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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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A passion for social justice

16 May 2023 at 11:11 am

Wandisa Phama is the incoming Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Rights. An admitted attorney and human rights activist, with over a decade of experience in various roles in the public interest law sector, she is passionate about advancing social justice. We spoke to her about her commitment to taking the CER forward.


What inspired you to pursue a career in public interest environmental law?

I tend to approach the question in a broader sense, looking back at what inspired me to pursue a career in social justice. Growing up in a small town in rural Eastern Cape, I was raised in a working-class home by my grandparents while my mother worked in Cape Town.

When I visited Cape Town for the first time around 2000, I became aware of the disparities between cities and rural communities when it came to access to services and resources. This drew me to a discomfort with a sense of injustice, which I did not have a language for at the time.

Watching the TV show “Justice for All,” I knew that I wanted to become a lawyer to change the injustice that I had witnessed.  At the University of Cape Town’s Law Faculty, I interacted with other students from different backgrounds, including those who grew up in privilege and wealth. However, the noticeable small number of black students and lecturers in the faculty made me even more determined to pursue social justice and human rights. We needed more Black lawyers and academics if we were going to eloquently speak to and work to resolve the injustices I had become aware of growing up.

I began my legal career taking research positions in different human rights organisations until I joined the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) about 9 years ago, where I worked on access to basic services matters and later transitioned to focus on business and human rights. With CALS being based at Wits University, I had the opportunity to teach several courses including a course in Business and Human Rights and a few courses in Environmental Law. For me, as a Black legal practitioner, having Black lawyers teaching law was just as important as practicing law, as I strongly believe that representation matters in both academia and practice. Teaching environmental law was an interesting experience for me as a young Black professional. It mattered that there were more of us who taught those kinds of courses, as environmental law is often be perceived as an issue that is divorced from immediate and pressing social justice issues. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Environmental degradation and lack of access to resources are human rights issues that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, including black women in rural and mining-affected areas.

My early experiences and my desire to pursue and live in a just and equal society that I developed at a young age ultimately led me to pursue a career in social justice, culminating in my work in environmental law and this environmental justice organisation.

You’ve had a really interesting career that has taken you on a very distinct path. How have your experiences prepared you for your role as director of the Centre for Environmental Rights?

Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work in a variety of roles and organisations that focused on human rights. I have been privileged to gain exposure to different fields of the law through a human rights lens, such as working in refugee law matters, access to basic education, access to basic serves, including accesses to housing and challenging corporations to comply with human rights. While at CALS, I took on two distinct leadership roles that I believe paved the path for this role. I worked as the Head of the Business and Human Rights Programme and also held a Co-Acting Deputy Director position, which provided me with a broad range of experiences and skills that prepared me for my current position. I then moved to the CER, where I’ve been for more than 4 years now, and where I worked as the Deputy Director and acting Executive Director on several occasions when Melissa, our former Executive Director was away.

The last 4 and half years of working as the Deputy Director at the CER truly stretched my capacity as a leader. Our leadership practice of collective leadership between my ED and I taught me the ins and outs of the role I am now taking on and feel quite prepared for.

Can we take a step back just for a minute and look at the bigger picture: What are the biggest challenges facing South Africa in terms of environmental protection?

The challenges are many and stem from various causes – mostly a legacy left by the Apartheid era. We are talking about pollution in different forms, that is affecting the environment as well as the health and safety of our people.

If you take issues facing mining-affected communities for example. As a country we are facing a huge challenge of the lack of rehabilitation of the environment in the course of mining and when mines conclude their operations. They extract resources from the land and leave it in a far more degraded state than they found it. This exposes communities to various dangers affecting already scarce water resources and posing threats to safety as people and livestock are likely to fall into pits that are left unfenced and unrehabilitated.

Air pollution is another significant problem, and through the CER’s Deadly Air case, it took years of litigation, advocacy and efforts to raise awareness about the connection between air pollution, health and wellbeing, and how coal-fired power stations are the main drivers behind people’s ill health in places like the Mpumalanga highveld where most of the power stations are situated.

