Radical Agendas #5: An Eco-Socialist Order in South Africa

By Jacklyn Cock

An ecological transformation is required as part of a  ‘new liberation struggle’ in South Africa. This involves   a ‘just transition’ from the present fossil fuel regime that is moving us towards ecological collapse and catastrophe.   The article suggests that the impetus to this ecological transformation is coming strongly from two aspects of the ecological crisis: accelerating climate change and the spread of toxic pollution of water, air, land and food that is experienced as ‘environmental racism’.  The implication is that what Von Holdt and Webster (2005) conceptualised as a triple transition from democracy (economic liberalisation, political democracy and post-colonial transformation), requires a fourth dimension: an ecological transition to a society marked by a very different relation with nature, a relation combining social justice with ecological sustainability.

“new coalitions and forms of co-operation between both labour and environmental activists contains the promise of a new kind of socialism that is ethical, ecological and democratic.”

This comprehensive and transformative change could contain the embryo of a post-capitalist eco-socialist society. Such a vision is finding concrete expression in alternative social forms, new alliances and forms of power which are promoting counter-narratives of solidarity through environmental justice, energy democracy, transformative feminism and food sovereignty.  These could involve features such as the collective, democratic control of production for social needs, rather than profit; the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy could mean decentralized energy with much greater potential for community control; the localisation of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to food sovereignty; new relations between men and women and the sharing of resources in more collective social forms. Support for such alternatives is related to the growing recognition that the fundamental cause of the deepening ecological crisis, which is having devastating impacts on the working class, is the expansionist logic of capitalism. The recognition is growing that the fundamental cause of the deepening climate crisis is the expansionist logic of capitalism. It is ‘a crisis arising from and perpetuated by the rule of capital, and hence incapable of resolution within the capitalist framework’ (Wallis, 2010:32). This recognition is promoting new coalitions and forms of co-operation between both labour and environmental activists. This new solidarity contains the promise of a new kind of socialism that is ethical, ecological and democratic.

The ecological crisis

South Africa is a microcosm of how the ecological crisis is deepening globally. Despite 21 years of international negotiations there is no binding global agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions. On the contrary   carbon emissions are rising (61% since 1990) which means climate change is intensifying and having  serious impacts – particularly in Africa – in the form of rising food prices, water shortages, crop failures, and dislocation from more extreme weather events. This is largely because the political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by the interests of fossil fuel corporations and committed to the pursuit of economic growth at all costs (Klein, 2014).

Capital’s response to the climate crisis is that the system can continue to expand by creating a new ‘sustainable’ or ‘green capitalism’, bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its’s reproduction. The two pillars on which green capitalism rests are technological innovation and expanding markets while keeping the existing institutions of capitalism intact. Underlying all these strategies is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations, subordinated to the logic of the market and the imperatives of profit (Cock, 2014; Satgar, 2014).

This pattern is replicated in contemporary South Africa which is committed to a ‘green economy.’  It is one of the most energy and carbon intensive countries in the world, relying on coal as the primary energy source and a policy of supplying cheap energy to industry. The privatised oil company Sasol’s plant at Secunda is converting coal and gas into liquid petroleum and in the process creating the single greatest point-source site of CO2 emissions on the planet (Bond, 2015:6). Overall South Africa’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions are vague and insubstantial. At present over 500 tonnes of carbon a year are emitted, two new coal-fired power stations (among the largest in the world) are being built and forty new coal mines are planned, most of them in Mpumalanga on the most fertile land in the country. Communities living close to the operative coal-fired power stations and open-pit working or abandoned mines, are dealing with mass removals and dispossession, loss of livelihoods threats to food security, health problems associated with water and air pollution, corruption in the awarding of mining licenses and inadequate consultation.

“Communities living close to the operative coal-fired power stations and open-pit working or abandoned mines, are dealing with mass removals and dispossession, loss of livelihoods threats to food security.”

In addition to coal mining, the externalisation of the costs of industrial production in the form of pollution of the air and groundwater in many communities means that many South Africans are exposed to what Nixon (2011) has called ‘the slow violence’ of toxic pollution in a process which is insidious and largely invisible. Mostly  Black South Africans continue to live on the most damaged land, in the most polluted neighbourhoods often adjoining working or abandoned mines ,the coal fired power stations, steel mills, incinerators and waste sites or polluting industries, without adequate services of refuse removal,  water, electricity and sanitation. In the province of Gauteng alone there are some 1.6 million African people living on mine dumps that are contaminated with uranium and toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, aluminum, manganese and mercury. This pattern amounts to expressions of ‘environmental racism”. At the same time it is estimated that 83% of rivers are damaged from sewage pollution, deforestation is increasing and the threats to biodiversity include the loss of 5,000 rhinos from poaching since 2008.

