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Opinionista

It’s our future — youth demand urgent voice in critical climate change decision-making 

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Sibusiso Mazomba is an Oceanography and Environmental & Geographical Science student at the University of Cape Town and the #CancelCoal campaigner at the African Climate Alliance, the lead applicant on the court case.

The impacts of rapid climate change on present and future generations are not being considered in decisions being made about new coal-fired power.

Present-day struggles for justice and equity for mining-affected communities and vulnerable social groups such as youth paint a picture of democratic participation in decay in South Africa.

This is signalled by a set of symptoms including withdrawal from the electoral process — the bare minimum requirement for representation. The decay is also signalled by social protests in a growing “rebellion of the poor” exacerbated by unprecedented levels of socioeconomic inequality and disenfranchisement. 

Democracy is only as good as its people’s capacity to support and defend it. Capacity to support a robust democracy can only be strengthened by multiplying institutions and discourse that consolidate identification with democratic values — and youth in the #CancelCoal litigation and campaign are already demonstrating this. 

In the landmark youth-led #CancelCoal litigation campaign, young people from across the country are challenging the government’s decision to include new coal in the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2019) which aims to direct the expansion of the electricity supply over a 10-year period. The campaign is premised on the argument that new coal power threatens the rights of present and future generations to an environment not harmful to their health and wellbeing as well as the right to life, dignity, equality, and the best interest of the child.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Resistance to change: SA’s coal lobby pushes back against green transition

In a recent court ruling by the high court of Pretoria, government in the form of Minister Gwede Mantashe’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has been ordered to release records to elucidate the government’s decision to include new coal in the IPR2019.

Preliminary assessments by the legal team from the Centre for Environmental Rights indicate that deliberations in coming to the decision of finalising the IRP2019 were made with the omission of youth voices.

This preliminary assessment confirms conformation to the current status quo of governance in South Africa where the most vulnerable and most affected groups — in this case, young people who are bearing the impacts of climate change presently and into the future — are either not presented with the opportunity to raise their voice and perspectives for their own future in decision-making or are tokenised where their voices are included with no meaningful influence on the design and implementation of policies.

As a result, young people are grandfathered into policy decisions by older leaders who won’t live much longer to bear the consequences of their decisions.

The struggle for participation 

The struggle to participate in the affairs of the state extends beyond young people in the country. Communities in the coal-mining regions of Mpumalanga are at the frontline of South Africa’s just energy transition away from coal. This is because the coal industry is the economic heart of the region, representing 85% of South Africa’s mining jobs or approximately 80,000 people.

However, communities in these regions feel largely left out of plans and processes to phase out coal which bodes significant implications for their livelihoods. Michelle Cruywagen of groundWork, one of the applicants on the #CancelCoal case, notes that while consultations between the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) and community organisations have occurred, communities on the ground have been largely left out.

Cruywagen further notes that a comprehensive worker communication programme aimed at ensuring the exchange of information and ideas between coal entities and employees for the just transition has not been developed, which has raised concerns among mine workers for the security of their livelihoods.

The case for a deliberative democracy 

Representation has long been considered the foundation of efficient governance in a democratic society. Contemporary democratic practice often hinges solely on representation of civil society constituencies by political leaders. This kind of practice ignores the realities of power politics and agenda setting where political leaders may not always act in the best interests of their constituencies — often resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with how democracy is working.

Deliberative democracy becomes clear and compelling in this context as a crucial addition to bare-minimum representation. It ensures that public officials, civil society and other social actors can hold space with and for each other to engage in dialogue, equitably co-create solutions that are grounded in public judgement rather than opinion, and consolidate partnerships towards collective growth, development and transformation of the material conditions of our shared societies.

Crucially, the deliberative model ensures that underrepresented and underserved voices have an opportunity to be heard. In this regard, deliberation acts as a corrective measure to ensure that those who have been historically marginalised or ignored are actively and meaningfully engaged in determining public policy that affects their lives and the future of their communities. 

Embedding the deliberative process throughout the policy cycle, giving citizens the right to demand a deliberative process (even in retrospect), and strengthening forums for citizens to exchange ideas and consider alternative perspectives are some ways in which the deliberative model can be institutionalised. Institutionalising the deliberative model is key to building public trust, making harder public policy decisions better as well as making the deliberative process more resource-savvy. 

Nonetheless, South Africa’s robust institutional design which features a multi-party Parliament and a Constitution that has enshrined public participation (Section 59) should be a sterling case for a deliberative democracy.

But why has South Africa’s institutional design of Parliament not delivered on the promises of deliberative democracy? Christi van der Westhuizen’s paper on democracy as “conflictual consensus” unpacks two factors that remain the driving force: socioeconomic inequality and corruption of elected officials.

Although these may be complex challenges requiring equally complex solutions, a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach through cooperative and deliberative processes can act as a vehicle through which we begin to equitably co-create solutions and radically reimagine the regimen of our societies.  

Amplifying the youth voice

South Africa, as well as other young democracies in Africa, are increasingly calling for the deliberative democracy model which foregrounds voice — consultations and deliberation between the elected and electorate — as the central requirement for a substantive representative democracy.Litigation is increasingly being used as a tool for accountability where those in power privilege personal, party and external interests over the interests of their constituents. 

Communities and environmental organisations on the Wild Coast led a successful campaign against the government’s decision to explore for oil and gas. This was on the basis that communities were not consulted in getting to this decision and due to the fact that the approval of the seismic survey in the ecologically sensitive areas of the Wild Coast would cause irreparable damage to the environment and in turn, the livelihoods, cultural and spiritual practises of these communities.

Young people across the country are also raising their voices for a more inclusive, participatory and sustainable future through a constitutional challenge against the South African government through the #CancelCoal litigation campaign.

While not calling for the shutdown of all coal overnight, the case highlights the fact that new coal is not viable from an economic, social or environmental perspective. The campaign represents a significant step towards amplifying the voices of youth and frontline communities in decisions that affect them.

An online petition has been released to raise awareness of and support for the just energy transition in the country. A supplementary founding affidavit has also been filed in the high court of Pretoria highlighting the higher cost implications of new coal, the lack of consideration of climate impacts of new coal on present and future generations, and the involvement of the minister of electricity in the case.

As political polarisation proliferates and cynicism towards established democratic institutions rises in the face of unprecedented local and global challenges, it is critical to reaffirm our commitment to meaningful citizen engagement.

True participation in democracy cannot be achieved by representation alone. Integrating and institutionalising deliberative practices into our democratic processes is fundamental to cultivating an environment where all citizens can raise their voices, contribute meaningfully to public decisions that affect them, and forge a collective vision for a more just and inclusive society.

It is way past time to move beyond mere representation and embrace the transformative potential of deliberative democracy for the betterment of our shared future. DM

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