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A different kind of partnership needed to protect SA’s vulnerable environment
Author: Anél du Plessis
Published: 05/06/2024

​Collaborative environmental governance is a key approach to addressing the challenges posed by the dynamism and uncertainties associated with the global ecological crisis and the ways in which it is playing out in South Africa. This is the view of Prof Anél du Plessis, Chair: Urban Law and Sustainability Governance at Stellenbosch University, in a World Environment Day (5 June) opinion piece for the Mail & Guardian.

  • Read the original article below or click here for the piece as published.

​Anél du Plessis*

The tentacles of the global ecological crisis reach everywhere as it manifests in 'grand' challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution. Very few countries are not affected by the ongoing destruction of the Earth's systems supporting human life.

This year's World Environment Day (5 June) follows shortly after millions of South Africans casted their vote towards the election of a new National Assembly and provincial legislature in each of the country's nine provinces. It offers an opportune moment to stand still with what our country's Constitution commands of political leaders as far as the protection of water, soil, air, and biodiversity as well as the promotion of environmental justice are concerned.

Section 24 of the Constitution determines that everyone in South Africa has the right to an environment that is not detrimental to their health or well-being and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations. The same right calls for reasonable 'law' (legislation) and 'other measures' that prevent pollution and ecological degradation, promote conservation and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources. This suggests that government intervention is indispensable.

Over the past 30 years, South Africa did well in establishing a solid legal (legislative) basis for environmental protection, environmental justice and steering development decisions mindful of the fact that most natural resources in the country are finite and extremely vulnerable. Despite not having dedicated environmental courts or an environmental ombudsman, the judiciary has thus far also not shied away from commanding respect, protection, promotion and fulfilment of the environmental right on the part of government and private sector actors. Overall, the legal architecture for sound environmental management is intact – especially in the national government sphere.

In 2023, our government published its State of the Environment Report. One gleans from this report that the country's natural resources and ecosystems are under severe pressure with serious concerns being raised around issues such as highly threated estuarine and inland wetland ecosystems, dwindling water availability and a decline in river ecosystem conditions, high levels of ambient air pollution and its impact on human health, as well as escalating waste generation and under-protection of species such as butterflies, mammals, plants and amphibians.

Recent years have also shown how exposed communities in South Africa are when severe weather events strike. We saw how the one-in-400-year drought between 2015 and 2018 took the City of Cape Town with its around 4.6 million residents to the brink of 'Day Zero'. A similar historic drought occurred in Gqeberha at around the same time, but it lasted much longer.  The Knysna fires in June 2017 cut a path of devastation through the town which resulted in the largest number of buildings destroyed by fire ever in South Africa, and the tragic loss of lives.

In April 2022, the KwaZulu-Natal coastal zone, including the greater Durban area and the South Coast, received more than 300 mm of rain in 24 hours. This led to calamitous flooding, with more than 400 people losing their lives. Over 4000 homes were destroyed and 45 000 people were temporarily left unemployed. The cost of the infrastructure destroyed, and the related business losses amounted to an estimated US$ 2 billion or R37 billion.

These events, aggravated by an ongoing national energy crisis, deepening urban and rural poverty and aging service delivery infrastructure, are foregrounding legally relevant questions concerning loss, damage, liability and accountability. In turn, these questions cause one to wonder what then does a constitutional environmental right and a suite of national environment laws even mean?  And further, what does the state and volatility of the environment suggest for the incoming leadership of this country?

It is high time that our politicians see the global ecological crisis as critically relevant and real in South Africa and internalise the importance of collective action beyond legislation to ensure that our natural resources are responsibly used and protected. Far too little attention is paid to chapter 3 of the Constitution which commands the national, provincial and local authorities as well as departments spread across the three spheres of government to work together. All of our country's leaders are instructed to “secure the well-being of the people", to “provide effective, transparent, accountable and coherent government for the Republic as a whole" and to “co-operate with one another in mutual trust and good faith" by “assisting and supporting one another" and by “co-ordinating their actions and legislation with one another". This is a message emanating from the Constitution, but also one that is reverberated across many a law applicable to intergovernmental relations and cooperation in different governance sectors.

The state of the environment and persistent pockets of environmental injustice arguably require a coalition or partnership of a different kind.  On World Environment Day it is necessary for leaders representing very different and not-so different political parties, as well as those who voted them into power, to embrace the power of collaboration. Environmental destruction affects all of us and will continue to affect future generations. Collaborative environmental governance is a key approach to addressing the challenges posed by the dynamism and uncertainties associated with the global ecological crisis and the ways in which it is playing out in South Africa. Collaborative environmental governance commands commitment and solidarity in seeing multi-level management plans and environmental management principles work with lasting positive impact.

With a new political era being ushered in, the constitutional environmental right's call for 'other measures' towards people's health and well-being is resounding. As our democracy matures and political parties negotiate with each other to prioritise and compromise in the hope to govern well during the five years ahead, one trusts that South Africans' health and well-being will be a decisive factor. Hopefully, our deep dependence on natural resources and our collective responsibility to care for the environment will serve a unifying role within a new government that has but little choice to take hands in moving this country forward in a sustainable way.

*Prof Anél du Plessis is Professor of Law and Chair: Urban Law and Sustainability Governance at the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University.