This pattern of ecological damage is likely to increase with ‘Operation Phakisa (meaning ‘speed up’) which involves R60 billion worth of deep sea oil and gas exploration. Government recently granted prospecting licenses for marine phosphate mining which involves extensive dredging of the seabed. “If South Africa permits seabed mining, we will become the only country in the world to allow such a destructive practice” (Roux, 2015:7).  We are moving towards ecological catastrophe because government remains wedded to the dominant interests of the mineral-energy complex. This is the context in which new, potentially transformative social formations are emerging in contemporary South Africa.

Confronting the ecological crisis: new alliances, forms of power and organisations

The ecological crisis is driving new initiatives, along with the social crises of deepening poverty and unemployment, upheavals within the labour movement, new political groupings and growing grassroots dissatisfaction with the conventional political structures. What is distinctive about these initiatives is a focus on building popular power, developing new forms of solidarity including formal and informal alliances and coalitions, a regional focus and the use of symbolic power with a strong normative dimension to dramatise both the causes and the consequences of the ecological crisis. They are organising around concrete issues in the everyday experience of working people, especially rising food and energy prices. This “politics of everyday life is the crucible where revolutionary energies might develop” (Harvey, 2014).

There is a growing emphasis on moving beyond denunciation to formulate alternative narratives of food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformative feminism and environmental justice which could be building blocks for an eco-socialist order. For example, several organisations are not only mobilising opposition to fracking but also are “exploring alternatives which will foster energy sovereignty and transformative development while protecting the natural resources and people of the Karoo” (Black Thursday Southern Cape Land campaign statement 13.7.2015). Other  organisations are promoting  concrete post-carbon alternatives such as the  Earthlife’s Sustainable Energy and Livelihoods Project which  combines water harvesting, food sovereignty and clean energy, through installing, maintaining and training women on the use  of biogas digesters and PVC solar power units.

Some of these new alliances or coalitions are between formerly antagonistic groupings, such as those concerned with conservation of threatened plants, animals and wilderness areas and those concerned with social needs. An example  is the struggle against the proposed open cast Fuleni Coal mine stretching 3550 hectares close to the order of Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, one of Africa’s oldest game reserves and central to rhino conservation where local women have mobilised with the support of conservation organisations. They have formed the iMfolozi Community and Wilderness Alliance.There are powerful forces involved in this  struggle; interests in the coal mine include” Glencore and BHB Billiton, the world’s largest commodity trader and mining house respectively” (Bond, 2015:9). Another  example of disparate groupings  uniting  is the Save Mapungubwe Coalition which was formed to safeguard the Mapungubwe National Park, a World Heritage Site, from an Australian –based mining company, Coal of Africa. The diverse coalition included environmental NGOs such as World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) as well as local people. Such alliances are beginning to close a historic gap. In the past environmental initiatives involved a fault line which divided the ‘movement’ into two (sometimes antagonistic) main streams: those organised around the discourse of conservation and those organised around the discourse of environmental justice.

“In the past environmental initiatives involved a fault-line which divided the ‘movement’ into two (sometimes antagonistic) main streams: those organised around the discourse of conservation and those organised around the discourse of environmental justice.”

Many of these new social formations are against different forms of extractivism. For example the women struggling against threatened removals by the establishment of the Fulani coal mine are being assisted by WoMin (Women in Mining) which is a new regional alliance of organisations which emphasizes solidarity among women. Recently it convened a gathering of activisists from some 24 different organisations in the region calling for building ‘popular alliances against Big Coal” and a new form of development “that recognises and supports the work of care and reproduction”. (WoMin Declaration 24.1.2015). A women’s wing of the new organisation Mining Affected Communities in Action (MACUA) has been established. These organisations are responding to how black, working class women are the ‘shock absorbers’ of the climate crisis, experiencing most intensely the devastating impacts of rising food prices water pollution and energy poverty. They are building ‘counter power’ in what could develop into a form of transformative feminism.

Some of these coalitions linking conservation and community groups are focusing on strategic litigation in ways that are empowering. For example a coalition of eight civil society and community organisations  represented by  the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) have instituted legal action against the Minister of Mineral Resources following his granting of a coal mining right to Atha-Africa Ventures inside the sensitive Mabola Protected Environment. CER and the older organisations such as the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies   are building the capacity of communities in terms of their rights (and mining companies’ obligations) in terms of the Constitution, NEMA, the National Water Act new mining requirements, and other applicable laws”.. as well as “the different avenues of recourse for violations of environmental  rights” (CALS, 2014:30).