Then of course there’s the overall contribution to climate change, and the impacts we will suffer as a result of that. It’s no secret that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels such as coal is one of the main contributors to climate change. In addition to water scarcity, South Africa is also particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, so industrial scale developments or activities that exacerbate climate harms and disproportionately use water resources or emit greenhouse gases, are compromising the wellbeing of all in the country, as well as of future generations. Planning and implementation is often inappropriate, or even illegal, and developments are pursued for the financial benefit of a few. State decision-makers unfortunately often support these developments without adequately protecting the applicable constitutional rights. Our state-owned financial institutions also continue to play a leading role in making sure that the dirty fossil fuel industry stays afloat.   These are just some of the critical issues that need to be addressed. It is important to point out these issues are playing themselves out in the middle of a global climate crisis and urgent responses are required from organisations such as ours, and civil society in general. Contrary to some political rhetoric, addressing these issues does not in any way diminish the responsibility that primarily rests with the state to tackle issues of unemployment and inequality.

And so what role, then, does the Centre for Environmental Rights play in addressing these challenges?

The Centre for Environmental Rights has played an important and ongoing role in various areas. Through its advocacy work, CER highlights issues that violate the law or that create unjust or unacceptable risk or harm. We collaborate with communities most affected by these problems to raise awareness or litigate.

In addition, the Centre runs the Rights and Remedies School annually, which offers intensive training on environmental law for activists from all over the country.

Another aspect of our work is strategic litigation, which is utilised when conversations, engagement and participation don’t lead to progress. While litigation can be a slow and expensive process, it has proven to be an effective tool, as demonstrated by the Centre’s track record and the success of other public interest law organisations.

By building on our advocacy work and utilising litigation as a tool, the Centre for Environmental Rights has made significant strides in advancing environmental justice and working with partners engaged in similar efforts.

And how do you plan to collaborate with government agencies but also other stakeholders? I mean, partnerships are so important for CER to ensure that environmental laws are enforced and that South Africa actually meets its international obligations.

Different audiences require different approaches, and the Centre for Environmental Rights recognises this.

When it comes to the government and regulators, the organisation has a culture of taking the amicable route of discussion with officials based on sound reasoning, backed by evidence and science to bring their attention to environmental issues. This approach can be effective in some cases, but when it falls short, litigation becomes necessary. The organisation has found that playing both roles – advocating and litigating – can be quite effective when dealing with the government and ultimately contributes to better decision making for the communities we represent.

As a public interest law organisation, the Centre for Environmental Rights also works closely with other civil society organisations. Collaborating with others, such as groundWork and Earthlife Africa, has led to amazing work, particularly in the Life After Coal campaign. The organisation will be continuing this collaboration and many other in the future as we truly believe in the power of doing this important work with in partnerships.

The issues of climate change that the Centre is currently grappling with, require collaborations with partners that do not necessarily work on environmental issues. For example, one cannot effectively look at environmental degradation and climate issues without also addressing the disproportioned burdens borne by women in those instances, therefore collaborating with partners in the gender movement becomes crucial.

Similarly, future generations will bear the brunt of the harmful impacts of irresponsible activity, and so we also work with youth lead organisations and public interest groups working on child law and children’s rights. In addition, it goes without saying that finance is always a key factor – so we collaborate with organisations working on finance and economics.

Increasingly working on environmental issues, where there are often powerful corporate actors involved, brings about threats to activists, affected communities and lawyers. The issue of human rights defenders being bullied by corporations and others, cannot be addressed just within the environmental justice movement. These require broader collaborations and networks.

We spoke about environmental protection earlier and I want to talk about environmental justice issues. What, in your view, are the most pressing? And by that I mean not just what you are dealing with now but what you need to be involved in, in future?

The climate crisis and its impacts, such as human rights threats, are becoming increasingly apparent.  Reflecting on events like the floods in Durban last year and the resulting loss of life, housing, and water contamination, it’s clear that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Climate change impacts are already here and will only intensify the climate crisis, and decisive responses from government and other role-players are essential to tackle it. One critical aspect to be addressed is the “just transition” which, in simple terms, refers to the need to move from a fossil fuels-based economy to a low-carbon one, while ensuring justice in how this transition is made, so that people are not left behind. There has been much high-level engagement on just transition-related issues, but we need to ensure that people are equipped to participate meaningfully in that process. Providing information on what is being consulted on, is essential to making participation meaningful. It’s vital to make sure that, even as we transition, we are protecting people and communities most affected by environmental degradation.

