South Africa is Bracing for an Electoral Storm Over the Climate Crisis (1/2)

May 3, 2019

Prof. Vishwas Satgar provides a climate justice critique of South African political parties: What are the commitments of the ANC, DA, and EFF to a deep, just, life-sustaining transition?

Prof. Vishwas Satgar provides a climate justice critique of South African political parties: What are the commitments of the ANC, DA, and EFF to a deep, just, life-sustaining transition?



South Africa is Bracing for an Electoral Storm Over the Climate Crisis (1/2)

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. South Africans are headed to the polls on May 8th. These elections will be held under the stress of South Africa’s worst drought in recorded history and also under flood conditions where 70 people have been engulfed in the state of KwaZulu-Natal. Now South Africa is on a trajectory to a four-degree increase in global temperatures says our next guest, Dr. Vishwas Satgar. He is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Wits University. I thank you so much for joining us today, Vish.

VISHWAS SATGAR Great. Thanks for having me on your program.

SHARMINI PERIES Vish, you’ve just issued a very important document titled A Climate Justice Critique of South African Political Parties. It is examining what are the commitments of the African National Congress, the ANC, the Democratic Alliance, which is the opposition party, and the Economic Freedom Fighters, among others with some 48 parties apparently running in these elections. Tell us about the conditions under which you are issuing this report and you are hoping it will influence this election?

VISHWAS SATGAR Right. Well the climate negotiations have been very far from the South African context. In 2011, there was a COP meeting in South Africa and that opened up some conversation. But in the main, climate change has been, if you like, routinized within South Africa’s international relations. It’s performative stuff that the South African state does. It does all the symbolic stuff. It’s committed to the Paris Agreement, which is really not an efficacious instrument, and so on. So it’s parked in one little corner in South African society. On the other hand, if you look at what’s been happening in the country, you actually over the past two and a half decades, have massive racialized inequalities that have come about because of a deeply globalized economy. You have structural unemployment that is very stubborn, that is very high in comparative terms. But compounding that, has been one of the worst droughts in the history of our country. The drought has not been taken seriously by the national government. In 2018, three years into the drought, the national government declares this a drought, a national challenge, a crisis, et cetera. But in a context in which our food system collapsed, national GDP took a massive hit. It fit directly— the crisis in agriculture fit directly into the recessionary conditions in the country. At the same time, you haven’t had an ongoing approach to leadership on the ground. Various local governments have been trying to beat the drum. There is provincial governments in the media and even in the international conversation. It’s all been about day zero in Cape Town, but actually it’s been bigger than Cape Town. At least eight provinces have been affected in the course of three to four years of this drought. Over the past year, major towns, smaller towns, key parts of the country have also had water crises. So you’ve had that and it hasn’t become, if you like, something that has been mainstreamed by our media, it hasn’t become something that is evoking national leadership from the state, etc. It’s being treated as another natural disaster. Alongside that, we’ve had major flooding that your insert mentioned. Actually there’s over 80 people that have been killed now in the flooding that hit the province of KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Eastern Cape. Our national Weather Service says, this kind of rainfall, or this kind of weather pattern, is normal this time of year. But actually this intensity, this level of water, etc. is exceptional and the flooding is an extreme shock. The other factor to bring into the conversation is that we had one of our longest fires in the country in a place called George, which is also in the Southern Cape. This was a partly started on a farmer’s property, but there was also lightning that also fed into this fire and it lasted 33 days. I’ve been doing some research on this and what I found was that even our fire services in that part of the country were really ill-equipped. They were facing major constraints to deal with this fire and this had to do with neo-liberalization, fiscal cuts, budgetary issues, and they just had to let the fire burn for 33 days. And then, the last dynamic that’s registering in our context are the massive cyclones, the destructive cyclones that have barreled into Mozambique and parts of Zimbabwe and Malawi. That was Cyclone Idai around March 8th, March 9th. We now have Cyclone Kenneth that has also had devastating consequences. And this is new for the region. It is new for Mozambique. Mozambique has had cyclones historically, but two devastating cyclones within such a short span of time, with such a deluge of water, flooding most of the land surface area for food has been compromised in Mozambique. Over 70 percent of the population relies on subsistence agriculture to survive, and so on. So we have the makings of a climate crisis. We have the makings of climate chaos, if you like, and this election is happening in that context. But none of the political parties are connecting up the dots. They are not reflecting on the drought. They are not reflecting on what’s happening in the region. They are not drawing out any lessons for us as a country on how we should be dealing with the situation. Now—

