Government accountability and citizen agency in South Africa’s run-up to COP17

This is the final instalment of our conversation with Ms. Makoma Lekalakala, Programme Officer of Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg. Ms. Lekalakala spoke with CIVICUS about the role of the South African government in the COP17 negotiations, the citizen push for accountability and the future of the local climate justice movement after the COP has left Durban. You can read the first instalment of the interview here.


What does it mean for South Africa to have the COP here?

People are hopeful and link the process outcomes  to the South African struggle and the overthrow of apartheid. Discussions around coming up with a Convention have taken nearly 16 years, and it’s been a long 16 years. Cynics of the process always remark that “the Conference of the Procrastinators is coming to Durban to procrastinate more.” A lot of people who are not clued into the actual discussions … don’t realise it’s still going to take time for the Convention to be agreed upon. Maybe a miracle will happen; people may agree on everything because they’re coming to Mandela-land, and here’s this great man who has proven that, against all odds, reconciliation is possible - that there’s no need for a transition entailing blood, war and guns. This is great for the world to witness, and we live in that. So maybe something may happen.

Makoma, you sound cynical

It’s possible that something can happen. People all over the world who have been following the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], when they say “South Africa” they have hope. But for those on the inside it’s not positive. From the analyses that we get, even from our government and other sources, there’s no hope that a Convention will be reached in Durban. However, people all over the world are hoping that the miracle of a legally binding agreement will happen in South Africa. That’s also what I would want, because I can’t stand burying people every day. I can’t stand people going hungry. I can’t stand people being sick. If we have that legally binding agreement, it will bring us closer to saving the planet, and will help us live a better life. Without that agreement, we’re doomed.

Short of a miracle happening and everyone agreeing to a fair, ambitious and binding treaty, is there something good that can come out of this Conference?

Short of that, there are things that can come out that are good. I would love it if, out of the Conference, a second commitment to the Kyoto Protocol were agreed upon. I would love it if the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements were not used to reverse negotiations towards an agreement on Climate Change.  What I think is also important for Durban is for African voices, ordinary people in Africa, to be able to send their message to the negotiators; this is our only chance to do that. The South African government has said they wanted to make this a “People’s COP” due to the fact that, throughout the previous negotiations, ordinary civil society voices have not been heard. Remember that within the UNFCCC itself there are those civil society organisations—big international NGOs—who have the luxury of interacting with different movers and shakers within the UNFCCC space trying to lobby them. Lobbying is a very important and powerful tool used by international organisations, but at the end of the day most of them cannot say, “We’re representing the voices of ordinary people.” Most of them come in as bureaucrats from NGOs, but these organisations largely cannot relate to people on the ground although their work and action assists people on the ground to understand what’s going on. . Some of these people can’t go to somebody in Thokoza and explain how the UN Convention will be beneficial to them. It’s unlike when an ordinary person goes to the negotiations and talks to these people. If someone who lives in Uganda comes to you as a negotiator and says to you, “My whole family is dead because of drought. We don’t have food, even our animals are dead, the grass is brown, and here are the pictures if you want to see them,” that has much more impact than the person who goes and lobbies.  

So when you say the People’s COP, do you think that the voices of the people can get to the decision-makers in this? What can we be doing?

People’s organisations ranging from community based organisations , women’s groups , religious , youth and environmental justice organisations have organised a parallel meeting space near the  ICC where the UNFCCC will be meeting. This is being organised by the national committee of civil society organisations that have been tasked with the planning for civil society engagements inside and outside the COP. The space will be a coming together of ordinary people in solidarity to share, inform, learn and educate each other. From there, they’ll engage in the march on 3 December, the Global Day of Action. I think that’s an important part of how people can express themselves. It’s large numbers of people, ordinary voices, local people, sending a message. Maybe that will bring some pressure on the negotiators. I believe some of the messages will get through.

