Events at Nkandla remind me of another South African near-insurrection

It seems to be the year for insurrections. 

Of course, there was the attempted Capitol Hill insurrection in the US in January. But what current events at Nkandla – efforts to persuade former president and kleptocrat-in-chief Jacob Zuma to surrender to arrest for contempt of court – remind me of is another event that many South Africans may have forgotten or never heard of: the so-called Battle of Ventersdorp. 

It was a violent confrontation in August 1991 (so almost exactly 30 years ago) between the then-National Party government and the AWB – the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the Neo-Nazi hard rightwingers who were ready to fight for white supremacy in South Africa at almost any cost. It fell in the four-year interregnum between the unbanning of the ANC and release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and the first sort-of democratic elections in 1994. (I say “sort-of democratic”, because as we’ve come to learn, a party-list parliament without meaningful constituency accountability is not really the democracy we need.)

I had a somewhat unique view of the Battle of Ventersdorp. Not that I was there; I wasn’t. I was 60 km south of Ventersdorp, a conscript in the then all-white South African Defence Force, at an artillery base five kilometres outside the Afrikaans university town of Potchefstroom: 4 Art, as it was known. 

Ventersdorp, 100km west of Johannesburg, was then notorious as an AWB stronghold. The Battle of Ventersdorp was one of the most serious challenges from the white far-right to the authority of the National Party government, which by then had committed itself to some form of constitutional settlement with the ANC. 

I’ve had to refresh my own memory. Wikipedia describes it thus:

The confrontation took place outside the Ventersdorp town hall where then State President F.W. de Klerk was scheduled to hold a public address. Ventersdorp was then a political stronghold of the right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), which had opposed de Klerk’s decision to recognise the African National Congress and release Nelson Mandela the previous year. The town was inundated by angry AWB supporters the day of de Klerk’s speech, including some carrying arms. The South African Police responded by setting up roadblocks and confiscating weapons… The AWB supporters numbered 2,000. They were armed with hunting rifles and pistols and wore protective items to shield them from the effects of an inevitable tear gas attack by the riot police. The police equalled the AWB in number, but were considerably better trained and equipped… Once the AWB cut the electricity and fired on the police, the police were ordered to shoot to kill. Three policemen were wounded, none of them fatally, while the police killed one AWB member. The AWB also fired into a police minibus. Two AWB members were killed and 13 were injured when the police returned fire from the minibus.

Here’s another account, in the New York Times.

What neither of these accounts entirely captures, and what I know from my own experience, is just how determined the National Party was to defeat the challenge offered by the AWB. 

As the Ventersdorp confrontation loomed, the scale of the AWB threat became clear. It was by no means certain that the SAPS, the white-led apartheid police service, would be able to contain the AWB militia. So there was a back-up plan involving the army. A reserve force, entirely comprised of experienced officers and NCOs in (if my recollection is correct, around 30) armoured cars mounted with heavy machine guns – and I saw these being mounted – was marshalled on the outskirts of Ventersdorp, drawn from the various SADF units based in and around Potch, under the command of my “boss”, the artillery colonel. They were quite ready to swoop in if the police regulars were overwhelmed, and fight off the AWB; fortunately, the confrontation never became quite that bad.

At the time, the SADF had a built-in divide between career officers and NCOs, who were called “permanent force”, and conscripted ordinary soldiers. Many of my fellow conscripts were open AWB supporters. (They were not always the crude racists that this affiliation would suggest, a subject for another day.) The career army officers were well aware of the affiliations of their troops. No doubt some of them shared these sympathies, but they were professionals, by and large loyal to the state. They did not risk including any conscripts in this reserve force. I was instructed to keep quiet about what I knew of these preparations. 

Back to 2021, and here we have another nationalist South African government, now decades in power, faced with a dangerous threat to its authority:

What do these inchoate insurrections have in common? Some thoughts come to mind…

  • Fascism. 
  • In both cases, the would-be insurrectionists seem to be driven by a sense of threatened privilege: white privilege in the case of the AWB; kleptocratic privilege in the case of Zuma. 
  • Carl Niehaus (who somewhere in my mind’s eye is still a young, athletic, principled lefty; what happened?) now bears a spooky resemblance to Eugene Terreblanche, the AWB’s most notorious leader.

