Richard Washington, professor of climate science at the School of Geography and the Environment at Oxford University, recently noted that ‘Africa will be hardest hit by climate change, but has contributed the least to causing that change.’ Southern Africa in particular has suffered from drought for years, exemplified by the extreme water crisis that Cape Town faced in 2018, which has been deemed ‘a wakeup call — for Cape Town and the rest of the world.’ Just this year, the region suffered back-to-back cyclones, which caused flooding and extensive crop damage. The subsequent hunger crisis is hitting both urban and rural zones, provoking economic devastation and large-scale livestock losses.

It goes without saying that the entire world is experiencing the impact of climate change — everything from unusually high temperatures, disappearing glaciers, long droughts and extreme wildfires to superstorms and flooding. But ‘Southern Africa, specifically, is suffering from water and food shortages, which are worsening economic conditions.’ The threat to the all-important agricultural sector is clear. ‘Temperatures are increasing in southern Africa faster than the worldwide average,’ and rainfall patterns are shifting toward longer dry spells which, combined with rising temperatures, reduce available water.

Amid this looming catastrophe, the South African government and South African financial institutions continue to bankroll billions in fossil fuels, chiefly coal, but also liquified natural gas (LNG).

There are, of course alternatives to an accelerating descent into climate chaos. Thuli Makama, Africa Senior Advisor at Oil Change International, argues that “South Africa’s public finance must instead support a just transition from fossil fuels that protects workers, communities, and the climate — both at home and beyond its borders — in order to build a more resilient future. Instead of bankrolling another major crisis — climate change — South Africa should invest in the future.”

The Climate Justice Charter takes a big step toward a just transition in South Africa. Following in the illustrious path broken by the 1955 Freedom Charter, many of whose clauses were incorporated into the country’s post-Apartheid 1994 Constitution, the Climate Justice Charter offers a grassroots-driven framework for ‘deep just transition’ through systemic alternatives and democratic reforms from below.

The Charter is the product of years of political organizing. The South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and allies have been leading the building of a mass based climate justice movement for the past six years, during the worst drought in the history of the country. Their mass driven resistance has included a hunger tribunal, drought speak outs, a national bread march, food sovereignty festivals, and the development of their own Food Sovereignty Act which they took to parliament and several government departments. The Campaign has also led protest actions against food corporations, the media, the stock exchange and SASOL Ltd, whose Secunda coal-to-fuels and chemicals plant is the world’s biggest single-site emitter of greenhouse gases.

In September 2018 after a strategic dialogue with movements and drought affected communities it was agreed to intensify efforts to develop a climate justice charter for South Africa. By October of 2018, when the UN put out its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the movement called upon the President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa to convene an emergency sitting of parliament to deliberate on the climate science urgency for South Africa’s climate change and deep just transition policies. The response was a deafening silence. This led the Campaign in 2019 to hold deep dialogues with drought affected communities, the media, labour unions, children/youth and social and environmental justice organisations. The dialogues spurred  a series of think pieces written by various activists, while leading climate scientists in the country prepared a supporting climate science future document for the emerging Climate Justice Charter Process. All this work of resistance, dialogue and learning culminated in a draft climate justice charter, out of a national conference in November 2019. Since then the document has received online input, including from a children/youth led online assembly on June 16, 2020. The Climate Justice Charter was formally launched on August 28, 2020.

On October 16 the Climate Justice Charter will be taken to South Africa’s national parliament, with the demand it be adopted as per section 234 of the South African constitution, which provides for charters to be adopted. All political parties will be invited to a debate on the Charter and will be asked to champion its adoption based on the current consensus climate science which highlights that South Africa and Southern Africa are heating at twice the global average. Accompanying the Charter to parliament will be A Climate Science Future for South Africa, the climate-science document authored by leading climate scientists at Johannesburg’s Wits University, which details the specific challenges facing South Africa, and the need for systemic alternatives to business-as-usual.

The Corporate Mapping Project sees great virtue in the Climate Justice Charter, and potential for similar initiatives elsewhere. Indeed, as India-based Kafila recently commented, ‘we in India can learn from, build on and connect to such initiatives globally, especially from the global South.’ Climate justice advocates in Canada: take heed!

The Climate Justice Charter is available here; a press release on the launch  of  Climate  Justice  Charter  and  National  Day  of  Action to End Hunger, Thirst and Climate Harm can be found here.

Author: Bill Carroll and Vishwas Satgar

William K. Carroll, a University of Victoria Professor of Sociology, co-directs the Corporate Mapping Project.

Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He edits the book series Democratic Marxism and serves as principal investigator for the Emancipatory Futures Studies in the Anthropocene project. He is the co-founder of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and has been active in the development of a Climate Justice Charter for South Africa.