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Environment & Natural Resources Company news South Africa

When words aren’t enough: Parties falling short on climate action

In the midst of political alliances with coal lobbyists, environmentalists are urging strategic voting and active citizenship to address the deepening climate crisis and stave off the collapse of natural systems.
Coal mining creates many jobs, but at what cost to the environment? This does not appear to be a question on the tip of tongues of many South African politicians in the run up to the country’s national elections this month. Photo | Somkhele coal mine, KwaZulu-Natal | Rob Symons
Coal mining creates many jobs, but at what cost to the environment? This does not appear to be a question on the tip of tongues of many South African politicians in the run up to the country’s national elections this month. Photo | Somkhele coal mine, KwaZulu-Natal | Rob Symons

Voting is crucial, but South Africa's political parties are falling short on addressing urgent climate and ecological challenges.

In reality, many are "schizophrenic", "bipolar", cozying up to vested interests, or simply "gaslighting" the public rather than addressing real environmental issues like rampant water pollution.

And while some tout radical economic transformation, they really just want to shift beneficiaries within the mineral-energy complex while stubbornly clinging to coal.

This calls for strategic voting this month and continued vigilance and proactive action beyond elections to push for necessary changes.

This was a key take-home message emerging from the latest Tipping Points webinar - the 21st in a series convened by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

Titled "People, place and planet at the polls," the webinar featured Dr Alex Lenferna, general-secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition, and environmental justice activist Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of the WaterCAN initiative. The conversation was facilitated by Julia Evans, a climate and biodiversity journalist for Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet.

When words aren’t enough: Parties falling short on climate action

Lenferna highlighted South Africa’s continued reliance on coal despite international commitments to reduce dependency fossil fuels.

He said South Africa’s power stations remained among the world’s biggest burners of coal despite the country being a signatory to the 2015 Paris Agreement and other climate change related treaties.


Lenferna criticized all major political parties for their handling of climate change and related environmental concerns, and singled out the ANC for its contradictory stance.

He described the ruling party as "schizophrenic or bipolar", citing instances where President Cyril Ramaphosa's announcements clashed with Minister Gwede Mantashe's energy plans favouring coal and gas over renewables.

“On the one hand (President) Cyril Ramaphosa will go on stage and announce big international agreements. The next day his minister of energy will be on a different stage, saying, ‘No we can't do this.’.”

Lenferna said Mantashe’s integrated energy plans would lock South Africa into coal for years to come. “Mantashe wants to unlock massive amounts of gas and scale back renewable energy in a significant way”, he said.

Regarding the Democratic Alliance (DA), Lenferna said he found their manifesto "disappointing" with no clear vision for the country's energy future. “We get no sense from the DA of what our energy future looks like”, he said.


Turning to the Economic Freedom Party (EFF), he acknowledged that radical economic transformation was needed, but doesn’t fancy what the EFF appears to have in mind.

EFF leader, Julius Malema, he said, envisaged a future that was still based on a minerals-energy complex, and was only really interested in changing who benefits at the top, rather than South African citizenry as a whole.

Lenferna was nervous, too, about Malema's demands that his 2IC, Floyd Shivambu - a “big coal proponent” - be made finance minister should the ANC seek to govern in coalition with the EFF.

Former president Jacob Zuma’s MK party was also anxious to keep the coal fires burning, being a clear example of yet another party “in bed with coal lobbyists”.

“I think an MK-EFF coalition is taking shape and this is a little worrying,” said Leferna


So, if South Africa’s politicians are short-sighted about environmental issues, where does this leave the corporates and the country’s well-to-do?

Lenferna had something to say on this too. “As the Climate Justice Coalition we need to think about taxing the wealth and the polluters that have driven us into this mess and that have made some small elites historically rich.”

Water woes

Adam echoed Lenferna's sentiments, emphasising the critical nexus between water, food, and energy. She highlighted the continent-wide water crisis, affecting 230 million Africans, and warned of South Africa's dire water situation. With nearly 70% of wastewater treatment plants malfunctioning and widespread faecal contamination of natural water systems, urgent action was needed to prevent irreversible damage to ecosystems and public health, said Adam.

>> Seeing Red: Water crisis should be SA government’s biggest priority

She said billions of litres of untreated or only partly treated sewage were being released into South Africa’s rivers, with serious consequences for the rural poor who drink this water directly. Furthermore, theft and water leaks and failed infrastructure continued to rob many South Africans of drinking water.


She said a lot of what the ANC professed to be doing to fix such situations did not stand up to scrutiny.

She wrote off the EFF as too centrist in their thinking, and said it was “scary” that the DA viewed water as a commodity and had the idea that climate change, water and environmental issues could fixed through privatisation.

She told the webinar that current concerns with Eskom (although load-shedding is seemingly on pause) pale next to the deep trouble we will face if this water crisis is not urgently addressed.

“With energy, people can go out and chop a tree and burn the fire or get paraffin or gas and solar as you go. There are alternatives. There is no alternative for water. We mess up the water system, we mess up an entire system of food, health, education," said Adam.

And currently, she said, serious water quality issues were emerging across the country, especially in the Northern Cape, where people “should not be drinking water from the taps”.

Active citizenship

She said while there was no silver bullet for South Africa’s water crisis, there’s hope in citizen-driven initiatives like WaterCAN, and other civic organisations springing up around the country, which empower communities to monitor water quality and demand accountability from local authorities.

For example, WaterCAN was advising people in Port Nolloth, in the Northern Cape, and elsewhere, to log water outages and test their tap water quality and to use the bacteria-level results to “confidently challenge” their municipalities, “before they get gaslighted”.

She said it was also important that people write to municipalities, and to the media, to get authorities to sort the issues out.

Both panellists, and Evans, agreed that strategic voting was just the first step, followed by sustained pressure and collaboration essential for driving meaningful change in South Africa.

“People must not forget the power that they have on the ground,” said Adam.

  • This story was produced with support from Jive Media Africa, science communication partner to Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation.

Kemunto Ogutu is a Kenya-based multi-media journalist taking part in the Khetha New Narratives ’24 training project.

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