I suspect our present ANC government is every bit as determined, in its own way, to neuter the Zuma threat. I shiver to think what invisible preparations are being made behind the scenes to counter it.

These events differ in that the AWB threat came from the far-right of white South African politics, whereas the Zuma mob remains regrettably embedded all too closely within the ANC mainstream. 

Perhaps this is for the best, in a weird sense. My bet, and I truly hope I am right, is that in the end, after much 11th-hour bluster, ANC leaders and elders will succeed in negotiating a peaceful surrender from the old crook. 

(Postscript: They did.)

Some background

How did I come to be a distant witness to the Battle of Ventersdorp?

At the time, military service was compulsory for young white men in South Africa. The devil’s bargain of the apartheid state was turning its children (the human brain doesn’t fully mature until age 25) towards violence and moral compromise. This was of course dressed up as heroic service against the many enemies of the state.

Many young white men of my age and class managed to defer compulsory military service by extending their university studies. That wasn’t an option for me. Following a bout of (undiagnosed, untreated) severe depression, I’d had been forced to drop out of my BA Hons. degree in English literature midway through 1990, and my choices were either to leave SA, go to prison as a conscientious objector (I considered this, but did not have the courage for a likely minimum two years in jail), or go to the army for one year. 

By then, fortunately, the white South African military had withdrawn from its Cold War battles in Angola and Namibia. We were now not the “boys on the border”. As a conscript, I no longer risked being forced to fight against Cubans in Angola or to brutalise SWAPO insurgents in Namibia. The term for conscription had been cut from two years as was the norm during the 1980s to one year only. But conscripts were still pushed into the dirty work of the apartheid state, supporting “police action” in the South African townships, then frequently the site of running battles between the SAPS, ANC supporters, and members of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, who frequently operated as police surrogates. 

I was fortunate. I am nearly blind in my left eye, and so, after being “called up”, got a medical exemption from ever having to fire a gun. I hadn’t anticipated that. But I’d been a practising Buddhist for about two years then, and had become a UDF supporter during my time at the University of Cape Town, so I had no complaints about being non-combatant. The UDF (United Democratic Front) was the 1980s alliance of union and civil society organisations that represented the ANC inside South Africa before its unbanning; and included in its ranks people like our current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

After my six weeks basic training, I was assigned as a clerk in the office of the brigade Colonel, for whom I was running errands on 9 August 1991, an unlikely witness to the preparation of this counter-insurgency operation; at once shocked and impressed by the determination of the National Party to face down a facist threat to its own authority.

My role as a clerk made me privy to a register of firearm and armaments accidents that resulted from conscripts stealing and taking home weapons, and it was a long and horrifying list.

I also remember meeting many prisoners of the military police, some of whom, after repeated periods of going AWOL, had circulated between time in the ranks, civilian prison and military prison for up to eight years, trapped in a military-bureaucratic-penitential purgatory. The military liked to claim that it would make a man of you, and some did thrive and mature, after a fashion, but many others were just broken.

Here’s some further reading:

Theresa Edlmann, The Conversation, 2 September 2015, ‘The lingering, unspoken pain of white youth who fought for apartheid’.

I don’t class myself as bearing the pain described by Edlmann. I was slightly older, and by virtue of my initial university education and experiences of student and progressive politics, morally more fully formed when I was conscripted than were most of my fellow troops. (I still remember the horsing around that ensued when we were issued with rifles; I was horrified both that my companions were playing with real weapons, and that the officers did not check this behaviour. We really were children.) I was never, thankfully, forced into combat or directly morally compromising actions.

In noting the real pain and damage the apartheid state inflicted on its beneficiaries (undue privilege always has a price), I in no way mean to minimise or draw equivalences with the compounding horrors and indignities visited on black South Africans during, before and after that era, which have been consigned all too quickly to wilful forgetfulness. Most white South Africans do not fully understand and recognise the extent of the collective crimes of the apartheid and colonial states in South Africa.

