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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Environmental activists are taking up the slack left by…

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Our Constitution protects our right “to an environment that is not harmful to our health or wellbeing”.

Environmental activists are a tough lot and don’t give up easily. In my case, advocating for sustainable development in Johannesburg, the challenges have many faces but the most threatening are property developers who push the envelope.

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In 2021, the Greater Kyalami Conservancy (Gekco) and I, as chair, were summonsed due to a request by a developer, for allegedly delaying the construction of two projects in Kyalami. Our “punishment”: pay R197-million to make up for the delay. Our “crime”? Lodging objections during the public participation process to the encroachment of the development and roads into wetlands, then defending those ­objections in a tribunal and appeals. 

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In our defence, we argue the developer’s action is a classic example of strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPP. This tactic, recognised by the Constitutional Court, serves to silence critics and, through protracted legal proceedings, drain the resources of those being sued.

We have pro bono legal assistance, which gives us a glimpse into the powerful network of environmental justice groups and legal minds working to ensure human rights are protected. With such threats and intimidation, a growing force of active citizens is taking up the slack left by the government.

In the environmental sphere, this takes the form of cleanup campaigns, installing and monitoring litter traps in rivers, and whistle-blowing on illegal developments.

I have met activists from many communities, both affluent and marginalised — the latter bearing the brunt of a breakdown in law enforcement and service delivery. 

In the Jukskei River in Alexandra and wetlands in Diepsloot, water courses are rapidly being filled in with illegal dumping. 

Checks and balances put in place to protect our environment are often not enforced. 

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Instead of support from authorities, ­activists and whistle-blowers (and in some cases, the authorities themselves) are intimidated and threatened. Vested interests often benefit from environmental degradation. 

Environmental activism has even been met with threats of violence or death.

Authorities mandated to enforce environmental protections need to be bolstered and buffered from political interference. Without this, we are enabling a deteriorating environment that could threaten our lives. 

Ask the people living near the coalfields of Mpumalanga.

In 2011, a more sustainable and equitable city was articulated in the spatial plan for Joburg, which aimed to curb urban sprawl. The importance of rural green belts like Kyalami was recognised and honoured.

However, this vision is crumbling. As municipal decay takes hold amidst constant changes in leadership, community and civil society groups are alienated from decision-making. People feel their rights are being trampled on and inputs ignored. 

What has happened to meaningful public participation? Communities know their issues best and often hold the solutions.

I have been inspired by my activist colleagues from Diepsloot, Tembisa and Alex, from Moreleta Park and Roodepoort, from the Wild Coast and Philippi in the Cape.

We come from a diversity of backgrounds and cultures. Our commonality is that we hold a better, cleaner, healthier vision for our community and environment.

I invite you to meet some of these community activists and hear their stories at the Human Rights Festival on 25 and 26 March at Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. We have a session on “Listening and Learning from Community Voices” at 10am on Saturday, 25 March. DM168

Kristin Kallesen is chair of the Greater Kyalami Conservancy.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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