Environmental injustice must be addressed at a policy level, but it’s also essential to make sure that these conversations are not exclusionary to those most affected. There’s a heavy reliance on civil society for this aspect of the work, which is not always appropriate. Government must do more to ensure meaningful participation at all levels.

How do you envision the Centre for Environmental Rights contributing to the transition towards a more sustainable and climate-resilient future in South Africa?

As an organisation, we’ve been doing several things and we will continue to do so on the transition. One of the things that we’ve been effective in is asking the right kinds of questions in this transition and calling for transparency, especially around climate-related finance. I recall at COP 26, there was a big announcement of South Africa receiving funds from other countries, amounting to 8.5 billion USD. However, it was unclear for a very long time what those funds were for and how they would be allocated.

Together with some of our partners, we wrote to the President, asking what the funds were for and how they were going to be used. Since then, we’ve been participating in all the opportunities we’ve been given, including the just transition dialogue and different dialogues on the investment plan itself. Recently, we submitted comments on that Just Energy Transition Investment Plan.

We take up these spaces and ask questions about transparency, not just for ourselves, but also to disseminate that information to the communities we work with in this space. We will continue to work on transparency, engage in the platforms that the government creates.

Working with partners EarthLife Africa and groundWork through the Life After Coal Campaign, we were one of the first organisation to publish a position on the just transition in our Just Transition Open Agenda. The booklet is a formal declaration of the Campaign’s position on what a truly just and equitable transition is, and one that goes beyond the current narrow focus of a just energy transition.

Can we talk about your vision for the organisation? As Executive Director, you are taking over an organisation that has a very, very high profile with an established body of work. What is your vision? What steps do you plan to take to ensure that the CER remains at the forefront of environmental law and advocacy in South Africa?

I am highly privileged to be taking on leadership of a very solid organisation with a great foundation and an even better legacy from Melissa as CER’s first Executive Director. CER has been at the forefront of pushing for environmental justice using strategic environmental litigation as its distinguishing tool from other organisations for a number of years. For me, having a knowledgeable and reliable team internally is a fantastic place to start. Over the past few years, we have been working on ensuring that we have the right people in the right positions for the right kind of work in a space and culture that is conducive.

While we will continue working on ground-breaking cases and advocacy, this moment also requires more from us.

Coming from a human rights background working in a public interest environmental organisation as a Black woman in a leadership position, the past 4 years have been an interesting experience with lot of lessons along the way. Earlier I referred to the misconception of environmental justice matters as divorced from other social justice struggles. I see these issues as interconnected. What happens in communities living with contaminated water in unrehabilitated mining areas where Gog’ Mamngxongo lives is both an environmental and a human rights violations issue. In that, I see my role as leading a CER that is able to weave those two concepts together in a way that protects the environment and is people centred to protect human rights. Speaking of the climate crisis and working on these issues in a way that is easy to understand and follow and is relatable whether you are engaging with lawmakers, communities in rural and urban areas or arguing matters in court, is going to be an important aspect of our work for me in the next few years.

I also want to expand our work into the academic field. The Centre does ground-breaking work, and being able to link it closely to academia in practical ways is one of the things I am really excited to do. I have often joked with colleagues at the Centre that the CER’s website is a dream to go to, when I had environmental law course to teach. You can find a virtual library with the most current issues, comments, and environmental law developments.

Additionally, the Centre has an international profile, and I look forward to working with partners and agencies outside of South Africa, given that environmental law work and the climate crisis are really cross-border issues. Recently, some colleagues attended a meeting in Kenya, discussing how to support environmental law work within the African continent itself.

I look forward to taking that forward to make sure that the Centre’s work connects with the needs and issues that the continent is facing regarding and environmental justice issues and the climate crisis.

CER Executive Director – Wandisa Phama