Another impression from those experiences that lives on: the SADF defined itself by its mission to “fight communism”. Yet there can be few better examples of the kind of command economy espoused by state-led communism than the internal economy of an army. The irony was overwhelming: you had to become your enemy to fight them.

The army I was part of had lost its sense of purpose. It was still fighting old wars; we sang marching songs about enemies with whom the politicians had already made peace. Waste and abuse of resources was endemic; resources were “free” and entirely taken for granted by most.

Some countries, notably Costa Rica, have abandoned having a military altogether; and the decision has only helped along their development. Yet how do you defend yourself in a world with other real armies – the need to do so is real. Another subject for another occasion.

On the day of the Global #ClimateStrike, a climate rant.

My climate rant (first published on Facebook).

It seems, from the solid turnout at the Global #ClimateStrike march led by school children in Cape Town today, joining millions more around the world, that more and more people are getting worried about climate breakdown. (Guarded yay… )

But it also seems that even amongst the very well-intended there’s still an absolute s**tload of de facto denial about the extent of the problem and what it’s going to take to undo it.

You care about climate change, you say. You marched behind your children today. (Well, I hope you did.) So why are you still invested in Sasol?

I’m STILL seeing (lots of) people concentrating their focus on personal solutions. “Get on a bike, install LED light bulbs and solar power, drive and fly less” – all these things can be good – and they’re all staggeringly inadequate given that we have to HALVE GLOBAL EMISSIONS IN THE NEXT ELEVEN YEARS if we are to avoid [no, not the end of the world for everyone, but, yes, the end of the world for those whose lives will be destroyed by ever more vicious cyclones and hurricanes in the next decade, total destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, tripling the portion of the world’s population exposed to heat extremes, doubling extinction rates, and bringing us ever closer to passing tipping points in natural systems that could accelerate climate breakdown even when we stop emitting carbon].

People, we are up against corporations like Sasol that have missed every carbon emissions reduction target they have ever set themselves, and you’re still investing in them.

The Arctic and Amazon are burning, and you’re still investing in Sasol (and Billiton, and Exxaro, and Anglo).

We’re up against global fossil fuel corporations that spend more money marketing their pitifully small “green” investments in wind and solar energy than on the investments themselves, companies like Shell that have corrupted whole governments in the service of their ruthless extractivism.

We are up against ANC politicians who still seriously believe there is such a thing as clean coal. I met one in Parliament last week.

We are up against fellow citizens who 20 years after Google was invented still do not bother to check their profoundly misguided assumptions about how we still need coal for “baseload”. (New wind and solar power are now HALF the cost of new coal power in South Africa. Chile cut its electricity prices by 75% in JUST FOUR YEARS by investing substantially in wind and solar energy.) You still love a growly car so much that you’re prepared to leave your household budget hostage to deadly US-Saudi-Iranian geopolitical shenanigans?

Every item of worthy personal, individual change (Meatless Mondays, cycling more, etc) is, IF NOT COMBINED WITH SOCIAL AND POLITICAL ACTION, a half-assed act of self-delusion that is staggeringly inadequate when measured up against the scale of the problems.

Our SA government has supposedly signed up for the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – but three years after signing, our ACTUAL EMISSIONS STILL HAVE US HEADED FOR FOUR DEGREES.

You care about climate change, you say. Again, why are you still invested in Sasol?

Our business media is so terrible that MoneyWeb and Classic Business refuse to cover the fossil fuel divestment movement, even as total global assets under management committed to some form of decarbonisation pass 16% of total global equities.

In our so-called democracy, where we STILL don’t know who the hell funds the ANC or the DA or the EFF, we do know that in 2019 – 2019! – none of them has anything resembling a serious climate change policy; and that the Minister of Mineral and Energy Resources sounds more like a coal industry PR shill than someone who has sworn an oath to uphold a Constitution that promises a safe and secure environment; and that our ostensibly reformist president wants to help the Chinese build yet another absolutely massive coal-powered plant in Limpopo that will completely f**k our national carbon budgets and already teetering water security.

