South Africa’s vocabulary) was now inevitable.

What intrigued me about this sensationalist performance was not only how it was fostering a spirit of individual survivalism across the city, but moreover how this survivalism was working to conceal a longer history of environmental injustice in the region. The drought, after all, was not an alien threat that appeared out of nowhere. As the author Crispian Olver has written in his recent account of the disaster, the City was in clear knowledge of the drought’s possibility for at least a decade before.

As the City failed to take the necessary steps to prioritise water management in light of this foresight, so too has it failed to bring about adequate transformation. Talk of ‘Day Zero’ in 2018 called to mind the fact that, as the Cape Town-based poet Helen Moffett put it in an open letter addressed to de Lille, “the poor of this country live in conditions close to Day Zero ALL THE TIME”. The 2015-2018 drought was a startling reminder of the ways the dispossessed are forced to bear the consequences of environmental injustice disproportionately.

The City’s sensationalist rhetoric of a grand battle between people and nature within a context of environmental crisis encompassed a story that is invariably complicit with the country’s modern colonial history, one that was neither effective in shifting environmental mindsets nor faithful to the inextricable entanglement of people’s lives in the ecologies they inhabit.

How different would things be if the stories we told ourselves about our place in the natural world were to change, and if these stories were in turn to spill over into political and economic decision-making about people and the environment?

The question may appear inherently speculative to some, but the ability of stories to disrupt the protocols of thinking that constrain decisions about development and environmental management in present-day South Africa is something already on full display. In making this assertion, I refer not only to the artists and poets who have long been invested in disrupting dominant ideas, but also to the activists on the frontlines of environmental struggles, those whose stories boldly challenge destructive development practices while opening up new possibilities for environmental justice.

A stunning example and beacon of hope is once again to be found in the PHA Food and Farming Campaign, which has played a crucial role in challenging the attempts of private developers aided by the City of Cape Town to profit off strategically located farmland in Philippi over the last decade. Plans to develop parts of the farmlands threaten to displace local farmers and degrade the Cape Flats Aquifer, which provides a crucial water source for the city.

I was still a student in UCT’s Environmental Humanities South group when I first visited Philippi and listened to Nazeer Sonday, who heads the campaign. The more I listened and reflected, the more I became convinced that his defiance in the face of destructive development was rooted in a countervailing story about the environment. The struggle in Philippi was not a typical battle over land and resources; to the contrary, it was a contest between competing stories about nature and our place in it.

For Sonday, resistance is a “fertile” event — for those familiar with the campaign, the catchphrase “Resistance is fertile!” will come to mind. A “fertile” resistance is not only one invested in protecting the health of the soil, but also one richly generative of stories with which to reassemble our collective identities at a time of social and ecological uncertainty. Nazeer’s politics and activism has stuck tenaciously to a particular story about nature, one that rejects the environment’s disposability in the name of development by insisting on a narrative about people and the earth as inextricably bound to one another. As Sonday has remarked in the past, we are all “sons and daughters of the soil”, and it is hence our duty to protect it. His vision recalls the activism of the former South African educationist and politician Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, who, addressing the African National Soil Conservation Association in the 1950s, insisted that to “conserve the soil that has been bequeathed to us by a past generation is not an option”.

I found it utterly ironic that while the City of Cape Town was simulating its grand battle against the forces of nature during the drought, Sonday was leading a different kind of battle in Philippi. Sonday was quietly but deftly fighting for a different kind of world. Likewise, I found it ironic that throughout the initial lockdowns in South Africa in the early stages of the pandemic, it was not developers that provided a safety net for those in desperate need of support, but rather organisations like the PHA Food and Farming Campaign, whose fertile farmlands provided a source of nutritious food and security to those who needed it.

If a story could inspire one activist group to challenge public disregard for people and the environment, then how might other stories support the quest for environmental justice?

The PHA farmlands are a critically endangered substance. The tenacity with which developers have pursued the land places the area at perpetual risk of destruction. Nevertheless, the value of Sonday’s activism lies not solely in its ability to challenge developers. On the contrary, its value lies in its demonstration of the ways stories can redefine public engagement with the environment, setting an important precedent for future environmental activists.

Glancing towards the future, it remains to be seen how Sonday’s fertile resistance will spill over into other varieties of South African environmentalism. But equally, as I write, we are witnessing the ability of stories to transform the protocols of thinking about environmental management, as is evident in the array of environmental activist groups springing up around the country.

Call it dreaming, but I feel the power of stories insistently alive and pushing to enter as we spiral into an epoch of increasing ecological uncertainty. DM

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  • Brilliant, but brilliant article! As you fear, so do I. Politicians are failing us, as they fail the world. The fight of a young Scandinavian girl has more meaning than the rest of the human race together. Day Zero is not a catch phrase, it is a reality, and the “one’s that has” fails to recognise such. Soon, the powers of the world, and this country is the worse, will find out what it meant to be on Noah’s ark!

    • I agree, brilliant.
      This makes me hungry to hear more stories, and especially to hear the stories of the coastal communities, of generations of people who have lived through their sea, having livelihoods stolen from them by the poaching cartels, supported by goodness knows who higher up in government. Poaching that supports a massive network of gangsters, drugs and violence and destroys the environment, the resource and lives.
      Wouldn’t it be great to retell that story with the communities able to sustainably fish and sell their precious resources? Imagine being able to eat fresh, locally caught, plentiful perlemoen in our own coastal towns? Imagine the effect on tourism? Imagine the difference to so many lives if fishing villages were allowed to go back to being fishing villages, if people were allowed to care for their own patch of Earth, to love and nurture the sea, rivers, forests?
      Sigh.