Furthermore new alliances between labour and environmental activists are emerging. Many trade unionists emphasize the links between the climate crisis and neo-liberal capitalism. This found organisational expression in two COSATU committees established in 2010 consisting of representatives from all affiliates and from key environmental organisations. These structures have survived the turmoil in COSATU, promoted shared research into coal mining, chemicals and poultry farming with NUM, CEPPWAWU and FAWU. Following discussion at a workshop in Durban in July 2011 on climate change the Central Executive Committee of COSATU meeting on  22 – 24 August 2011 and attended by National office bearers, representatives of the 20 affiliated unions and 9 provincial structures, adopted  a Climate Change Policy Framework which stated its commitment to a ‘just transition’ and stressed that Capitalist accumulation has been the underlying cause of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore global warming and climate change (COSATU, 2012).

Two broad approaches to the notion of a ‘just transition’ exist: the minimalist position which emphasizes shallow, reformist change with green jobs, social protection, retraining and consultation. The emphasis is defensive and shows a preoccupation with protecting the interests of vulnerable workers. An alternative notion views the climate crisis as a catalyzing force for   massive transformative change towards socialism. Now expelled from COSATU, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) supports this vision. It is arguing for a socially owned renewable energy sector and other forms of community energy enterprises where the full rights for workers are respected. Social ownership means energy being claimed as a public or common good that can take a mix of different forms such as public utilities, cooperatives or municipal owned entities.

Currently NUMSA is strongly promoting the notion of energy democracy, as a building block towards socialism. “An energy transition can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public – energy democracy. A transfer of resources, capital and infrastructure from private hands to a democratically controlled public sector will need to occur in order to ensure that a truly sustainable energy system is developed…Energy democracy offers perhaps the only feasible route to a new energy system that can protect workers rights and generate decent and stable jobs, make just transition real and be responsive to the needs of communities..”(Sweeney, 2012:3). An understanding of a ‘just transition’ simply limited to the goal of a low carbon economy could contain the embryo of a very different order. But it could also mean the expansion of the present privatised renewable energy programme in which electricity becomes totally unaffordable for the mass of South Africans. As a NUMSA official pointed out, “Renewable energy at the service of capital accumulation could result in even harsher patterns of displacement and appropriation of land than those brought about by other forms of energy” (Abramsky, 2012:349). In the South African context this notion is spreading and understood to involve resisting the agenda of the fossil fuels corporations and reclaiming the energy sector as part of ‘the commons’, public resources that are outside the market and democratically controlled.  Different experimental forms of social ownership of energy are emerging all over the country.

Another example of unions  and environmental organisations collaborating is the Climate Jobs Campaign which has collected 100,000 signatures in support of  creating jobs to address both poverty and climate change.  Based on meticulous research, it has demonstrated that up to three million such jobs, challenging capitalist ownership in favour of community owned projects, are possible.

Some of the activists working with the labour movement come from the environmental justice ‘movement. Members of organisations such as Earthlife Africa, Groundwork, the Vaal Enviromental Justice Alliance and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance as well as newer anti-extractivist organisations such as MACUA and WoMin are bridging ecological and social justice issues and formulating an alternative social order. As with ‘energy democracy’ their foundational concept of environmental justice could be another conceptual building block towards an eco-socialism.

The hybridized and travelling discourse of environmental justice originated in the US in opposition to practices termed ‘environmental racism.’ It was radicalised in South Africa in a rather messy, haphazard process of translation to link the core principles of social justice, equity, heath, human rights, democratic participation, accountability and ecological sustainability. Environmental justice struggles involve a range of mobilising issues, though the most common demands and claims relate to ‘rights’ and health, a tendency related to the constitutional framing of the human right in the post-apartheid constitution proclaiming the right of all “to live in an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being” (Section 24 of the Bill of Rights). But much popular mobilisation is related to access to services such as water and energy and are localised, episodic, discontinuous and are not framed as ‘environmental ‘struggles. However doing so could provide an ideological basis for unified collective action.

The possibility of a unified environmental movement

At present there “is no clearly identifiable, relatively unified and broadly popular environmental movement in the country” (Death, 2014:1216). However this could be changing and here, as elsewhere, a unified environmental movement could “in alliance with others pose a serious threat to the reproduction of capital” (Harvey, 2014:252). Clearly coal, as the main driver of the ecological crisis in the form of climate change constitutes a powerful ground for unified action. Formal alliances in opposition to coal began in 2013 in a partnership between groundwork, Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Environmental Rights to challenge Eskom and are growing. The issues of land dispossession, health impacts through water and air pollution, loss of livelihoods, corruption in the granting of mining licenses and inadequate consultation with frontline communities are some of the grounds for unity. The expansion of coal mining on some of the most fertile land in the country also raises the issue of increasing food insecurity.