We have a National Treasury that in 2019 can release an economic policy document that (despite many good points) still does not integrate the simple fact that the most fundamental pillar of any economy is the environment, and that South Africa has one of the most degraded environments in the world, but apparently seriously expects this self-cannibalised rust bucket of an economy to be able to accelerate just by putting coal-powered pedal to the metal yet again, without making environmental recovery an over-arching imperative.

These are some of the SYSTEM CHANGES you should be fighting for:

  • Demand that your government and political party has a plan for transitioning the economy to 50% cuts of current emissions by 2030 and 100% by 2040 (the UN says 2050, but we need to be even more ambitious).
  • Demand that your political party discloses its funding and pledges to take no money from the fossil fuel industry.
  • Demand that your asset manager or retirement fund has a plan to decarbonise your portfolio over five years at most (all the evidence is that your returns will only be enhanced, not that Allan Gray or Coronation has bothered to tell you this).
  • Meet your MP. Supposedly we have all have access to a constituency MP in this country. The arrangement’s a bit of a joke really, given MPs answer to our gangster parties, not us, but still: demand to meet your MP, demand their party disclose its funding, demand a serious climate policy, demand a Green New Deal for SA.
  • Demand that we have an electoral system that is not just proportional representation but also has a large constituency element so that you can vote out your local MP if they turn out to be a coal industry shill.
  • Picket the offices of our awful, gobsmackingly blinkered and ignorant news media and besiege the inboxes of their public editors. Today, millions of children around the world marched for the climate – and the headlines on News24 are the Rugby World Cup and, literally, I kid you not, “How to braai the perfect steak”. The editors should be shot, or at the very least, exiled to Beira. The Daily Maverick’s headline is (as usual) something about “Juju”. (Even while publishing its excellent Burning Planet series and noisily proclaiming its dedication to truth, the DM still publishes occasional climate obfuscation without rudimentary fact checking, and has refused to entertain the suggestion that publishing daily climate statistics might be of more lasting consequence than the R/$ exchange rate.) Nothing on Business Day about the climate marches, IOL is talking about some poor woman’s sinus infection, EWN is much more excited about a youth choir. If an asteroid is ever headed for Earth, astronomers will have to name it after a Kardashian for the farcically incompetent SA media to even think about alerting us.
  • Become seriously intolerant of our world-beating inequality. Inequality cripples democracy, and crippled democracies cripple climate action. We need a Green New Deal for South Africa that simultaneously attacks our problems of mass poverty, inequality and degraded environments; and you need to be not just willing but gagging to pay higher taxes to fund it if necessary, because when global catastrophe threatens, it may be time to happily give up the big 4×4, the second home and the annual holidays abroad.
  • Demand that our government starts paying women for just being women, because just being a woman is costly; and fully empowering women is essential to fixing the climate.
  • Don’t think technology alone will save us. Wind and solar energy have huge potential to ween us from fossil fuels, but without political and social solutions, they’ll never reach that potential; and creating eco-friendly agriculture, the other 20% of climate breakdown, requires deep CULTURAL change.

And for pity’s sakes, stop whining about how people are the problem and how we need to “save the planet”. The real, itchy, uncomfortable truth is that rich people are the problem – 20% of the world’s population is responsible for 80% of the emissions. The planet is – yes, really – a living organism currently running a very nasty fever called industrial civilisation, but it will recover with or without us (hopefully with); and if you’re weeping for the whales and the animals and wildlife, please weep as much for people, because in this era, only looking after people properly ensures that other species get the chances they deserve.

The truth about people is that when treated with dignity and freed from the multiple layers of exploitation in which they have all too often been embedded by early 21st century “civilisation”, they, we, almost always become the progenitors of solutions. The problems we have created for ourselves demand that we create a TOTALLY DIFFERENT KIND OF GLOBAL ECONOMY WITHIN ONE GENERATION, A RESTORATIVE/REGENERATIVE/INCLUSIVE ECONOMY; and we have to start seeing our current massive global population not as the problem, but as a global massed choir (not an army) of potentially individually creative spirits who can, who must, start working together to rebuild Mother Earth’s tattered life support systems.

