Climate change in South Africa: What it means, and who cares?

Social activist, Makoma Lekalakala*, recently sat down with Elizabeth Hira, of CIVICUS’ Policy Unit, to discuss climate change from the perspective of South Africans, the task of mobilisation, and the role of women in climate justice.

Can you give us a bit of background on Earthlife?

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg is a voluntary environmental justice organisation founded in 1988 during the Apartheid era. Earthlife has six projects: the sustainable energy and climate change partnership (which I work for as a Programme Officer) and the other projects are, zero waste, anti-nuclear, biodiversity, animal rights, and acid rain drainage. The last project has resulted from this issue cropping up in the last few years around residue from the mines, because most of the mines were not decommissioned, so some of the chemical residues are eating pipes and the water is getting polluted, the primary mission of the organisation is to educate, create awareness and lately to build a movement on environmental justice issues.


So, what is climate change according to you and why does it matter?

Climate change is a long-term variation of weather patterns over a period of time. That’s exactly what people are experiencing, so that’s the simplest scientific explanation. We hear a lot of definitions from the outside. Some people don’t believe climate change is happening, so they interpret what they’re seeing in different ways. Some people say our gods are angry, because of all the turmoil we’re seeing in the world, wars and so on. Some say the things we see in climate change, the droughts, floods, are because we’re coming to the end of the world. But I confine myself to the scientific explanation, which makes the most sense. And with that definition, you can actually trace back from the early 900s to now, you can see the rate at which the earth was warming, and you can monitor emissions to see why the weather patterns are getting much more extreme. So, aside from those people who might just blame sinners, my duty here, as a person who works with mostly community-based groups from different orientations, is to demystify what their beliefs are, and to talk about the reality, and have a backing based on what science has confirmed.



A big theme we’ve run into is people not being able to connect directly with what climate change is, especially if they’re not scientists or activists. Can you talk about what the process is to demystify climate change?

For us, it’s to link up the impacts of climate change with people’s actual experiences on the ground. So, for instance, we have popular workshops where people live, meeting them in their own communities. We ask, what actually are their issues? Poverty, food security, lack of water etc. There are various issues you can use to link up to the bigger picture. A problem we have is with the term climate change—a lot of people have not heard about it. So we speak about the realities of climate change, and people see it and link it up to their everyday struggles. The social issues people are faced with now, for instance, health issues, can be directly connected to climate change. Because of the varying weather patterns, people have now observed people getting a lot of flu. It’s because the weather in Johannesburg around Gauteng has changed; this is the high veld and used to be very dry, but now it’s quite humid. That humid air allows for bacteria that were not known of here to suddenly be in abundance.  For example, you get people here with meningitis, which was just not usual for South Africa. Unfortunately meningitis hits those whose immune systems are already vulnerable, especially those who are HIV positive.

When you explain that to people, in their families and in their communities, they know someone has died of meningitis, and they ask, “Where did this meningitis come from?” So with those kind of linkages, people make the connection themselves.

Does it go beyond health?

We ask the older people, in their 80s and 90s; about how the weather has changed from the time they were growing up…. [They] will tell you simple things they used to do are more difficult because the weather patterns have changed, for instance people who grow their own vegetables, they’ll tell you now they don’t know when they can plant. That’s when you start explaining about the weather conditions changing, about how the ozone layer is being depleted, and then what impact the ozone layer has on earth. In other times, people were sceptical, and would just say “No, you’re a prophet of doom.” But when you go further, the links are clearer. They’ll even tell you, they’ll say, “I’ve been trying to plant my spinach for two years, and it doesn’t grow up. And even when it does, it grows yellow-ish.” So those everyday experiences that people know, that’s how we make linkages to climate change. But it’s for them to observe, we just give indicators for them to be able to understand what’s happening around them.

How does that conversation work logistically?

Sometimes you check, and you’ll find in some areas, people are much more open-minded, or clued into what’s happening. So then you’ll shift from having to have a conversational interaction with them, to actually having a presentation followed by a discussion. We also use documentaries that actually show what’s happening in other areas, for instance, someone talking about how rooibos farmers in the Western Cape are struggling, and showing what they’re struggling through and what they’ve been observing over the years. Or we look at what the fishermen have been observing. We take it further to show what’s happening elsewhere too, like what was happening in Pakistan when there were floods, or the desertification in the north of Africa…. When you’ve had that conversation, what we call popular workshops with people, people can be able to connect the impacts of climate change with their lives, and they also try to take action.

Isn’t that difficult?

The unfortunate part is taking action for them personally: sometimes, what they know may be contributing to climate change, they can’t live without. So we normally say that what is important is for you to engage and pressurize our government, so there can be changes. We say our lives will change if we adopt a multi-pronged strategy. Regarding our process, we connect with groups that are organized, or sometimes that are not organized at all; sometimes you just connect with an individual person, and say, “I would like to share information with you and your community, may you call some people in the community so we can have this kind of discussion?” It’s hard work, it’s time consuming and it needs a lot of patience.

