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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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2020: An unprecedented start to a critical decade

8 December 2020 at 12:59 pm

Illustration: Phathu Nembilwi for CER
Illustration: Phathu Nembilwi for CER

As we share this message to reflect on the events of 2020, we acknowledge the extraordinary circumstances of this year and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on lives, health, and livelihoods for people in our country, and around the world. Our staff has been touched by the COVID-19 pandemic in many ways, and our thoughts are with everyone who has lost family and friends to COVID-19.

In this same year that we honour a decade of CER’s activism, advocacy and litigation for environmental justice since we opened our doors in 2010, the unprecedented public health crisis of 2020 has required us to regroup, and reach out in new ways. The profound social crisis of inequality and poverty – set on fire by the pandemic – has required us to re-evaluate our strategic focus and priorities; and the pace at which the climate crisis and ecological breakdown are accelerating towards tipping points have given us a new sense of purpose and urgency in this critical decade of climate action.

Important milestones of 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, CER supported the Mining and Environmental Justice Community Network of South Africa in the delivery of thousands of food parcels to households in distressed communities. We also stepped in to work with old and new community and civil society partners to support communities without access to water – so essential to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The problem of access to reliable drinking water in many communities across South Africa is of course not new, and we will continue to seek both short and longer term solutions with partners and government in 2021.

Low points

One of the low points of 2020 was the Environment Minister’s decision in March to publish sulphur dioxide (SO2) air pollution standards that are twice as weak as the previous standards –  this despite strenuous and scientifically backed objections by many civil society organisations, and following a 2019 court case which forced the Minister to withdraw and republish the proposed weaker standard for public comment.

In October, we were devastated by the assassination of environmental justice activist and grandmother Fikile Ntshangase, who had been an outspoken critic of the damage caused by the Tendele anthracite mine to her community and the environment at Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal. For many, this murder reopened the wounds of the still unresolved murder of Amadiba Crisis Committee Chair Sikosiphi Bazooka Rhadebe in March 2016. The campaign to see justice done for these horrific crimes continues. More below about how you can help.

What lies ahead

In these uncertain times, change and adaptation are the new normal. These are some of the major developments we expect in 2021:

  • The hearing by the Pretoria High Court of the landmark “Deadly Air” pollution case against government on 17-19 May 2021. Environmental justice groups groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement launched this Constitutional litigation in June 2019, requesting the court to declare that the poor ambient air quality in the Highveld Priority Area constitutes a violation of the Constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or well-being. They are also asking the court to order the government to take further steps to improve the air quality in the area. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment has been admitted as an amicus curiae (friend of the court) in the case.
  • The hearing by the Pretoria High Court of a civil society coalition’s appeal of the Water Tribunal decision to uphold the water use licence for a new coal mine in a strategic water source area in Mpumalanga. What makes this case of even wider importance is that the mining company’s attacks on the civil society organisations challenging the mine, and CER as their attorneys, have necessitated the application by seven other public interest law organisations to join the case as friends of the court.
  • Judgement in the Western Cape High Court in the opposed exception filed to the defendants’ plea in the SLAPP suits (strategic litigation against public participation) against environmental defenders and activists brought by Australian mining company MRC. In the plea, the defendants argue that the lawsuits brought against them are an abuse of court process, and violate their Constitutional rights.
  • New legal challenges to ensure that new coal developments, and associated infrastructure, are not approved without transparency, and without a comprehensive consideration of their environmental, water and climate impacts – particularly in Mpumalanga and Limpopo – and to ensure that existing coal developments plan and make adequate financial provision for closure and rehabilitation.
  • The emergence of a coordinated civil society campaign, supported by legal challenges, aimed at ensuring that we do not commit the country to unnecessary and climate destructive investments in new fossil gas developments.
  • The launch of a new Environmental Justice Fund, convened by our partner groundWork, to support the growth and development of community environmental justice organisations.

Over the next 3 years, CER will sharpen our work in support of a society that is based on justice and equality in which all people and the environment can thrive, now and in the future, recognising the way in which our environment sustains life on earth. This includes working towards the following outcomes:

  • an informed, resourced and diverse environmental justice movement led by and serving those most affected by the exploitation of people and planet;
  • laws and policies affecting the environment and climate that promote and secure Constitutional rights, and that are implemented and enforced in a transparent, lawful and accountable way; and
  • institutions with power that hear the concerns of the environmental justice movement, rely on sound science, and take action to address environmental and social injustice, the climate crisis and ecological breakdown.

We thank all our clients, partners and funders for participating in our #CER10YEARS events in October, and for your ongoing support during 2020. We will be back for more in January 2021!

Mam Fikile Ntshangase, by Sindiso Nyoni (mbokodo = rock)

What you can do to help

2020 has been an extraordinarily difficult year for community environmental justice activists and human rights defenders. Not only have many activists lost their usual meagre source of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, but they have faced unprecedented intimidation and attacks. While civil society organisations, now bolstered by the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network and Fund, have come together to provide financial, legal and security support for activists at risk, we could not prevent the cold-blooded murder of Mam Fikile Ntshangase in October 2020.

At the end of this year, and in consultation with the Ntshangase family, we appeal to friends and supporters of CER to consider making a donation towards the education of Mam Fikile’s 13 year old grandson. Mam Fikile’s grandson grew up with his grandmother, and is a smart and curious young man. He is committed to completing his schooling and doing well to honour the memory of his grandmother. In particular, he is need of a laptop to help him with his online schooling.  If you would like to contribute to his education, please visit our Support Us page and indicate “MamFikile” in the reference or message.

You are also welcome to donate to CER’s work in general through our Support Us page.