Academic journal article Social Justice

Environmental Security and Displaced People in Southern Africa

Academic journal article Social Justice

Environmental Security and Displaced People in Southern Africa

Article excerpt

What Is Unique About South Africa?

SOUTH AFRICA IS OFTEN DESCRIBED AS A DOMINANT COUNTRY IN THE AFRICAN continent, a "world in one country," and the country with the highest level of inequality (for the latter, see, e.g., Wilson and Ramphele, 1989: 18). One of the last African countries to be freed from white minority domination, its position a year and one-half after the first democratic election, although representing hope for the majority of black South Africans, remains precariously locked in a government of National Unity. For over a century, South Africa has enjoyed the status of a superpower in the subregion and has therefore significantly shaped the character of many neighboring countries. Drawing on the cheap and abundant labor from the Frontline States, South Africa treated with indifference the lives of its work force and their abandoned families.

The land area of South Africa makes up only four percent of the total for Africa, with its population accounting for six percent of the African total. Yet South Africa boasts that it generates roughly 17% of the GNP of the continent: 40% of industrial output, 45% of mining production, and 83% of steel production (South Africa Yearbook, 1989-1990). South Africa did not, however, gain its powerful position in Africa without control over and destruction to its neighbors. In pursuing an aggressive policy of destabilization of countries sympathetic to the liberation movements opposing apartheid, South Africa has been responsible for the slaughter of wildlife and deforestation of valuable teak plantations in Angola (in exchange for arms and military support to UNITA), and the deforestation in Zambia, Mozambique, and Malawi that was caused by concentrations of internal refugees resulting from South African support for rebel movements (McCalhim, 1991: 168; Pogrund, 1991: 163-165).

With the euphoria of South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, came the legacies created by a long era of apartheid rule. Despite the supposed affluence in South Africa, it is still very much a reality that children eat food gathered in toxic waste dumps, workers die in factories and mine accidents that could have been prevented, communities choke on the pollution-filled air they breathe, and peasant farmers die of starvation during times of drought.

An environmental justice network forum launched in 1994 has been directed at linking environmental and social justice issues, challenging the abuse of power that results, on the one hand, in the majority of poor people being denied access to natural resources and suffering the effects of environmental damage while, on the other hand, big industry, large commercial farms, and a small minority of the population enjoy easy access to and abuse scarce resources such as water. This may be illustrated by the fact that while South Africa produces 60% of Africa's total electricity output, over 60% of South Africans (80% of whom are black) do not have access to this basic service. The majority of households in Soweto still use coal since it is cheaper and therefore more readily accessible. Air pollution levels over Soweto have been described as among the worst in the world, exceeding the safe limits identified by the World Health Organization (e.g., Kgomo, 1991: 120).

Policies regarding the importation of toxic wastes, the role of transnational companies, and workers' rights to safe working environments had been lax. Thus, shortly after the creation of the Government of National Unity in May 1994, local press headlines were dominated by a scandal of toxic waste importation by the Ministry of Environment. The promotion of trade in international toxic wastes by the Department of Environment not only undermines efforts of African countries to prevent such imports, but it is also a direct assault on the lives of many poor people forced to live in dangerous proximity to such wastes.

The budget of the Department of Environmental Affairs reflects the style of the old regime, with 60 million rands allocated for plant and animal protection, and a mere three million rands for pollution control (Environmental Justice Networker, 1995:2). …

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