Race: SA’s Greatest Sustainability Challenge

By Nicola Robins ( 5 Aug 2010)

Audience members at the TRC hearing in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. (Photo: Iris Films)

The greatest sustainability challenge South Africa faces today is race.

The reason is that sustainability is ultimately neither a technical nor a financial problem. While these elements are undoubtedly important, the great work concerns the ability to re-focus the creativity of our nation around a radical goal. This is entirely a social thing and it comes with baggage.

It is something we have done already in this country: mobilised behind a collective goal great enough to prompt millions into relegating individual needs to priority #2. The problem is that those who compromised individual needs – for education, personal security, wealth and jobs – to take their place in a struggle for freedom as combatants, activists or quiet enablers, were with some notable exceptions almost all black. And as far as I can tell, not many black South Africans will be putting up their hands to do that again very soon.

I’m loathe to mess with the truly inspiring wave of South African spirit that still lingers following the football, but I sense that for many behind this spirit lies a little weariness. Could this have something to do with a sense amongst most White South Africans that we are now a rainbow nation and that it is time to leave the past firmly where it is? I am not suggesting that wallowing endlessly in the trough of apartheid mea culpa is beneficial, but I am suggesting that to assume it no longer has an impact on our ability to catalyse our nation is naïve.

The TRC was astounding. For those who attended, listened to transcripts or read the stories, it allowed a litany of pain to be expressed. We got somewhere for sure; but I think that some of us are barely beginning to find the capacity to really hear and understand the depth of those stories and what people in this country were asked to forgo. Clearly the pain was not limited to one group or one side; and there is no doubt it still continues in other forms. Being heard and understood is what really counts; reparations can only be real once that takes place. It is something we struggle with endlessly, and when this sequence is compromised, weariness comes.

According to the Ecological Footprint Network, our footprint has exceeded our country’s biocapacity since the mid-seventies, and we have been steadily consuming our natural capital ever since. So in terms of fishing grounds, grazing land, forests and cropland, all of which critically impact on our ability to provide for the needs of our people, we are not getting any richer – we are actually getting poorer.

And so for many environmentalists, social issues (including social justice and the politics of race, gender and class) are simply less urgent than environmental ones. But while ecological integrity certainly underpins our ability to meet our social goals, it is social issues that will govern our ability to mobilize effectively around those ecological challenges.

Many environmentalists – both black and white – appreciate that equity issues lie at the heart of the sustainability challenge in this country. But many others in both the light and dark green camps sorely lack a vantage point to understand why this is so. Fortunately, activism seems to die hard. An ex-activist, now well-positioned in an influential corporate, when realizing the urgency and social relevance of sustainability challenges sighed and said: “Well, I guess this means I’m becoming an activist again”. She looked slightly resigned, but I noticed a spark in her eyes. Ben Kodisang, MD of Old Mutual, calls it “Transformation with a capital T”.

There is no doubt that if we are going to remobilise this country behind the critical goal of transition, we still have some serious listening and learning to do. When the flags stop flying, we’ve got to go a little deeper; we’ve got to push for the conversations that we’d rather avoid. And we’ve got to start with ourselves. When we are prepared to talk from the heart about race, the other deep dialogues (class, gender and religion) invariably follow.

Given our exquisite and painful history, it is race and our ability to embrace and learn from our experiences of it that will help us navigate the tricky times ahead. To brave this openness will allow us to hear the message of Moshesh, Smuts and Ghandi, of the stay-aways and consumer boycotts of the eighties and the green consumer initiatives of today, of the defiance campaign in the sixties and the “politics of shit” demanding municipal services today.

Undoubtedly the financiers, technologists, ecologists and industrialists have their place in the sustainability struggle and should play their part, but only one thing ultimately will enable us to meet the challenge. That is the spirit of a young nation with a tremendous ancestry, and our capacity to remember and honour the recent past.


Race: SA’s Greatest Sustainability Challenge — 4 Comments

  1. Great post, Nicola.

    “sustainability is ultimately neither a technical nor a financial problem” : this cannot be said often enough.

  2. Amen. What I find astounding is the volume of work suddently being produced that address the issues you raise. I particularly suggest a collection of essays titled “In the balance.” Some of these pieces use a word that is missing from your insightful article: anger. There is much of it around, and it is escalating. In particular, Jody Kollapen and Zackie Achmat’s contributions are worth noting.

  3. Thanks Mark. Yes – anger, I believe, is an opportunity for intimacy. A sure way into the real stuff if we can handle the heat. I suspect it’s a good sign of things to come.