When a person says to you, “I have to work on what’s in front of me now, not this alien term of ‘climate change,’” what do you say to that person?

For instance, you go to an area and say to people, “Can we talk about climate change, and what causes it?” Obviously how energy is generated in this country is an issue—90% of our energy comes from coal. And then you say to them, “This is a problem.” And then they say, “When you say this is a problem, what do you mean? Because we want free electricity….” Those are people may not be aware of the implications of climate change.

Many times we ask people whether they know how their electricity is being made. They say, “Yes, it’s generated from coal.” We ask, “Where is that coal being mined” We have that kind of easy conversation to say, “Your coal is coming from the mining areas, and the mining areas are mostly the Mpumalanga around the Witbank area, and now in Limpopo there are a lot of mines being opened for coal . So you ask a person, “Have you been to Witbank?” A lot of people haven’t. You ask, “Do you have relatives that stay there? Do you realize what is taking place?” If someone says, “I don’t care about coal, I’ll pay for my electricity,” we then try to bring attention to what the chain of that electricity is: it’s the coal miners who can’t even live up to 60 years of age because of the black lung, and the people in the surrounding areas have high rates of asthma, continuous headaches, skin and eye irritation. They’re just not in good health.

That’s when we point out to people, if you go to Witbank on any normal day, you stay in someone’s house for 15 or 20 minutes, and then just wipe the counter with your hands, your hand will be black. We ask, “Do you think that’s how other people should live?” People’s responses would then automatically bring in discussion on alternative energy options.

Is that enough to spur change?

The unfortunate part is, as a person, you can go and experience what others are experiencing, and you might then say, “Ok, well I’m not going to use coal.” But that is not where the problem is. The problem is with the government’s lack of their political will; our government doesn’t want to adopt a political will to invest / change to alternatives.   That is the problem.  It’s up to all of us to challenge, if you don’t challenge, and you’re ok with in status quo, you’re complicit in murder.

How do you support or enable the vegetable grower, or the mineworker, to pressurize the government? What tactics do you use, and how do you mobilize people?

I don’t know why people ask me how I mobilize! How do I talk to people? I talk to people like I’m talking to you! It’s an advantage when you talk to people who are organised; you get groups that are organized around particular issues, so you need to link your issues to their issues. And that link is not an overnight thing. You can’t just come and lecture to people and leave. You need to make them aware of the linkages, and you do that by spending time with them…. When people talk about policy, they think it’s really high level, they don’t realize that all policy is is you, it’s what you do every day. So that’s what we do with our groups: we share  information, create an understanding, and we really focus on taking them along with us, making them understand what we understand, and in that way we’ve seen a lot of groups taking issues on for themselves, and in particular, women.

Can you talk a bit more about why this resonates with women?

We’re in a country where we’ve got very strong women, but on particular issues, you only find a few women voices there. That’s part of what we can say we’ve achieved: women are standing up. And they’re no longer standing up because they’re angry or they’re toy toying over service delivery or high tariffs. Now women are able to say, “Here’s a formal process of the national energy regulators of South Africa,” and they’re confident to go and stand up before the national energy regulator, and tell them why they’re not happy about the rates and tariffs being increased. Women have stood up and said, “What is this nuclear energy that you’re talking about?”  A great example was last December’s Integrated Resource Plan public hearings, and there were women there. Public hearings are more, sort of, elitist. It’s elite NGOs and business people and government that will come there, but this time around, it was ordinary mamas from the townships speaking in their own languages and not being confused by the jargon being spoken. Their messages were straightforward. I think that’s part of the results of our programmes: people are now comfortable to say, “I saw the green paper on this response to climate change, I’ve read through the draft policy, but it’s this section and here where I have concerns, and we need a broader explanation.”

Usually when people talk about this, they talk about “women’s empowerment,” as though they’re “giving” power to people. But you talk about demystification.

Personally I’ve got a problem with the idea of “women’s empowerment.” I think, I’m a woman, I was born, I am part of a family, I was raised up like the other kids, and I didn’t need to be “empowered.” I needed to understand what was happening. That’s where the problem is; if I have a basic understanding of what is out there, the minute you say you’re empowering me, you lose me, because I don’t want to parrot your views. The unfortunate part is that it’s deep in the developmental language, the semantics that we use, “empowering women, and capacitating women.” I hate it! Share information with me, don’t “capacitate” me! If you’re capacitating me, you’re already creating levels between us, and you’re putting me below you by saying you can teach me down from on high. You might think you’re up there, but you don’t know anything, and this person you say you’re “capacitating” might know more and be doing more than you’re even doing!

*Makoma Lekalakala, social justice activist works  with Earthlife Africa in  Johannesburg, South Africa.

The last instalment of our conversation with Ms. Lekalakala will appear in next week’s e-CIVICUS. There, she’ll discuss the role of the South African government in the COP17 negotiations, citizens pushing for accountability, and the future of the local climate justice movement after the COP has left Durban.


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