Richard Calland: No walls high enough against KZN floods for migrating middle class

How high must the walls be? It is a question that many middle-class South Africans have been asking themselves since time immemorial. For decades, it was as much psychological as it was physical: to somehow bolster the shoddy, cruel “logic” of prejudice and discrimination that underpinned apartheid.

Since 1994, the walls have been built even higher because of anxieties about security. They have generally worked, enabling wealthy residents to continue to live the life of Reilly while the great majority of people struggle to survive.

Out of sight, out of mind.

What was interesting about the recent flooding in KwaZulu-Natal was that the walls, for once, were not high enough. Middle-class and working-class residents suffered (though not nearly as much, of course), showing a different kind of blind spot in the political economy.

As the head of sustainability of a major South African company, one of the most successful post-1994 businesses, pointed out to me the other day, some of the harm of vicious flooding was caused to well-off, “walled” communities that have been built relatively recently along a strip of land running north of Durban towards the new middle-class enclave of Umhlanga.

Apparently, as the sugar industry has contracted, former sugar fields have been sold to property developers eager to exploit the middle-class migration out of Durban. The land was not fit for the purpose, for rather obvious reasons.

And the walls were not good enough. They were not resilient to the flooding because the issue of being “climate smart” was clearly not part of the planning permission criteria or process. Why? Because the municipalities where these new developments have been built, and who were responsible for deciding whether they should happen at all, are desperate.

So, when a big-talking property developer saunters into your town hall and starts talking numbers — of the rates and other sources of revenue that will boost your fiscus, it is hard to say no. And so political economy cuts across good policy and governance.

Will the flooding, with its tragically high cost of lives, make any difference to this? Will it finally “cut through”? To politicians, I mean.

It remains a source of bewilderment that an issue that is self-evidently as great a threat to people as unemployment and poverty continues to be so conspicuously absent from the political agenda and from public discourse.

There are many climate activists in South Africa; an array of fine research and advocacy nongovernmental organisations. They have, and continue to, influence policy. And to be fair, ANC policy-making in the government has included some sound environmental policy over the past two decades, and the Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission did remarkable work last year in building consensus for a just energy transition and finding a political route around the not inconsiderable weight of opposition from a recalcitrant, climate science-illiterate energy minister, ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe.

But it is not enough of a political priority. So, the threat of climate change is not given the attention that climate science demands. The flooding proves this. Planning and other governance processes are not sufficiently geared to protect people. 

And there is inadequate understanding of the underlying causes of climate change, which are economic and political; the environmental and social consequences are the effects of climate change, not the cause.

The great majority of South Africa’s political class are either too stupid, too lazy or too downright negligent to care enough to change things. Last year’s Hollywood movie Don’t Look Up captured the point.

Look at the local government election last year, or the national election in 2019. Apart from the Good party, and a small part of the ANC’s manifesto, no one talked about climate change. It was not an electoral issue.

The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on the environment, when interviewed by my researcher, said she had never heard of the Integrated Resource Plan, which is the policy document that guides South Africa’s future energy mix, and which is therefore critical to its long-term, structural response to the climate change threat and the county’s contribution to global collective climate action.

Instead of the issue becoming more important and rising up the political agenda, it gets further buried by new entrants to the electoral market who appear determined to distract with populist attacks on immigrants. The appalling ActionSA lead the race to the bottom, accompanied by the even more ghastly Gayton McKenzie and his dismal little party, the Patriotic Alliance.

Instead of rejecting the xenophobia out of hand and offering a different vision of the economy in which people are persuaded to focus on the things that matter most — such as climate change — other political leaders are too scared, too weak, too foolish to do anything to resist.

This is a huge failure of political leadership. Populism, as the former editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, usefully put it in a recent book on the media, “is the denial of complexity”.

The ANC is broken and beyond repair; the country deserves far better. But most of the opposition are little better. When does the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema ever invest his political capital on speaking about sustainability? Never. Presumably because it’s too complex for his form of demagogic populism to cope with.

Enough is enough. It’s time for a new green-red alliance to be built. One that joins the dots. Of course, South Africa can’t “solve” climate change on its own. Extreme weather events such as the floods in KwaZulu-Natal cannot be stopped; they are now built into a broken and increasingly fragile climate system. 

Humanity’s carbon budget is busted. There is no clawback provision. The ship has sailed. But it is not too late to build the defences — not by building higher walls but by investing in climate-smart infrastructure. And, even more importantly, giving up the drug that is the underlying cause of climate change — carbon.

In South Africa, which is not alone in this respect, it means getting out of coal as quickly as possible. Responsible mining companies are doing so, although instead of selling coal mines to other, less reputable miners, they should be closing the mines and leaving the carbon in the ground.

And the government, if it had the wisdom and the guts, should be making law and policy, and setting fiscal incentives, to make them do so.

This is a complex transition and one that needs to be “just”. There is an opportunity to get the energy transition off the ground as a result of the international climate finance “deal” that was done in Glasgow, at COP26, in November.

The word “deal” is in quotes because, as few commentators or observers seem to appreciate — as well as some people who really should have a deeper grasp of the situation — it is far from being a done deal. Soon after Christmas, a cabinet minister from one of the donor countries apparently called his country’s diplomatic representative to ask “if South Africa has closed any of its coal mines yet?”

Err, no. He should know better.

The Glasgow agreement to provide South Africa with $8.5-billion (R135‑billion) of climate finance to fund the energy transition was a high-level “political declaration”. The devil will now be in the detail. The respected banker Daniel Mminele, former chief executive of Absa, has been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to head the task team whose job it is to negotiate the details of the climate finance deal by the end of the year. 

There is a long way to go. I would say that it is probably only 30% of the way. Both sides will have to respond to the imperative of the age. On the donor side, the climate finance must be generous in its terms as well as plentiful; on the demand side, South Africa will need to be sufficiently clear about the road map for mitigation steps and for benchmarking progress towards it.

This itself provides the most promising area of the economy, albeit middle and not short term. It is essential for the future economic well-being of the country.

Along with thousands of other efforts around the world, it will make its contribution to preserving habitable human life on Earth. Climate science says that the world has seven-and-a-half years to get on a different economic development pathway. But, if you listened to South African politicians, you would not know it. Fools almost to a man and woman.

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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