Invest for the future, divest from companies that fuel the climate crisis


Article in the Daily Maverick, 13 June 2019.

South African NGOs and foundations (and unions, schools, universities and faith bodies) can multiply their impact with one simple decision — divesting from companies that are socially irresponsible. And that means — among other things — not investing in corporations that contribute to global heating.

NGOs for education need to ask whether they are betraying their beneficiaries by accepting funds that come in part from companies that are systematically destroying the world in which young people will have to live, says the author. (Image source: Matt Howard/Unsplash) Less

Every South African NGO, union or foundation either has invested or endowed funds or receives funding from donors that have invested funds. Which means that every single SA NGO and foundation can greatly multiply its impact by ensuring that its funds are responsibly invested, or by asking its funders to re-examine their own investments.

Our financial systems evolved in an entirely different era. They are now extremely ill-fitted to the raft of systemic challenges facing global society. Climate and ecological breakdown, multiplying already grotesque inequality, are, as the World Economic Forum has identified, the greatest and most likely risks facing global society.

NGOs that do not recognise how their finances are linked to environmental and social destruction might as well close up shop — as the sources of their income are too often creating and compounding the very problems they aim to solve.

Let’s consider some examples.

NGOs that are fighting for gender equality and for the rights of people living with HIV/Aids may remember the continuing impact of extractivism and mining on the social and political fabric of South Africa. We are both one of the world’s most historically resource-intensive economies and living with a gender-rights crisis, in good part because of the social havoc wrought by these industries.

So gender justice advocates shouldn’t take money from unreformed mining companies.

NGOs for education need to ask whether they are betraying their beneficiaries by accepting funds that come in part from companies that are systematically destroying the world in which young people will have to live.

NGOs fighting corruption should be clear on the huge role that SA fossil fuel (coal, gas and oil) corporations play in fostering corruption. It’s no coincidence that the likes of the Guptas gravitate towards the brutal and unscrupulous coal industry.

The most fundamental infrastructure for any economy is a stable climate, clean air, clean water, and healthy well-fed, well-educated people in safe communities. But many of the industries and companies that are supposedly the backbone of our economy systematically undermine this basic infrastructure.

Eskom and Sasol and other coal-intensive companies, for example, are engaged in mass human rights violations, aided and abetted by government and an asset management industry blinkered by short-term incentives.

Consider, for example, Sasol, in which most investing South Africans have shares. For annual revenues of about R25-billion, Sasol is willing to impose climate damages on society that, conservatively calculated, start at R45-billion — every year. Every Sasol shareholder who does not challenge this status quo effectively winks to an open scandal. The damage calculation excludes non-climate externalities. The government effectively declines to hold Sasol to account (while officials pocket dividends via their pensions: The Public Investment Corporation and Allan Gray are Sasol’s two biggest shareholders).

Climate change has already cost the economy 10% of GDP. Air pollution costs the equivalent of 6% of GDP annually. Corruption and crime cost at least 1.5% and 19% of GDP. All are deeply linked to what has been called extractivism. Our economy is not built on mining; it is stunted by mining. Yet our leaders insist again and again that economic value must be dug out of the ground. It’s a model that serves only elites.

When our union movement resists the renewable energy transition, it is selling its members in the fossil fuel industrial complex short by effectively insisting they can never do better than to hold dangerous, dirty, underpaid jobs that threaten their health and make them complicit in the often corrupt operations of their paymasters.

It’s no coincidence that the concept of ethical investment is practically unknown in South Africa. But it shouldn’t be — the global disinvestment campaign against companies doing business in apartheid South Africa helped dislodge our racist former government.

Few South Africans seem to know that we are far more vulnerable to the climate crisis than many developed countries. The UK has warmed just 1°C — and the UK Parliament has already, even amid Brexit paralysis, declared a climate emergency. South Africa has warmed 2°C, faces six degrees of warming in the interior in the next few decades — and our politicians are still celebrating oil, gas and coal as if the climate crisis didn’t exist.

