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New Year Message from groundWork Director, Bobby Peek.

How does one approach 2021?  Writing about our fears or predictions? Or seeking hope?  I finally settled on the latter.  I am not qualified to make predictions; there are many out there who are more informed.  But like millions of others who want a more sustainable existence with the earth, I am hopeful that ongoing activism worldwide can slowly chip away at the chains of power and greed.

As Pablo Solón, Bolivian activist and ex-diplomat, put it, “2020 wasn’t the worst year, it was just one of the beginnings of the systemic crisis.  Hope is not in the year that begins but, in our ability, to change and subvert the ‘normality’ that brought us here. The year 2020 brought to the fore with clarity the reality that system change is needed".  Like Solón, my hope lies in our ability to change and subvert the old normal, and start creating a new normal, and we do this first by stopping the foolishness of the past, and through this, create the justice for the future.  

In the soon to be released annual groundWork Report 2020, we uncover the fact that state expenditure cuts in the crisis impacted those that most need state support.  The national electrification programme aimed to increase access for energy poor households was trimmed to respond to the crisis and, more alarmingly, Treasury warned that budgets would not necessarily be restored in subsequent budgets. Other cuts fell on human settlements, education and transport.  This is on top of a reality that the number of working age people without employment reached 53% (16.5 million people) at the peak of the lockdown in April, up from an already catastrophic 43% (13.7 million people) pre-Covid in February, and was not reduced with the easing of lockdown in June, according to the National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey.  Furthermore, in April 2020, the first month of lockdown, 47% (nearly half) of households ran out of money for food during the month.  There was a slight improvement after lockdown was eased.  But, as we have come to realise, from watching the global reality and our own local experience, we are in this crisis for a long haul.  There is no silver bullet – vaccine – that is going to save us; we need to change the way we live on this planet we call home.

And because it is our only home, I am hopeful that we can steady this shaky reality, reset it and create a better world for all. 

Justice can be obtained and although moves towards this end are slow, there are indeed signs of hope.  In a significant development, the Escazú Agreement amongst Latin American and Caribbean countries, a regional treaty for protection of the environment and environmental defenders came into effect in November 2020.   We must remember both ‘Bazooka’ Radebe and MaFikile Ntshangase were killed on our doorstep. The state is yet to act meaningfully on their cases, and thus their murderers are still at large.  

The intimidation of activists and their lawyers must stop, as in the case of Australian mining company Mineral Resources Commodities who are accusing staff of the Centre for Environmental Rights of alleged defamatory statements made in relation to its current Tormin operations on the West Coast, and its proposed Xolobeni operations in the Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape.  We do not fear – ‘Asina Loyiko’ – corporate bullying.

The absurdity of seeking more fossil fuel to burn must be stopped.  The Italian oil giant, ENI, went into overdrive last year with corporate spin and promised ‘a restructuring of its business operations, with a strong focus on incorporating renewable energy and wide-spread energy efficiency, as well as decarbonisation efforts on an “irreversible path” to make the company “leaders in the energy transition”.’  However, as is the case with Sasol, this commitment is not practised on the ground, but is unfortunately supported by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy who dismissed an appeal by 47 appellants to stop them drilling for oil and gas off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

Fracking must be recognised for what it is – a failed false hope for future energy.  Fracking for gas has been contested globally, and annually more local governments and national governments are banning or putting in place measures to ensure fracking does not take place.  Yet in Africa, our governments continue to succumb to corporate spin by facilitating the push by northern based corporates to seek profits in the global South.  Africa is termed the final frontier for oil and gas and the Okavango area an ‘onshore sweet spot’.  In South Africa, despite fracking being on the cards since the late 2000s, it has yet to get off the ground and every step towards fracking is contested by communities and activist; a sign of encouragement.

Our reliance on mining for a stable society and economy must be once and for all abandoned.  There is a false premise that economic growth leads to stability and prosperity in society.  The community and legal challenges against coal mining in the Mabola and Somkhele areas continue.  It is these areas that are the struggles of today that force the government to recognise that years of mining has made South Africans poorer.  Furthermore, ask the many families destitute in rural areas of South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni need to create a better economy for South Africa, divorced from mining. 

Eskom can ditch coal.  Today, Eskom even has a Just Energy Transition vision, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago.  Two years ago the ANC promised to reposition Eskom to play an active role in the renewable energy sector and promote public ownership in renewable energy infrastructure.  We hope that 2021 is the year that this becomes a reality, and coal is ditched and Eskom becomes truly answerable to the public that owns it.

Another sign of hope is that financial institutions globally and in South Africa are being forced to turn away from funding coal as pressure from investors mounts.  This is a momentum that has to be built upon to get finance for all fossil fuel ventures stopped.

A just transition starts in a meaningful way.  By this we mean building a new energy system away from reliance on fossil fuels; rehabilitating and restoring mining-damaged areas; creating a healthy food system based upon food gardens; ensuring people control rather than reliance on corporates; rebuilding old and building new settlements that deliver meaningful services to people and which will stand the impact of climate change – floods and very hot weather – and creating decent work and protecting the income of retrenched workers.  This must be supported by the final development and agreement on a basic income grant.  

So there is hope that things can change, and indeed they must.  We can ‘subvert the normality’ that bought us here.  Let us start by having an open democracy at the core of our actions.  We will not be able to undertake the journey of a just transition in any other way.

This is my hope.

Bobby Peek