‘Toilets, washbasins and geysers last maintained by apartheid.’ Protester in Durban, December 2011. ©David Le Page.
Published 18 November 2012 by the Sunday Times (in print, but not online)
Since the tragic massacre at Marikana, there’s been increasing discussion of the problem of South Africa’s terrifying inequality. But commentators and government representatives get rather shy when it comes to talking about real solutions. They take refuge in calls for ‘solidarity’, ‘symbolic steps’, ‘dialogue’ and, as ever, ‘poverty reduction’.
These calls are at best timid and ignorant of the real nature of inequality, and at worst, evasive.
Eight thousand kilometres from Nkandla, the Uruguayan president, Jose Mujica, eschews his official residence for his wife’s shabby old farmhouse, and gives a large portion of his salary to the poor. That’s real solidarity.
But since we’re not yet seeing that kind of solidarity here, let’s talk frankly about two things: Firstly, the ways in which the very existence of excessive wealth actually creates poverty, and secondly, what some real solutions might look like.
Published in Business Day, 19 November 2012
THE other day, I spotted a small flurry of activity just outside my front door. A gecko had died and its body was covered in black ants. Within days, the ants reduced it to a shell of crumbling skin.
The world is full of beings and processes that support us in ways we take for granted, just as some take for granted their domestic workers. Yet this symphony of all life on Earth, “biodiversity”, is profoundly threatened. The word is almost designed to sound inconsequential. Yet biodiversity is the sum and wonder of all species on Earth — perhaps all species in the universe.
Last month, the Convention on Biological Diversity met in India. The world barely noticed, which is amazing compared with the attention given to climate change, because the biodiversity crisis is more advanced than the climate crisis.
Consider all we take for granted: every dead creature is returned to the greater ecology by other creatures; plants and plankton make every breath of oxygen. Continue reading
Published in Informanté, November 2012
You’ve probably heard it said a hundred times that South Africa has one of the world’s best constitutions. But do we have the world’s best parliament? Hm…
So what would a really great parliament look like?
Well, we’d probably have members of parliament (MPs) who run strong constituency offices and are visible in the communities they represent. They would be standing up regularly for the rights of the vulnerable. Like MPs in the UK and members of congress in the US, they’d have no hesitation in criticising the leaders of their own parties or big businesses that abuse their power and influence. But unlike US congresspeople, they would not be receiving enormous amounts of money from special interests and handing out endless favours in return. Unlike the British government, they would not be giving more attention to the needs of bankers than to those of ordinary people.
We have good people in our parliament, but who knows of a South African MP like that? Anyone? So why don’t we have a parliament like that?
A big problem is that our current institutions Continue reading
Published 10 October 2012 in Groundup. This article relates climate change to South Africa’s conventional and failed mode of development, which is over-reliant on extractive industries, heedlessly dependent on fossil fuel, and generates wealth for the few and poverty for many.
There’s an astonishing blind spot that afflicts most of South Africa’s elites and intelligentsia, and indeed, our civilisation. It’s particularly tragic that South Africa, which suffered nearly 10 years of HIV denialism, should now also be afflicted by climate change denial.
If you’ve never been scared witless by climate change, then you clearly just don’t understand it or know enough about it – because the effects of what we are doing to this planet with our unending emissions from coal, gas, oil and deforestation are absolutely terrifying.
When I refer to climate change denial, I’m not referring to the contrarians, attention seekers and paid propagandists for the oil industry who claim that climate change is not happening or that humanity is not responsible. Rather, I refer to the kind of denialism that formally acknowledges that climate change is happening – but then refuses to engage in a genuinely honest assessment of what that actually means. Continue reading
This is the text of a talk I did on 27 May at TEDxTableMountain, at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. It should perhaps be prefaced by saying that it is not an argument for communism or punishing the wealthy, nor for removing decent and proportionate incentives for hard work and enterprise. The video of this talk can be viewed here – or you can find it at the bottom of this article.
I’m an environmental journalist. I believe that the environmental crisis is mostly a human crisis. It reflects profound imbalances of power in human relationships, and it won’t be solved just by switching to renewable energy and electric cars and improved seed varieties.
To restore the Earth, and that’s what we now need to do, we must begin by restoring the relationships between ourselves.
Slide: ‘It is all wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums.’
Which of course is something we should be doing anyway – but it’s a priority we seem too often to have lost sight of.
I am speaking today about what is for some people, a very sensitive topic: how we distribute wealth in most of today’s economies and societies, and particularly here in South Africa. Wealth and income, of course, is just one dimension of inequality.
VIDEO: The case for the maximum wage – David Le Page at TEDxTableMountain, May 2012
One of my bigger jobs last year was to prepare a revised edition of the HSRC Press’s book, Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli, originally edited by Gerald Pillay in 1993. The biggest part of that work was researching and writing a section on Luthuli’s legacy. In pursuit of a more intimate understanding of one of South Africa’s greatest leaders, and the continent’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner, I interviewed some of those who still remember him in person: Ben Turok, one of the last Treason Trialists still in Parliament; Pallo Jordan, a former ANC exile, cabinet minister and renowned historian; and Ela Gandhi, grand-daughter of Mahatma Gandhi, and daughter to Manilal Gandhi, who was a close associate of Luthuli.
It was amazing to meet and talk to these three veterans of South African struggle history, and to build up through their eyes, an image of a truly remarkable man. Though Mandela’s legacy perhaps now outshines Luthuli in popular memory, the latter was certainly no less remarkable.
One of the key questions about the life of Luthuli is the extent to which he did, or didn’t, support the beginning of the armed struggle against apartheid, led by Mandela. It is clear that while a deep commitment to non-violence was more than just a strategic principle for Luthuli, a man of profound Christian faith who was inspired by Gandhi, it seems it also became impossible for him to stand against the pressure of oppression and hatred of oppression that eventually precipitated the armed struggle. Continue reading
Replacing a sea front that used to be concrete, restored dunes now protect the shore at Durban's North Beach.
How do we heal the planet, Mother Earth? Not with technology, but with people.
Dealing with the issue of climate change demands acknowledging that humanity is racing headlong towards destroying the world as we know it. Which can make keeping one’s psychological moorings intact quite difficult (something under-estimated, I suspect, by most employers in the environmental sector). I often seek mental anchorage in the growing movement for ecological restoration, which the eco-technocrats sometimes call ecosystems-based adaptation, and permaculture – “you can solve all the world’s problems in a garden”, says one of its leading lights. Well, the milieu demands we all become gardeners.
Ecological restoration is the art Continue reading
Democracy leaders: Norwegians gathered in Oslo in July 2011, following a horrific mass shooting, calling for more democracy to meet terror. Pic: Escribanas
Over the last year, I have become increasingly convinced that a key solution to dealing with our global lack of action on climate change lies in building democracies. That’s not easy, nor is it a very heartening conclusion when democracies are sliding backwards everywhere, as the Economist Intelligence Unit concluded in 2010 in a report entitled ‘Democracy index 2010: Democracy in retreat’. I certainly think democracy is currently retreating in the United States and South Africa.
At dinner this evening, I found myself engaged in a somewhat passionate conversation with a friend and colleague who works in corporate sustainability, and who was arguing, if I do him justice, that we cannot rely on democracies to steer us in the right direction on climate change, and that we need ‘philosopher kings’, enlightened people of great power and influence to steer us through the climate crisis.
Is he right?
If my argument is good, then the world’s most democratic countries should also be its most sustainable countries.
Let’s take a look. The table below ranks the top ten democracies according to Continue reading