“The Food Sovereignty Campaign is mobilising grassroot communities, engaging in activist schools, study groups, establishing food gardens and developing innovative strategies such as bringing together grassroots experiences and ‘expert’ evidence.”

While coal is a cause, food insecurity is acknowledged to be one of the most serious consequences of climate change. Popular mobilisation against the present food regime in South Africa is growing. It is increasingly acknowledged as profoundly unjust in the co-existence of hunger (53% of the population officially classified as experiencing hunger either regularly or intermittently) and food waste (a third of all food produced) and ecologically unstable because of its dependence on fossil fuels. One of the growing initiatives confronting the food regime is the Food Sovereignty Campaign. This is mobilising grassroot communities, engaging in activist schools, study groups, establishing food gardens and developing innovative strategies such as bringing together grassroots experiences and ‘expert’ evidence, as in the case of the 2015 People’s Tribunal on Hunger, Food Prices and Landlessness. In the South African context food sovereignty is “an anti-capitalist emancipatory practice” (Satgar, 2011:1).

The foundational concept of food sovereignty includes agro-ecology and refers to “puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations” (Angus, 2009:53). It involves a comprehensive attack on corporate industrialised agriculture and its social and ecological consequences.  To regain social control, power and democracy in the food system is a direct challenge to capitalist relations. It could also involve a challenge to patriarchal relations from the black working class women who are the ‘shock absorbers’ of the food crisis.

There is a congruence between food sovereignty and the logic of eco-feminism; both emphasize working with rather than against nature.  Furthermore  the challenge to corporate power links to a socialist-feminism which recognises that to free women means deep, transformative change, Embryonic forms of a transformative feminism incorporating these elements and going ‘ representation  are emerging’. This implies women acting in solidarity for collective empowerment rather than individual advancement, to challenge both corporate and patriarchal power “as part of the larger struggle to eradicate domination in all its forms” (Hooks, 2015:22).

Collectively all these initiatives confronting the ecological crisis are demonstrating an alternative paradigm, a different relationship both between human beings and between human beings and nature, what Hilary Wainwright (2014) calls “power as transformative capacity


The ecological transformation that is essential in South Africa involves linking the principles of justice and sustainability and implies that the socialist emphases on class solidarity and collective ownership and democratic control must be connected to two other imperatives: gender justice and a  new narrative of the relation between nature and society. The conceptual building blocks of eco-socialism: food sovereignty, energy democracy, transformational feminism and environmental justice are gaining momentum. New social forms emerging around these ideas embody fragments of a vision of an alternative post-capitalist future.

Jacklyn Cock is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and an honorary research associate of the Society, Work and Development (SWOP) Institute.


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Bond, P. 2015. ‘Climate, water and the potential for South Africa’s ecological restoration’, Unpublished paper.

Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) ‘Changing corporate behaviour: the Mapungubwe case study. (2014)

Cock, J. 2014. ‘The green economy: a just and sustainable development path or a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, Global Labour Journal vol. 5.1.

Death, C. 2014 ‘Environmental Movements, Climate Change, and Consumption in South Africa’, Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol. 40 no 6, pp1215 – 1234

Harvey, D. 2014. Seventeen Contradictions and the end of capitalism New York: Oxford.

Hooks, B. 1988. Talking Back. Thinking feminist, thinking black. New York: Routledgde

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Satgar, V. 2014. ‘South Africa’s Emergent Green Developmental State?” pp 126 -153 in Williams, M. (ed) The End of the Developmental State. Pietermaritzburg: UKZN Press

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  1. Great article pulling all these threads together and demonstrating their linkages – and possibilities. Most importantly, it is thoroughly inspiring. Thank you!

  2. Both meaning & content of ‘ecological transition’ are currently contested: as this article makes clear, restabilizing/recuperative and innovative/democratizing perspectives confront one another. It may be premature to dismiss outright possibility of shift to a post-carbon accumulation cycle globally (however unlikely this may appear in RSA). Struggle-based explorations of diverse forms of appropriate social ownership, as described, only lead to fuller recognition of the magnitude of the challenge: how to redesign a situation in which all inherited institutional structures, powers, jurisdictions and assemblages are “pre-ecological” (belated add-on public agencies,legislation, & corporate environmental depts notwithstanding). Also implicit in the article is a valuable hint concerning the ‘politics of knowledge’ which must be corollary to the transition – observation,description,analysis & action proposal should not be surrendered to technocratic expertise (govt and/or corporate). Local knowledges circulated and generalized in a citizens’ science movement are an indispensable element in any emergent democratizing ecological transition. A final caveat: there may be a danger in reducing today’s multidimensional ecological imbroglio to the single rubric of ‘climate change’.


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