Part of my work at transparenCI (my small boutique creative agency that specializes in environmental communications) is working with organisations like Fossil Free South Africa to provide community and content management services. With the help and feedback of Fossil Free South Africa co-ordinator, David Le Page, I wrote this piece for their latest blog and emailer:
We have always been clear that at the heart of our campaign to halt all investments in climate-breaking fossil fuels, is the pursuit to advance and protect human rights, not just financial capital.
That is because climate and ecological breakdown is unequivocally a human rights issue. One that does and will continue to affect us all, just not in the same measure.
In 2017, we ran a campaign that shone a spotlight on environmental activists, and those from communities disproportionately affected by fossil fuels.
One such person was Steven Thibedi of the Steenbokpan Community Forum. He spoke out about the joblessness, hunger, and unexplained health issues and illnesses associated with having 14 coal mines in his area. This is just one local example of the intersection of two global crises: racism and environmental breakdown.
Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships for the Sierra Club, one of the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States, explained this recently:
“I really believe in my heart of hearts—after a lifetime of thinking and talking about these issues—that we will never survive the climate crisis without ending white supremacy.
Here’s why: You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism.”
The Steenbokpan community is one such example of a sacrificial zone here in South Africa. There are many others like it, where real people like Steven Thibedi are forced to suffer at the hands of our extractive economy and its duty to white supremacy.
Talk about white supremacy and racism in South Africa, and often people do not understand how it is still so relevant. For many white people, it can bring up feelings of anger, guilt, and frustration.
We know the term “white supremacy” conjures the kind of overt racism marked by insults, violence and white nationalist mobs. But white supremacy is also about social systems that invisibly privilege white people, with or without their conscious and deliberate participation. Racism is not just individual bigotry, but is also a function of long-standing systems and ideas that surreptitiously reinforce privilege for some, whilst being dangerous and deadly for others.
In a country where political power now resides with a predominantly Black government, white supremacy is still something we need to address and dismantle, even though the struggle for human dignity for Black and brown people in South Africa also lies with failures of democratic government.
Structural racism and white supremacy remain very much at play. For example:
- According to a 2017 South African Department of Rural Development and Land Reform Land Audit, white people in South Africa own over 70% of the farm and agricultural holdings in the country despite making up less than 10% of the population.
- Two decades after apartheid, white people still make three times as much as Black people on average.
- People of colour in South Africa are still facing disproportionate amounts of police brutality, forced removals and other forms of state violence. (Think of the Marikana Massacre or the violent evictions in Western Cape and Gauteng that have taken place during lockdown. There are many more examples.)
- Black and brown people are exposed to higher amounts of pollution and lack the same access to natural spaces as a result of the lasting impacts of the Group Areas Act.
- Air pollution from Eskom coal-fired power stations kills more than 2,200 predominantly Black South Africans every year.
Connecting the dots
“I can’t breath” were not just the last words of George Floyd or Elija McClain – who both died as a result of police brutality. These are the words of many people of colour all around the world who have long been suffocated by white supremacy. A grip which now threatens all life on earth.
The beginnings of racism and large-scale environmental destruction have been linked to the dawn of white-settler colonialism and the rise of irresponsible capitalism. Jaime Margolin, founder of youth climate organization This is Zero Hour explains this view:
“Settlers destroyed natural habitats, hunted species to death and brought in invasive plant species that indigenous people and slaves were forced to grow. With colonialism came the extreme extraction of the earth’s resources, and the genocide and silencing of the indigenous wisdom of the peoples that have been keeping this earth alive for centuries. With colonialism came the idea that everything on Earth is for our use, and that everything is to be bought and sold. It enforced the idea that nothing was sacred or priceless. And this mindset is the core of how we got to the climate disaster. Everything has a price tag slapped on it. Even air and water.”
This is an uncomfortable reality for some of us to get to grips with, but when we do, we can embrace the fact that the climate and ecological breakdown that we all face needs to be addressed with different ways of thinking. It can be tempting to focus on climate breakdown alone. That is in itself an overwhelming problem. But to ignore related issues is to set ourselves up for failure and disregards the importance of our shared humanity.
As Hopkins says: “All I know is that if climate change and environmental injustice are the result of a society that values some lives and not others, then none of us are safe from pollution until all of us are safe from pollution. Dirty air doesn’t stop at the county line, and carbon pollution doesn’t respect national borders. As long as we keep letting the polluters sacrifice Black and brown communities, we can’t protect our shared global climate.”
We hope that you, dear Fossil Free SA supporter, will join us in continuing to connect the dots and together work towards a more just and ecologically stable world for all; and to that end, we’re sharing some more resources on anti-racism below.
Black Lives Matter, today and tomorrow, and all the days after.
Climate and racism
- Rock | Water | Life – Ecology & Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa
- Racism is Killing the Planet
- Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issue
- I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.
- Why ‘I can’t breathe’ is resonating with environmental justice activists
- racism is the root cause of our climate crisis
- Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change
- Read Up on the Links Between Racism and the Environment
- Climate change is also a racial justice problem
- ‘Racial Justice Is Climate Justice’: Why The Climate Movement Needs To Be Anti-Racist
- We need to talk about racism in the climate movement
- Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism
- Study Finds Racial Gap Between Who Causes Air Pollution And Who Breathes It
- Scaffolded Antiracism resources
- 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©
- Justice in June
- Black lives matter: links to websites, petitions, organisations (SA + US)
- Okay Africa: 13 of Our Favorite Books On Black Resistance and Revolution
- Anti-racism and other resources by Rachel Ricketts
- For our white friends desiring to be allies by Courtney Ariel
- Anti-racism resources: a document compiled by Sarah Sophie Flicker, Alyssa Klein in May 2020.
- A detailed list of anti-racism resources on Medium
- Dazed: a running list of antiracism resources
- Institutionalized racism: a syllabus
- 10 Documentaries To Watch About Race Instead Of Asking A Person Of Colour To Explain Things For You