The Climate Crisis and a 'Just Transition' in South Africa

These are notes from an eco-socialist-feminist reading I had to do for a local study circle. The words that follow are not my own.

  • The climate crisis presents us with a historic opportunity because to solve it we need radical transformative change in how we produce, consume and organise our lives. It is in this sense that a ‘just transition’ from the current fossil fuel regime in South Africa could both address the climate crisis and contain the embryo of a new, democratic, eco-feminist-socialist order.

  • While there is no blueprint, all three discourses contain flashes of a vision of a post-capitalist society driven by a different energy regime and promote the solidarities necessary to drive transformative change.

  • A major difficulty is that in contemporary South Africa all three discourses are, to some extent, contaminated:

    • Feminism is widely viewed as elitist and individualist;
    • environmentalism as focused on the conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas to the neglect of social needs;
    • and socialism as productivist, authoritarian and repressive

Social Reproduction

  • This chapter argues that the concept of social reproduction is especially relevant to reclaiming these discourses.

    • Politically, a social reproduction perspective validates a wide range of struggles that directly relate to standards of living. These include wages and working conditions, a living income for all, access to housing, healthy food, and communities and households free of violence. Issues such as climate change and other environmental concerns are clearly connected, inviting alliances.
    • directs us to the class-based, material realities of the everyday. As David Harvey writes, ‘the politics of everyday life is the crucible where revolutionary energies might develop’.
    • Thirdly, it focuses us on one of the most serious of the many dimensions of the climate crisis, which we face in contemporary South Africa – the impact of droughts and floods on food production and food prices. The food crisis is defined by the coexistence of hunger, extravagant overconsumption on the part of the elite, and waste.
  • The core of social reproduction is the insight from Karl Marx that ‘the most indispensable means of production’ is the worker and the ‘maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital.

  • The core of the integration of Marxism and feminism lies in this concept of social reproduction. It refers to the complex tasks and processes that ensure the production and reproduction of the population on a daily and on a generational basis. It means meeting caring and provisioning needs, including child rearing, producing and preparing food. In much of this work, a reliance on fossil fuels means additional expense and health hazards.

  • While women’s work is often naturalised, obscured or trivialised as non- work, Marxist–feminist analysis has shown how women’s unpaid care work that reproduces the working class acts as a subsidy for capital. It does so by externalising the costs of social reproduction. The wage labour on which capitalism depends could not exist in the absence of domestic work.

  • Asking who does this work of social reproduction, who benefits and who bears the cost, exposes how power operates and how it is experience in people’s lives.

  • Furthermore, it is black, working-class women who are the shock absorbers of the current climate crisis, experiencing most intensely the health hazards of exposure to carbon emissions and the devastating impacts of rising food prices, water pollution and energy poverty.

Reclaiming Feminism

  • It is a broad generalisation, but feminism is widely seen as problematic and sectarian. In various encounters in the research for this chapter, feminism was described as ‘contaminated’, as ‘divisive’ by depicting ‘men as the enemy’, as linked to lesbianism and as elitist. As one informant said, ‘there is a distrust throughout the southern African region about feminism’.

  • ...intersectional analysis asserts that all forms of oppression are equally oppressive as they have an equivalent value, whereas Marxist–feminism gives a special relevance to class in capitalist society. According to Marxists, class is more than an identity category; it is a relational category, part of a system of power relations, a constituent of capitalist accumulation.

  • Reclaiming feminism and achieving gender justice means challenging capital’s dependence on women’s unpaid labour in social reproduction and experimenting with alternative social forms, institutions and practices outside of capitalism, such as collective arrangements for child-care; cooperatives; bulk buying; decentralised, community-controlled forms of renewable energy; the development of ‘people’s restaurants’; community food centres and seed sharing, to mention a few examples.

    • It means promoting solidarities with working-class women’s struggles against oppression in the work-place and beyond.
  • Current organisational initiatives with specifically feminist perspectives include WoMin (Women in Mining), a regional alliance of organisations formed in 2013 which emphasises the theme of solidarity among African women against extractivism . WAMUA, the Women’s Wing of Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA), focuses on the impact of mining on livelihoods in Mpumalanga, which contains the most fertile land in the country.The Rural Women’s Assembly, formed in 2009, brings together some 500 community-based organisations working on food, energy and land issues.

    • These organisations are building solidarities, organising exchange visits across Africa, directing protest actions and promoting alternatives to fossil fuel capitalism, such as ‘food banks’ which operate as redistribution mechanisms, biogas digesters, solar heating, seed saving and agro-ecology.