SHARMINI PERIES Vish, why is that? Is it because it’s such a natural resource and an extractive resource-based economy, and admitting that this is having an impact on the climate is some sort of admittance of defeat?

VISHWAS SATGAR So for the African National Congress, their entire emphasis for the past 26 years has been about globalizing the South African economy and deracializing South African capitalism. That project has reached its limits, it’s exhausted, etc. In the ANC manifesto, writ large is a 20th century conception of industrialization. Now the ANC has ruled over a country in which manufacturing has been shrinking because of globalization. We’ve had a complete restructuring of our economy through winds of competition, and globalization and so on, and it hasn’t worked. So the ANC is talking about industrial development. It’s talking about reproducing the minerals-energy complex. We’ve just had a gas find off our Southern Cape coast led by Total and the ANC is wanting that as a big game changer for South Africa. They even talk the language of fracking, etc. So the ANC after 26 years of, I would argue, mismanagement of the South African economy, wants to now talk about industrialization, wants to talk about the minerals-energy complex, and so on. Now there are powerful interests inside the ANC. There’s a whole process of class formation that has happened around coal mining that feeds into some of the largest coal-fired power stations that we built in the country. There are interests in fracking, there are interests in this offshore oil stuff, etc. So these forces are there inside the ANC. The current president of the country— he comes from mining interests, both directly himself, but also in his family. His brother-in-law is one of the biggest investors in platinum, etc. In terms of the Democratic Alliance, the Democratic Alliance echoes a green neo-liberalism. It does talk about the climate crisis, but in very, very narrow terms, in market centric terms. It talks about the Paris Agreement as the only framework in which we need to address this challenge, which is a very limited framework. It embraces all the marketized solutions. It even talks about carbon capture and storage, untested technologies, etc. So it’s an echo, if you like, of some of the right approaches to the climate crisis. They also have very, very firm alignments with developers and that comes through also in how they understand property issues in the country. They have alignments with commercial agriculture in the country and they have a strong commitment to building more dams, etc. 62 percent of South African water resources are controlled mainly by whites, monopoly agriculture. Its commercial industrial-based agriculture, its export-led, and a lot of our water actually gets exported as well. So the DA is really about ensuring that cash cow continues, and so on. In terms of the Economic Freedom Fighters, they have a section on climate in their manifesto, but this is not very thoughtful. They are talking about clean coal. They are even talking about nuclear. They talk about the energy mix in very clumsy ways. They put out a climate target of reducing emissions by ten percent, but again it’s a thumb suck in the context of the science, in the context of the urgency, and what we really need to do. We have to move way beyond that. The global consensus is a 45 percent minimum cuts in our emissions over the next ten to twelve years at 2010 levels. We need to be more ambitious, etc. So the EFF is really a nativist, nationalist-orientated organization, still locked into an understanding of our minerals’ economy, seeing a resource nationalism very similar in some ways to the ANC, as a way to bring about redress.

SHARMINI PERIES Vish, you spoke of the ANC, the DA, the Democratic Alliance, and EFF, the Economic Freedom [Fighters], but the metal workers’ union in South Africa has also formed a party by the name of Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (NUMSA). It is difficult for unions, where you have a country totally dependent on extractive industries, mining, and the metal workers’ jobs are at stake when it comes to the environment and defending environmental policy. But, NUMSA has managed to navigate that terrain. So where is NUMSA and the new party in terms of these elections?

