/ 15 December 1994

Kader makes Dawie green with envy

The two men in charge of ministering the environment display two distinctly different styles, reports Eddie Koch

WHEN cabinet ministers Kader Asmal and Dawie de Villiers were confronted by angry demonstrators outside a toxic waste site near Johannesburg earlier this year, their body language described two distinct styles of managing this country’s environment. De Villiers remained aloof, kept his distance. Asmal marched up to the crowd, stuck out his hand, and began chatting to the people.

There were other occasions on which this pair of ministers, each charged with major responsibilities for the ecological well-being of South Africa, demonstrated different approaches to public participation in the making of government policy. One of these was a conference called last month by a consortium of trade unions, civic organisations and environmental groups to discuss “greening the RDP”.

Both were invited. De Villiers, the environment minister, preferred to watch the Springboks play rugby in Wales. Asmal, the minister of water affairs, arrived at the meeting to deliver a speech that has been hailed as a keynote expression of how to govern in the new South Africa, to use an old phrase, by and with the people.

“In the past, the lack of organisation in civil society around environmental issues, particularly in disadvantaged communities, has allowed the dominant sector to define these issues in ways which alienated the majority of people,” Asmal told delegates to the conference, organised by the Environmental Justice Networking Forum.

“The not inaccurate perception among black communities that the white rhino was more important than the lives of black people is a case in point. However, a process is taking place nationally to redefine environment as a people’s issue that seeks harmony and order among people, animals and nature.”

Asmal slated the view — still dominant in some sectors of the civil service — that protection of the environment was the prerogative of experts, drawn mainly from business and the government. Instead, it was an issue deeply embedded in peoples’ lives. “Pollution is not a difficult thing to understand. Even those mothers who have not heard the word `environment’ know that their children get coughs, sore chests and runny noses in winter when the air is thick with coal smoke and dust from untarred roads.”

If apartheid helped create the conditions for this kind of degradation, it also “disempowered” people and their ability to manage the natural environment that surrounds them. The solution now, he said, is to ensure that people participate actively in the formulation of government policy.

“Participation needs one to go out to those who might not read the Government Gazette but who might be affected, to ask their opinion. It might mean that one needs to run workshops in those communities first, to give them the information on which to base their decision. It means consulting unions, community based organisations, industry and environmental groups … We need to ensure that public participation processes do not only give a voice to the already vocal and well resourced dominant minority.”

Asmal’s comments were a swipe at his colleague who was watching the Springboks score tries against Wales at the time. De Villiers had just published a controversial White Paper dealing with draft policy on the management of hazardous waste. “Sometimes it appears as though the publication of draft policy, for example, in the Government Gazette is considered to be public participation. But participation and consultation are much more difficult, and exacting than this exchange of paper between literate and well resourced parties.”

He suggested that government could — by resorting to the Asmal style of governance — use factory workers and community members as “front-line troops in the battle against environmental degradation”. Workers often know where bad management is allowing the misuse of dangerous substances.

“In partnership with an effective government inspectorate, such community and worker activity, combined with the well- developed research and watchdog capacities of environmental NGOs, can go a long way to cleaning up our environmental act.”

Activists have commended Asmal for ensuring his ministry runs according to “participatory principles” of governance. Anne Sugrue, co-ordinator of a community waste project at the Group for Environmental Monitoring, said the minister had set up a committee on water and sanitation. “This helps to ensure active involvement of the public in the work of the ministry. Asmal does not only talk; he acts.”

It is a slight irony that Asmal has managed to transform an outfit that was once run by former army ironman General Magnus Malan into the most democratic ministry in the cabinet.

“This is the difference between pre-apartheid and post- apartheid thinking on environmental issues,” says Chris Albertyn of Earthlife Africa. “Asmal is streets ahead in terms of involving the public in the work of government departments. In terms of active participation by the public in a democracy, he is just going ahead and doing it.”