Opening address by groundWork Director, Bobby Peek, at the launch of the Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network

19th July 2018 - Ladies and Gentlemen, members and friends of Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network

I would like to thank Mmathapelo Thobejane for inviting groundWork to say a few words at the launch of the Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network.  We are proud to be associated with you and humbled by this request. 

Yesterday was Tata Madiba’s centenary year.  Many people invoked his memory and his good deeds, maybe to drown their failings with the good that still emits from Tata Madiba in the afterglow of his life.  This indeed is sad, for we need to make our own good, taking from his example.

I want us to reflect on what Madiba left us. What have we done with this freedom?  What have we done with this hope?  What have we done with this courage, the courage that we can take on the world and succeed? There are many Madiba stories about how he influenced people to take actions.  Indeed, I want to at the outset say that one of the oldest community environmental justice networks in South Africa, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, emerged from a chance encounter with Madiba in 1995.  It is this network and the very many more community environmental justice networks around South Africa that SEJN is now a part of, that keeps the true meaning of freedom, hope and courage alive.  From the Highveld Environmental Justice Network, to the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, from the Karoo Environmental Justice Movement to the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, in all parts of South Africa community people are starting to organise as SEJN is doing.  I bring solidarity and well-wishes from all of them!

But challenging power is never easy.  Our democracy was hard fought for and many people died to give us our democracy so we must at all times remain vigilant and not allow ourselves to lose it.  In the euphoria of the early democracy it was Chief Justice Albie Sachs that warned us of forever remaining vigilant and making sure that “when we breathe the air of freedom let us hope that we do not choke on hidden fumes”.  It is this warning that I carry around with me as I work with and meet the very many courageous community people from all parts of South Africa and Africa who challenge power. For in our democracy, we have come to realise there are hidden fumes.  Not only in the literal sense, which is the air pollution we breathe daily, and the water pollution that kills our animals, but also in the inability of government to deliver justice to the pensioners, the school children and the very many people who live in shack settlements throughout the country.   

As I stand before you here today, I am proud to be associated with the Sekhukhuneland Environmental Justice Network.  I got to know Mmathapelo through the groundWork Environmental Justice School that she attended in 2016.  She told us about the deep rural area where she lives which is dotted with mines. The land was originally “farming land”, but “mining has wrecked the land”. She told us of streams that are polluted and that people are no longer interested in farming. She told us how land has been taken away and people removed, “and their graves as well”. She spoke about how people are being excluded from decision-making.  The story she told us was not unique to Sekhukhuneland.  Indeed it is a story of mining throughout South Africa, Africa and the world.  Mining is not development.  Mining is an extractive exercise and even the World Bank recognises that countries are poorer for mining, rather than developed and wealthier.  So the evidence is there, but challenging power and stating the obvious is a dangerous activity.  And the evidence is here in the platinum belt where for many years people have struggled against the impacts of mining.  Ten years ago I was here when people were blockading the road to stop mining vehicles coming in - and they were arrested.  

As I stand before you today, the struggle by people as they oppose mining and bad developments is increasing.  Along with this comes violence against those saying no to mining.  On the Wildcoast in the Eastern Cape, ‘Bazooka’ Rhadebe was murdered because he and the Xolobeni community did not want mining in their area.  In Somkhele, KwaZulu-Natal community people who have resisted the mine have had their properties destroyed.  Just last week Mr D Shange, an activist who had opposed a relocation of the community in KwaDube in KwaZulu Natal was murdered. KZN violence monitor Mary de Haas has reported that people living on this land have been informed by various authorities that they must be relocated to accommodate onshore mining operations between Mthunzini and Richards Bay. According to De Haas, Mr Shange was shot dead, execution-style, on 11 July when travelling home from Esikhawini. Of the companions he was travelling with he alone was targeted.

In another case, there is an escalating campaign of social media attacks by those associated with an Mpumalanga mining project, on a number of South African environmental rights organisations, including groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights who SEJN works with. The campaign is led by the senior vice president of Indian-owned mining company Atha-Africa Ventures Pty Ltd, which is facing multiple legal challenges from these organisations to its applications to mine coal in a strategic water source area and protected environment in Mpumalanga.

But this is not only here in South Africa.  In Honduras, one of our allies, Berta C├íceres was murdered because she and her community were against a big dam development.  There are many such cases.  In India, Russia, Indonesia and I can go on.  It is reported in the Guardian that 197 people were killed last year for defending land, wildlife or natural resources, according to new Global Witness data. This is four deaths a week of people who are defending their land and environments.  So the challenge is big and we have to have the courage of Madiba and the very many others who died for our democracy to challenge the powerful.  But you are not alone.

Today I bring well wishes and solidarity from all of the 74 Friends of the Earth country offices, from Palestine to Brazil, from Sweden to Australia and from Mozambique and Nigeria to mention a few.  In these countries organisations like groundWork, who is the Friends of the Earth chapter in South Africa, works with people such as yourselves and organisations such as SEJN to ensure that we campaign on today’s most urgent environmental and social issues. We “challenge the current model of economic and corporate globalisation, and promote solutions that will help to create environmentally sustainable and socially just societies.   We do this so that we can have a peaceful and sustainable world based on societies living in harmony with nature.  We envision a society of interdependent people living in dignity, wholeness and fulfilment in which equity and human and peoples' rights are realised.  This will be a society built upon peoples' sovereignty and participation. It will be founded on social, economic, gender and environmental justice and be free from all forms of domination and exploitation, such as neoliberalism, corporate globalisation, neo-colonialism and militarism.  We believe that our children's future will be better because of what we do.”  Indeed this is what SEJN and the very many other community environmental justice organisations are doing daily.  They are on the frontline.

I also bring well wishes from the Global Greengrants Fund whose vision is “achieving global environmental justice, rooted in cultural integrity, led by communities and grassroots movements.”  This is SEJN - this is you.