VISHWAS SATGAR So NUMSA has been really ahead of the curve, both in the South African context, but also internationally as a union thinking through energy alternatives. Not just energy democracy, but more radically, energy sovereignty. And they’ve had two international conferences, they’ve brought experts, they’ve done research, they’ve had study tours, and their whole argument has been about building a socially-owned, renewable energy sector and approach. And in that context, also encouraging a new wave of industrial developments that can happen within our carbon budget, so we can make that transition. So they’ve really reached for, I would argue, a just transition approach. This was rejected by the ANC states and also fed into the rupturing as well that happened in the context of the Marikana massacre mineworkers, realignment of NUMSA out of the alliance, away from the ANC, and so on. But those ideas are very powerful ideas. However, the political party that has emerged from the NUMSA space and the resolutions they took at the end of 2013, it’s a party that is framing itself in a classical Marxist-Leninist kind of way. And it is not talking to some of these issues that are looming large in our society. Of course, it’s picking up on the issue of work. It’s picking up on the challenge of land and addressing the agrarian question, and so on. But in its narrative, it’s recently formed. This thing has just emerged and it’s kind of hothoused, but it’s not shaping the debates around the election. It’s not shaping the narrative of the working class more generally, and the left more generally. And it doesn’t have a strong position on climate and that is a serious challenge. It’s not even articulating the positions of NUMSA very clearly to society. The third issue of course is Eskom, which is the monopoly coal-based energy producer in South Africa. NUMSA organizes in Eskom and there have big debates about Eskom. On the one hand, there is a need to defend workers jobs. There’s anywhere between 30 and 70 thousand workers in the coal industry in South Africa. Those workers’ interests are of paramount and they are very, very important in the context of the just transition. NUMSA’s approach initially, as I said, was very forward-looking, but in the context of the crisis of Eskom— Eskom is in debt for over 400 billion rands. It’s been completely mismanaged. There’s been massive looting. There have been all kinds of dubious coal contracts linked to the Zuma-Gupta nexus of corrupt relations, et cetera, et cetera in South Africa. It’s a parastatal that some argue that’s too big to fail, but it is in crisis. We’ve had rolling blackouts which has also been a factor in the context of this election. And so, there’s an energy crisis and Eskom is sitting at the center of that energy crisis. NUMSA’s response has been a defensive one in that context just to defend jobs, and that’s completely understandable. What it’s not doing though, is making the arguments very clearly that it does have a vision, it does have a bigger perspective, and some of this has been coming through at the tail end of some of this crisis. So there’s an issue there around it communicating and positioning its perspective, which is a very, very important perspective. The other issue is that the state is in crisis management mode around Eskom. It’s just trying to keep the lights on so that we can go through this election period. We don’t have a clear sense of how it’s going to address the Eskom challenge. There has been an attempt to open the window in our national energy mix with Independent Power Producers. We’ve had massive inflows of investment around renewable energy— big players like Siemens, and so on. But this is also a problem. And that’s because the perspective of NUMSA around socially-owned, renewable energy is not coming through in this regard. Some inside the ANC, like our president’s brother-in-law. Patrice Motsepe has investment interests also in renewable energy trust within our national energy mix, etc. So in other words, the situation around Eskom, the situation about renewable energy, is highly contentious and what’s missing is a perspective around a just transition where we recognize the interests of workers and how do we ensure that they are secure? How do we make that transition out of coal? How do we build socially-owned renewable energy, rethink the energy system as part of the just transition, etc.? So there’s a lot of noise. There’s a lot of contention. There’s a lot of conflict around Eskom, the future of energy, etc. But it’s happening in a way that’s not connecting to the larger issues.

SHARMINI PERIES Alright, Vish. We are going to take a break here. Please join me in my ongoing conversation about the May 8th elections in South Africa with Dr. Vishwas Satgar.