South African movements are building a Climate Justice Charter from below

Despite a temporary dip in carbon emissions due to the coronavirus pandemic, scientific calculations shows that it is highly likely that 2020 will still be the world’s hottest year on record. We may have seen bluer skies and less smog when we were all under lockdown, however we can also expect a post-lockdown rebound in greenhouse gas emissions. This has happened before – global carbon emissions bounced back from a temporary dip after the financial crisis in 2008-9 and the oil crisis in the 1970s. The International Energy Agency in fact warned last week that the world has only six months in which to change the course of the climate crisis and prevent a post-lockdown rebound.

If we truly want to avoid a climate catastrophe, countries need to put in place policies and actions now that will produce deeper impacts, longer-term results, and systemic changes. To start with, carbon emission reduction must be sustained over a longer period. Bold, just and appropriate actions are needed for this. Climate justice campaigners and movements, especially in the global south have been calling for systemic alternatives for decades.

There have been landmark ideas pushed by social movements inside and outside of the UN climate negotiations like the principles of climate debt, loss and damage, rights of Mother Earth, Buen Vivir and others. Some of them, like Buen Vivir, have been enshrined in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador.  

These changes can’t happen through individual action – they happen through movements of people coming together to challenge the status quo. That much was clear when I participated in a online assembly last week for South Africa’s movement to build a Climate Justice Charter.  

A struggle-driven process from below

The South African climate justice movement recently embarked on a similar path to put climate justice at the heart of government legislation and practice. The Co-operative and Policy Alternative Center (COPAC), together with the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and other civil society organisations, are engaging in a process to develop a Climate Justice Charter for South Africa.

According to the introduction of the draft Charter, the struggle-driven participatory process emerged from the cooperation of groups and networks involved in the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign. Members of the campaign worked together in the course of five years on food sovereignty and climate justice issues to address the problem of drought in the country. Incremental gains from several significant meetings have been key in the process too.

The first of these was the Water and Climate conference at the end of 2018. Then there were six roundtable discussions hosted by COPAC throughout 2019 for various groups, which included drought-affected communities, the media, faith leaders and faith-based organisations, labour, youth and environmental and social justice organisations.

A draft Charter was launched by the end of 2019. During the Charter process and the discussions, think pieces were also produced. Comments and suggestions were generated through discussions with the Charter supporters’ colleagues and constituents and allies.

According to Vishwas Satgar, a professor at the University of Witswatersrand and co-founder of COPAC, they also occupied media offices and had dialogues with the National Editors Forum. The group also staged direct actions like forming a human chain in front of the offices of SASOL (Suid Afrikaan Steenkool-Olie-en Gasmaatskappy or South African Coal, Oil and Gas Company), the second highest carbon emitter in South Africa, in September 2019. In November, they marched on the company’s Annual General Meeting wherein they were locked out.

The spread of Covid-19 that resulted in lockdown in South Africa and the rest of the world has complicated the plans of doing more societal engagements. The last public event the group had scheduled before finalising the charter, a People’s Assembly held on 16 June 2020 to coincide with the 44th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, was done as an online event instead.

The draft Charter has been an open Google Document for public comment since November. Satgar said that the organisers also received public comments and inputs that way. The final version will be ready by the end of June. The process will then go to the next stage, which is to generate individual and organisational endorsements and translation into all South African languages. A short comic version for kids, audio-visual clips of activists reading it out and other popular forms of public education and promotion in different languages are also being prepared.

It will be taken to the South African parliament by 16 October to demand that it be adopted in accordance with Section 234 of the South African Constitution, which provides for charters to be adopted when such initiatives from the public demand it.

Realising systemic alternatives and huge challenges ahead

Satgar also shared that the Climate Justice Charter movement, which is developing through the process, will also put together an economic model for the Charter, a Climate Justice Deep Just Transition Plan. The plan will propose detailed policies, and specific economic measures for socio-ecological restructuring, to identify concrete steps to realise systemic alternatives.

A Just Transition tool, based on the Charter, will also be developed for bottom-up engagements in workplaces and communities. This process will enable various constituents to develop their own plans for deep just transitions.

These plans are ambitious and would surely be resisted and strongly challenged by those holding the country’s economic power from within and beyond, such as big mining and other transnational corporations. There will be struggles involving policies over finance and industries, and the movement will need to win over decision makers in the ministries, the mainstream private media, corporations, etc. The movement is building power through the participatory process, which is now at its sixth year. The People’s Assembly showed broad support for the movement from South African youth organisations, scientists and activists. It is preparing for the big struggle ahead, and the bigger struggle of implementation after the Charter is realised.

Dorothy Guerrero was a speaker in one of plenaries of the online People’s Assembly held on 16 June 2020


Photo: A contingent of workers join the human chain in front of Sasol in September 2019. Credit: Vishwas Satgar

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