Reclaiming Environmentalism

  • Analogous to ways in which feminism has been somewhat ‘contaminated’ by its associations with elitism and many activists are reluctant to call themselves ‘feminists’, ‘environmentalism’ and the label of ‘environmental activist’ also carry negative connotations from the past. Author's note: I believe these negative associations don't exist in Pakistan. However, our popular environmental discourse is reduced to discussions about planting trees and picking trash. There is also the notion that global warming and carbon emissions is more of an "international" issue and not something that is relevant in our local politics.

  • Earthlife Africa, which focuses on climate change, the impact of coal mining (especially on food security), the cost of electricity and the dangers of nuclear power, is empowering grassroots women. According to an Earthlife Africa official who founded a Women, Energy and Climate Change Forum,

    • people were having problems with pre-paid meters. The majority of people in the protest marches and memos to the authorities were women. We focused on education, on the impacts of climate change. We connected electricity with women’s everyday issues.
    • we had to demystify policy, especially climate change and energy policy which is often written in scientific, technical language. We had workshops, we went to people’s homes, we met with parliament, Eskom and government. We insisted on using our own language. So people became confident. Young women are beginning to stand up and feel confident about talking about energy issues.
  • Another initiative which is empowering grassroots women involves concretising the food–water–energy nexus through Earthlife’s Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project. On seven sites throughout the country, the project is establishing renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and biogas digesters, as well as tanks for rainwater harvesting and food gardens. The focus of this project is on building resilience to climate change but it also demonstrates a post-carbon future.

  • These are examples of how the Marxist–feminist stress on social reproduction validates other struggles, particularly the struggle for environmental justice. The explanation of women’s preponderance in these environmental struggles is not essentialist; it is not based on any natural affinity which women have with nature. The explanation lies in the gendered division of labour which allocates women to caring work.

  • Women’s experience in the production and provision of food could mean that they are more positioned to promote a new narrative about our relationship with nature – a revaluing of nature as something more than a store of natural resources for economic activity to be utilised for short-term gain without concern for long-term survival.

  • Millions of poor, black South Africans are exposed to what Rob Nixon (2011) has called ‘the slow violence’ of toxic pollution in a process which is insidious and largely invisible. Many black South Africans continue to live on the most damaged land, in the most polluted neighbourhoods, often adjoining working or abandoned mines, coal-fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites or polluting industries, without adequate services of refuse removal, water, electricity and sanitation.

  • Recently, the notion of ‘environmental inequality’ has emerged ‘to encompass additional factors associated with disproportionate environmental impacts such as class and gender ...’ (Sze & London 2008: 1333). The discourse is a powerful challenge to the anodyne concept of sustainable development, and the increasing commodification and financialisation of nature, packaged as ‘the green economy’

  • It has been suggested that racism is one reason for the failure of twenty-one years of international negotiations to achieve any binding global agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions: ‘... racism is what has made it possible to systematically look away from the climate threat for more than two decades’. Furthermore, racism also makes it possible to look away from Africa, which contributes only four per cent of global carbon emissions but is the worst affected by climate change. Author's note: replace Africa with South Asia and the statement rings equally true

    • Paradoxically ‘there is no clearly identifiable, relatively unified and broadly popular environmental movement in South Africa. instead, environmentalism is fractured and diverse and much popular mobilisation is related to access to services, such as water and energy, and is localised, episodic, discontinuous and not framed as ‘environmental struggles’.
    • However, a new, embryonic environmental justice ‘movement’ could be emerging.
  • All over the world, environmental justice struggles are challenging neoliberal capitalism. The particularistic and ameliorative nature of many of these struggles means that the challenge is not immediately evident. ‘Contesting a waste dump here or rescuing an endangered species or a valued habitat there is
    in no way fatal to capital’s reproduction’ (Harvey 2014: 252). But, as an understanding of the ecologically destructive impacts of capital’s logic of expansion spreads, particularly in relation to carbon emissions, this could change.

Reclaiming Socialism

  • for many people socialism is discredited because its claims have been marred by a history of authoritarianism, productivism, human rights abuses and environmental destruction. In the Soviet Union especially, ‘productiv- ist methods, both in industry and agriculture, were imposed by totalitarian means while ecologists were marginalised or eliminated’

  • Furthermore, twentieth-century socialism denied many freedoms and rights, especially the right to disagree. The vanguardist, anti-democratic practices of the SACP illustrate this, in addition to an emphasis on indus- trialisation and economic growth that ignores environmental issues and promotes a ‘statist’ approach to social change.

  • Both globally and locally many activists now talk only of ‘anti-capitalism’ because socialism has been stripped of its earlier positive meanings. The out- come is that today, much of the global opposition to capitalism is reduced to protest rather than the formulation of alternative visions.

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