‘Environmental activism is apartheid’, sentiments from our black political elite - Bubblegum Club

‘Environmental activism is apartheid’, sentiments from our black political elite

In 2021, Gwede Mantashe called the environmental activism against Shell’s attempts to blast the Wild Coast looking for oil, “apartheid”, a “colonialism of a special type”. The chance to strike black gold in the Eastern Cape presented an opportunity for economic prosperity for a country in desperate need of it and according to our Minister of Energy, any objections to this must have been a desire to retain the “status quo” that is keeping Africa poor, hungry and in need of Western aid. Ironic considering his vision of freedom relied on a Dutch company laying claim to Southern African land for profit — haven’t we seen this story before?

His claims also ignored the fact that many of the people objecting to Shell’s dangerous search for oil were the same people he claimed to be protecting: poor, Black Africans. Not only was a search for oil contributing to our dangerous dependence on fossil fuels but seismic testing is incredibly harmful to marine life, which would have upended not only the commercial fishing, communities, and cultural practices in the Eastern Cape but the one-of-a-kind biodiversity of the Wild Coast. Fortunately, the project was put to a halt but Mantashe’s words have spun around in my head for the past two years. Why does it feel like Black people don’t care about the environment?

The 2017 South African Social Attitudes Survey revealed that for a majority of South Africans, environmentalism and climate change were of low concern. It’s understandable that in a country with high unemployment, astronomical levels of gender-based violence, and widespread poverty, the planet isn’t everyone’s first priority. 

However, South Africa ranks 92 on the ND-GAIN Index, a ranking of the countries least to most vulnerable and prepared for climate change-related disasters. The list consists of 181 countries, with Norway, the most prepared and resilient towards tragedy ranking number one. South Africa, in the 92nd spot, is the 5th most water-scarce country in the world. The country is only expected to become hotter and drier in the future — which I’m sure we’ve all felt this past summer — and this will lead to drought, flooding, soil erosion, fires, land degradation and the loss of agriculture and livestock which will have a knock-on effect on food security, service delivery, infrastructure, sewage and water pollution, and, and and… The most vulnerable people should tragedy strike are Black women and children — the former, as the 2017 study reveals, the least concerned with environmentalism.

Of course, 2017 was a long time ago. It is the pre-pandemic era after all, it may as well have been a decade. It’s difficult to believe that after seeing the devastating effects of COVID-19, those same respondents would have the same attitudes today. Yet, Africa No Filter’s 2022 report questions whether Africans are sleepwalking into disaster when it comes to climate change. 

A quantitative study of online media from mainstream African news, Twitter conversations and Google searches between October 2020 and September 2021 revealed that the majority of coverage about climate change in Africa came from non-African sources. The study also revealed that regional coverage only happened in the wake of events such as droughts, fires, famine and flooding. Moreover, regional media coverage was filled with fear-mongering: mostly covering the effects and damage of climate change, placing Africa as a victim of the world’s excess and hubris, and not a place filled with citizens and communities taking agency and attempting change. 

What’s more significant is that from the study of Google searches and Twitter conversations, a majority of Africans — at least those online — haven’t fully grasped the issues of climate change and environmentalism. Zimbabweans wanted to know the leading effects of climate change, Ugandans, the effect on agriculture, and South Africans, Kenyans and Nigerians searched for the causes of global warming. 

The answer to the question of why Black people don’t care about the environment — as seen from the action against Shell’s seismic testing, Africa No Filter’s findings, and the many, many continental organisations and NGOs seeking climate justice is that we do. However, it does seem that it’s of benefit to an insidious group of people to make Black people feel like environmentalism is a sphere for white hippies and enemies of progress to make us feel bad about plastic straws, eating meat, caring about animal welfare over and above racism and sexism. 

It’s a reverse UNO of sorts. The majority of precolonial, preindustrial cultures around the world understand themselves as a part of the environment — not separate and definitely not above it. In the same vain patriarchy and white supremacy enact violence upon people, it enacts violence upon the land we live on. The environment isn’t just trees and birds, it’s also the people living in it. Whether they’re farmers and fishers or stuck inside windowless rooms in large buildings.

We also can’t separate our globalised culture’s emphasis on individualism from the matter. It’s a double-edged sword: one on hand, there’s too great an onus placed on individuals to course-correct the problems caused by large corporations but it’s also our perceptions of ourselves as individuals, instead of parts of a whole, that prevent us from understanding the value in nurturing a better world not only for those around us now, but the people we’ll never meet in the future. Our concerns about gender-based violence, white monopoly capital and standards of living aren’t issues to prioritise over environmentalism— they exist beside them. Everything is connected.

The majority of households in South Africa are led by Black women — the same group disproportionately affected by unemployment, inflation costs, flooding, and drought. Severe damage in our environments leads to public health risks like malaria, cholera and HIV/AIDS, which lead to children-led households. Look at how loadshedding has increased road safety hazards, made school and work inaccessible, and brought life to a halt. Those complications happen when there’s no water to drink or shower with, when farms are dried out, when robots and streetlights crash down and cars float away. 

It’s a gloomy picture — which perhaps answers why the perception is that no one seems to care. Why would they? What’s the point? These problems are so large and complex, and there’s rarely ever a simple solution. We live in a media culture that rewards click-bait and alarmism — and this doesn’t just breed eco-grief but eco-apathy. If there’s supposedly no ethical consumption under capitalism, then why not just consume mindlessly and recklessly? If only corporations can clean rivers and reduce CO2 emissions, what does it matter if you leave a tap running or keep every light in the house on? Not that you could with loadshedding, but I digress. 

To quote Uncle Iroh, “You must never give into despair! Allow yourself to slip down that road, and you surrender to your lowest instincts.” We should all care more, even if we already care a lot. Even if freedom is guaranteed in a decade, let alone 50 years. No matter how insurmountable it seems, no matter how much it sucks to take a cold shower, or how much it hurts to see people suffer. Trying is what we owe to each other.

“In the darkest times, hope is something you give yourself.”

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