Decolonizing the South African climate movement

In South Africa, white climate groups are detached from broader struggles for economic justice and equality.

Ashraf Hendricks via Ground Up CC BY-ND 4.0 Deed.

The notion that climate change is a class issue is not a new discussion. Yet the disconnect between the movements for socio-economic justice and climate justice seems to persist with no success in sight. The climate crisis and economic inequality stem from the system of capitalism and neo-colonialism, and if we don’t fight them as one collective struggle the South African climate movement’s fight against climate change will never be won.

To deal with this, we need to establish not only who, but where the climate movement can actually be situated within the sphere of class and race politics in this country. It does, in reality, cross classes: it ranges from Constantia soccer moms stopping at Woolworths (an affluent supermarket)  to pick up chia seed crunchies in their new Jeep SUV, to rural cattle and vegetable farming families in the North West province living just above the poverty line. Rural communities have been fighting the government and the monstrous, multinational extractive industry for decades; the problem is not that the black and working-class fight against climate change is weak. On the contrary, it has grown to be part of a regional and international struggle, won court cases, such as the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC) battling titanium mining in the Eastern Cape, and frightened the most powerful to the point that activists such as Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, chairperson of the ACC, and Fikile Ntshangase, a grandmother who had been fighting the Tendele coal mine in Kwazulu Natal, were gunned down.

But who cares? And why?

The voices of the black upper middle classes are but a whisper, and the voices of the general working class, aside from those in unions and those directly affected by mining projects, are muted; they likely see climate change as a white, middle-class issue, almost an insult. Why would these people show so much passion for a cause that affects the environment and not the people, cleaning up plastic from beaches, when there are throngs protesting for essential services and basic human rights, such as toilets, clean water, and decent wages.

One of the difficulties in South Africa’s climate movement is white climate activists—constituted largely by groups like Extinction Rebellion and Oceans Not Oil—who, unlike poor communities fighting extractive projects, have stepped into the world of post-Apartheid mass climate change protests relatively recently. Although few in number, they pull numbers when needed, by playing to the soft spot (the environment) of their white constituencies.

But instead of supporting the narratives of working-class activism against economic inequality, and highlighting interlinked issues in the fight against climate change (ultimately against the neo-colonial legacy of Apartheid and the capitalist system), white activists are fighting the climate crisis using narratives of the global North, with detached, scientific targets focused on the end of the burning cycle, a global phenomenon, and not the impacts on people at the initial phases, like landgrabs, forced removals, environmental devastation, corruption and loss of livelihoods and greater poverty. They are also well-funded and highly visible, with their protests taking place in central business districts and with significant media attention so that even if they do not constitute the largest part of the climate movement, they are perceived as such.

By not recognizing this unequal power dynamic, white climate activists fail to see that their rhetoric plays a part in delegitimizing the working class struggle. For example, Extinction Rebellion emphasizes in the mainstream and social media its strategy of “non violence;” it does not recognize that this makes all other resistance appear violent. When this happens it is because of violence by the police, violence they are able to carry out because these protests are on the outskirts of the city, and Black lives still matter less in the media.

This perception and short-sightedness from white activists have allowed the fossil fuel and mining lobby to undermine legitimate arguments and struggles against climate change-causing projects, which was clear during the Shell Must Fall protests in 2021 when Shell was attempting seismic drilling off South Africa’s Wild Coast. At these protests, there were few placards mentioning the fishing communities that would lose their livelihoods, the economic injustice caused by fossil fuels, or any impact on inequality, human rights, or people; the visible demands were calls to protect the environment, oceans, and undersea life. It provided a space for Gwede Mantashe, South Africa’s Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, to object to these developments as “apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection,” with his emphasis being that economic benefits to the country trump environmental impacts, and implied that fixing the climate and economic crises are mutually exclusive. He was ultimately claiming that climate activists and climate NGOs are not just removed from the everyday fights of the poor, but that they are against them.

The climate crisis is a class issue, and reality is showing every day that around the world, climate change affects the poorest, and exacerbates socio-economic inequalities. South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa described the floods in Kwazulu-Natal in 2022 as a “catastrophe of enormous proportions” and “the biggest tragedy we have ever seen.” When the poor suffer the loss of their possessions from floods and fires, they end up spending money to rebuild their shacks and badly constructed homes, with little to no help from the state. When a devastating drought hit Cape Town in 2017, the poor, unlike many white, middle-class Capetonians, could not afford to drill boreholes,  or travel from the outlying Cape Flats to the springs at the foot of Table Mountain to access free water, forced, instead to purchase expensive bottled water.

The vast majority of white climate activists remain entirely detached from the mostly black, working-class struggles against structural inequalities and vulnerabilities, which are intertwined with and exacerbated by the climate crisis. Until white climate activists recognize the legitimacy of the broader struggle for social justice, support from the working class, so vital to ending climate destruction, will not be guaranteed.

Further Reading