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Cock, Jacklyn  (2004) Connecting the red, brown and green: The environmental justice movement in South Africa. Globalisation, Marginalisation & New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa : 1-34.

Connecting the red, brown and green: The environmental justice movement in South Africa

A case study for the UKZN project entitled: Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa

Jacklyn Cock

On a hot Saturday morning in the summer of 2003 about eighty people crowded into a small garage on the outskirts of VanderByl Park. Packed closely together on wooden benches and sitting on the concrete floor, they seemed to represent our ‘rainbow nation’ including black workers and white small holders from the surrounding area.

Despite the fresh green of the willow trees and the blue sky, it was impossible to ignore the grey slag dump dominating the skyline, as well as the smell and clouds of smoke belching from the ISCOR plant a few kilometres away.

The occasion was a meeting of the Steel Valley risis Committee, a group formed in 2002 to indict ISCOR for their pollution of the air and water of the area which had resulted in loss of livelihoods, and serious health problems ranging from kidney disease to cancer for 450 people.

Everyone listened intently as the legal team explained what the legal processes would involve. The meeting seemed like a vindication of the truimphalist claims sometimes made about the contemporary environmental movement; an illustration of the capacity of environmental issues to overcome ethnic, racial and class divisions and unite various ‘particularistic identities’ in a common cause. But this paper will show that appearances can be deceptive.

The central research question this paper addresses is whether there is a single, coherent environmental movement which is mobilizing under the comprehensive banner of environmental justice and whether the Environmental Justice Networking Forum (EJNF) is its organizational expression. Answering this question involved site visits, focus groups, participant observation, interviews with 30 key informants selected for their expertise on environmental activism, a literature review of secondary sources and documentary analysis of the ISCOR court case, and environmental publications such as those of EJNF, Groundwork, Earthlife, the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Southern Africa.

The paper argues that there is no single, collective actor that constitutes the environmental movement in South Africa and no master ‘frame’ of environmentalism. The environmental movement has no coherent centre and no tidy margins; it is an inchoate sum of multiple, diverse, uncoordinated struggles and organizations. However it is argued that a nascent environmental justice movement is emerging which has the capacity for mass mobilization. It will be shown that this is best described as a weblike universe made up of highly interconnected networks clustered around a few key nodes or hubs, namely EJNF, Groundwork and Earthlife. It is characterized by a radical decentralization of authority, with no governing body, official ideology or mandated leaders, minimal hierarchy and horizontal forms of organizing.

This embryonic environmental justice movement is bridging ecological and social justice issues in that it puts the needs and rights of the poor, the excluded and the marginalised at the centre of its concerns. It is located at the confluence of three of our greatest challenges: the struggle against racism, the struggle against poverty and inequality and the struggle to protect the environment, as the natural resource base on which all economic activity depends. The movement is stratified in a complex layering involving national networks, NGOs and local grassroots groups. Within this multiplicity of organizational forms, the vitality of the movement flows from the bottom up, being driven by the unemployed and lower working class, ‘the poors’.

This social base is distinctively different from the middle class composition of the mainstream environmental movement which focuses on curbing species loss and habitat destruction, that is on ‘green’ issues.

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