The Nation needs more than Band-aids, Mr. President - Giving communities power to demand inclusion in decisions made about their lives is key

Avena JacklinBy Avena Jacklin - 14 April 2020

Government is putting people’s democratic rights to know and to say ‘no’ under sustained attack. Government ministers are dodging their democratic duties to consult people and promote public participation by deliberately excluding communities affected by their decisions. Their constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being is undermined in the process along with their rights to information, free speech and assembly.

Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, attempted pushing through the Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill by publishing it on the 24th of December 2019 when most people were on holiday. That did not work. Seventeen community groups registered their objections to a Bill that favours industry, weakens environmental protections, is heedless of the climate crisis and cuts public participation short.

The Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) then arranged consultations exclusively with corporate and legal respondents for the 9th of March in Pretoria, excluding community groups whose livelihoods, land rights and water catchments will be compromised. Officials said it was each person’s duty to call the department to ask if there was a consultation process and if they may be included. The DMRE had no plan to consult with communities nationally. In the event, the corporate and legal consultation was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into South Africa and the president declared a National State of Disaster.

In a separate process on amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and draft guidelines on the resettlement – that is, removal – of mining affected communities, community consultations in Emalahleni, Mtubatuba and Kriel were called off without explanation. Following a lengthy struggle to access information on the amendments, communities from Springs, eMalahleni, Middelburg, Wonderfontein, Phola and Ermelo gathered to meet DMRE officials at the Witbank Civic Centre on the 12th of March.  

The DMRE, however, did not show up and it was left to municipal officials to tell community delegates that the meeting had been cancelled. Deeply frustrated, people then marched to the DMRE offices to demand an explanation for the cancellation and to establish clear processes for consultation with fence-line communities. With the police present, acting DMRE regional director Mashudu Maduka addressed them and blamed the municipality and the department’s national policy unit for the failure to communicate as they were leading the process on consultations. More police were deployed and communities were asked to leave with no further communications.

These patterns of exclusion run deep through all sectors of our government. At the Durban Climate Change Strategy Workshop hosted by the eThekwini Municipality Council in February, attendance was by invitation only and the most vulnerable communities living near rivers, in congested townships with water shortages, fisher communities, food gardeners and small business were excluded from consultation processes due to what consultant Derek Morgan termed “budgetary constraints”.

There are many ways to engage the public, disseminate information and create awareness, including radio and partnering with community organisations and tertiary institutions that work in these areas. Such means are being used by the presidency during the COVID-19 State of Disaster at no cost to government. In the time of climate crisis – with storm surges, floods, heatwaves, fires and droughts – the most vulnerable will need the most support. But we are not prepared. Government’s response is crippled with inadequate disaster planning and very little in the way of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

On the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy, doubled the Sulphur-dioxide (SO2) pollution allowed from coal fired boilers, raising the minimum emissions standard to 1000 mg/nm3 just five days before the limit of 500mg/nm3, agreed a decade ago, was due to come into effect. The new standard is 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s. The department’s primary intention is to protect Eskom and Sasol, both of which have worked to obstruct implementation of the minimum emission standards.

This is the second time round for the Department. In 2018, it promulgated the SO2 doubling without inviting public comment. groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, then took it to court and the department backed down. It withdrew the measure but immediately published a second notice allowing a minimal 30 days for public comment. This allowed desktop submissions for those with internet but excluded the communities most immediately affected by Eskom’s and Sasol’s pollution.

Lowering the standard will result in a heavy burden of disease including about 680 premature deaths every year. That does not count the impact of COVID-19. It is now well understood that people whose lungs are compromised by pollution are more vulnerable to the virus. And the latest research from Italy indicates that pollution helps spread the virus as it is carried by particulate matter.

The long struggle against the autocratic colonial and apartheid regimes and for a democratic practice embracing human rights, inclusion and transparency is being undermined. The Constitution calls for a participatory democracy that enables all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.  This includes closing the loop through feedback processes and continuous reporting between initial public participation and final action in a form that is responsive to people’s needs.  Freedom of information is fundamental to this process.

This government is the extension of the economic relations of colonialism and, as in the colonial period, it requires restrictions on people’s rights of access to information, free speech and assembly. The path to justice is now cluttered with commercial confidentiality, enshrined in the Competition Act, coupled with state secrecy, with the apartheid era key points repackaged as the Critical Infrastructure Act. The infrastructure in question is mostly the infrastructure of extraction.

In understanding what is possible, what can be done, we look to the landmark case where communities stood firm on their right to say ‘no’. On 22 November 2018, following a long struggle to protect their ancestral land from mining, the Amadiba community won a court ruling that government may not issue a mining license on their land in Xolobeni, on the Eastern Cape coast, without their consent.

Issuing directives, gazetting regulations and granting authorisations while excluding those whom the system makes vulnerable is a disease of a political past that is spreading through the cracks of a negligent and reckless official leadership. Washing, sanitizing and band-aiding will not heal a suffering nation. But developing more resilient communities with the power to demand inclusion in the planning and decisions that are made about their lives and the future of their children will bring us to a more equal, more connected and healthier society a society based on open democracy.

Avena Jacklin is groundWork’s Climate and Energy Justice Campaigner

This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury and Pretoria News. The press clipping can be viewed here.