Tell me a bit about Bolivia

Bolivia’s stance around climate justice—a legally binding agreement for temperatures to go down, not 2 degrees, but 1.5 degrees, and the country has called for Northern countries to take responsibility for the ecological damage, for the kind of emissions they’ve been pouring into the atmosphere for all these years. They don’t believe in what is called “carbon trading,” or what we call “privatisation of the air” where you can just emit and pay for it because you have money. I think generally Bolivia believes in what most ordinary citizens in the world would get behind as “climate justice”, not on false solutions.

What do you think about that?

The South African government is one of the leading negotiators, and it’s well-respected. But its role has been a bit complicated. Even though the meeting will take place in South Africa, we’ve had a lot of people criticizing South Africa and South Africans by saying we don’t behave like we’re in Africa—that we tend to behave like we’re in Europe or the Americas compared to the rest of the African people… South Africa sometimes dictates, or they go on with positions that are not supported by other African countries. As the people of South Africa and of Africa, this is our opportunity to challenge our government. I think the South African government is trying to be very diplomatic at the expense of the whole of Africa, and that is not getting anyone anywhere. It’s actually taking us back, because Africa is the continent that is and will be hardest hit by climate change. South Africa is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions, they are there with the negotiators, and if they wanted to create a miracle they could create it tomorrow and come up with a Convention. For us, we need to expose them for talking right and moving left.

So you’ve explained what it means to the outside world to have the COP in South Africa, but what are the implications of hosting for South African citizens?  Can it mean pressure for more national government accountability?

This is a moment of reawakening for South Africans…. It’s an opportunity for those of us who are involved in raising awareness, and it’s an opportunity also for the government to communicate with its citizens about what they’re doing around climate change. Also, it’s an opportunity for us to be able to stand up and identify who the real culprits are, and hold them accountable! To make them right their wrongs. We have industries in this country that have gotten away with murder, like Sasol and Eskom [the South African electricity public utility]. The kind of practices that Sasol employs at their plants, what they’re doing now, they should be taken to court! And them being taken to court, it requires us as ordinary citizens to stand up and do it. Let’s not wait for another person to die before we hold these people accountable.

You talked earlier about pressurising the government as the thing that ordinary citizens in ordinary communities can do. What is it that you want people to do? Is it letter-writing? Is it rallies?

As I said, you take people along, and you let them decide. It’s very important for them to decide. People think in many different ways, they’re able to pressurise the governments in one way or another.  You have to work with the people on the ground, if something can be done collectively. You have to talk about what you think is important and ask people what they agree with, and hear what they don’t.  The power lies in the communities, not with international NGOs, that speak on people’s behalf rather than people speaking for themselves.  I agree that it’s important to be organised and create networks and solidarity. However, there is a worrying trend where you find ordinary people’s voices undermined. People have the power and are full of initiatives of engagement and challenging injustices. If people decide to write letters , have rallies and marches and challenge those in ‘power’ at meetings, that’s good enough! This will be what the victims feel is right to do at various times.

Do you think this will be the People’s COP?

I don’t know what the programme will be for the South African government, but you know our governments like grandstanding. They can grandstand and convince everyone that communities and civil society were part of this COP, and that it was the People’s COP. And they can spin that. If it’s a People’s COP, is it the kind of People’s COP where ordinary voices of people will be allowed to be part of the formal sessions?

Will they?  What’s the structure?

Maybe there will be special kind of access made for ordinary people to go. But I would really love to see the South African government doing something totally different from what’s happened in the other UNFCCC COPs. Like, perhaps the opening of the COP itself could include getting citizens of this country to talk to the negotiators and relate what our hopes are. Those would not be the hopes of South Africans only; it would be the hopes of the whole of Africa and the whole of the world, of all people who are living in vulnerable conditions. If the South African government does that, I would love it, and I’m not sure if that would change the speed of coming up with a Convention.

So finally, there is a reason to be hopeful about this COP’s potential results?

Hopefully voices of the people in the continent hardest hit by impacts of climate change will be heard!

Do you think that’s possible?

South Africa is full of possibilities.


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