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Environmental Activism is not a White Issue

Kriel Power Station in Mpumalanga, an existing coal-fired power plant operated by Eskom. Picture: James Oatway for CER.

During a conference last year I enthusiastically attended all the available sessions, from good governance to peace and reconciliation and human rights. But when it came to the session on Environmentalism, I sat at the back of the conference venue and checked my social media accounts.

I did this because I have always associated environmental affairs and issues with white people. It was always seen as a struggle that white people championed while black people championed anti-racism, socioeconomic equality and an end to workplace discrimination, among others. However, I recently discovered how grossly incorrect I was.

I was interested in understanding why I had these perceptions and stumbled upon the term the ‘green ceiling’ which highlights how mainstream environmental organisations fail to create diverse workforces, because of their assumptions about people of colour and their environmental knowledge. Sylvia Arthur, the editor of Ludic magazine, argues that ‘The movement needs to be more sensitive to difference and inclusive in its outreach, across race, religion and class’.

Environmental writer Brentin Mock says of these organisations that ‘too many believe the poor are too occupied with being poor, or black people are too occupied with being black to be occupied in green organizations’.

I attended a workshop in Springs hosted by Action 24 (Active Citizens for Responsive Legislatures) earlier this week which brought together environmental activists from different parts of Gauteng, Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Western Cape. The workshop focused on increasing public participation in the legislature, responding to sustainability challenges and engaging the legislature in environmental issues.

Based on the main topic of the workshop and the target audience, I was convinced that there would be mainly white participants.

However, to my surprise the room was filled with black participants who had been championing environmental issues in their communities for years, while also championing all other issues experienced by black persons in South Africa.

The hidden stories of environmental activism in South Africa are the stories of black South Africans fighting for the preservation of their communities. One woman shared the story about her community KwaThema which is a township in the East Rand of Johannesburg. KwaThema is undergoing intensive environmental degradation due to a large dumping site, resulting in health problems for the residents.

The dumping site, which is situated in front of Ntokozweni Primary School, is filled with bad smelling and toxic disposed items. The dumping site has degraded vegetation, deteriorated water quality and killed livestock. Children play in these dumping sites.

Another story shared by a man from Rietville, a township west of Johannesburg, explained how the nearby mine is destroying his community. The roofs are rusted, placing residents at risk of diseases, and crops are also affected by the toxic substances used by the mines. As a result of the toxic substances released by the mines, asthma is widespread among the residents.

The final story which stuck with me was about a woman from Riverlea in Soweto who gave birth to twins, one of which died less than two weeks after birth. The lungs of the new-born were destroyed by environmental degradation and the subsequent air pollution.

The truth about climate change is that while everyone is affected, it is the most vulnerable who will carry the heaviest burden. And within the South African context that is poor women of colour. The environmental effects cannot be separated from the other oppressions that poor South African women of colour experience, indicating how oppressions are so often interlinked.

We need to take the same intersectional stance that we take in other social justice issues when engaging the environment. As Genetta M. Adams says ‘Caring about the environment is just as important as fighting for equal rights. After all, without clean air, water and healthy food, we won’t be around long enough to reap the benefits of those social-justice fights.’

What this workshop taught me was that environmental activism is everyone’s issue. We all need to play a role in preserving our environment and promoting a clean environment for all. The stories shared by the comrades at this workshop are matters that our government and civil societies can address.

If we link up as a society and work together by changing the way we live and recognising how oppressions are interlinked then we can impact these affected communities. Remember environmental activism is just as legitimate a struggle as any other. We cannot separate these.

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