If our media worked better and our politicians were less parochial, you would know that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed in 2018 that avoiding the worst climate breakdown demands cutting global carbon emissions by 50% — in just the next 12 years.

It’s a report that should have become an instant national conversation. It didn’t, so you need to talk about it at your next board meeting.

Divestment is a rapidly growing global movement to move capital out of the unstable, extractive, fossil-fuel economy that threatens us with climate breakdown into the regenerative economy: A potential new era of social and economic stability based on wind and solar energy, a circular economy, sustainable agriculture and large-scale ecological restoration.

Globally, hundreds of foundations, universities, pension funds, cities such as New York and London, even a whole country, Ireland, have opted to divest. They know this transformation depends on capital owners who will no longer tolerate the socially destructive behaviour of companies such as Sasol.

Many foundations, philanthropies, churches, schools and universities in South Africa have endowed funds and investments. You need to start demanding that these investments be managed responsibly, particularly with respect to climate and inequality. Investors must partially divest from irresponsible companies, engage robustly on all material environmental, social and governance issues and set timelines for further divestment where necessary.

Investors can move faster than governments and catalyse the urgent transition to renewable, universally accessible energy by shifting capital out of the problems and into the solutions today.

Apologists for fossil fuels insist they are still vital for economic development. This is tantamount to selling you a skedonk for a fortune and not telling you that you could go round the corner to buy a Ferrari at the same price because many of our developmental deadlocks could, in fact, be unlocked with a sincere effort to reform our economy.

This is the visionary “Green New Deal” that is now being discussed in the US and Europe: essentially, creating a new era of high-quality employment and social well-being on the back of retooling our manufactured and environmental infrastructure to resolve social and ecological stresses.

South African CSOs need to stop investing in ways that undermine their own missions. As Fossil Free SA, we advocate for divestment. But limited or staged divestment can work hand-in-hand with dialogue and constructive shareholder engagement. The key thing is for all investors to move from passive acceptance to active intolerance of corporate abuses (on all issues, not just climate). Divestment helped end slavery and apartheid, and it can help make our society future-fit.

If you are a leader within any kind of organisation, start this conversation now with your colleagues and peers. It’s time your funding worked as hard for your beneficiaries as you do.

There’s little to fear. Fossil Free SA, for example, is part-funded by a foundation that divested from fossil fuels years ago and has seen its returns greatly enhanced.

Later this year, this conversation will be much advanced in South Africa by the international conference, Financing the Future: The Global Climate Divest-Invest Summit, from 10–11 September 2019 in Cape Town.  It will help with tools and resources to align capital with climate goals and challenge the global community to leave fossil fuels in the ground. It will outline how environmentally sound development benefits communities in multiple dimensions — and point to the many opportunities created when we align our investments with our values. DM

David Le Page is co-ordinator of Fossil Free SA, and is one of the convenors of the international conference, Financing the Future: The Global Climate Divest-Invest Summit, from 10–11 September 2019 in Cape Town.

A broader view of solutions to climate change

BroaderViewClimateSolutions-DavidLePage2017I often worry that most climate change solutions are seen in far too narrow a context; here’s a view on that, in tabular form, that percolated up from my subconsciousness after an early evening slumber. Some of the key insights here come from:

• The wisdom to perceive the interconnectedness of all life and living.
• The courage not to fear or deny difference; but to respect and strive to understand people of different cultures, and to grow from encounters with them.
• The compassion to maintain an imaginative empathy that reaches beyond one’s immediate surroundings and extends to those suffering in distant places.

Various academic papers have begun to outline the links between democracy and sound environmental regulation, and the link between democracy and combating climate change in particular has been argued by AC Grayling, among others.

So our ambition now, as humanity, if we wish to avert and retreat from catastrophic climate change and parallel environmental crises, should be to cultivate a renewed psychospiritual culture, deep democracy and social justice, and a restorative economy (that avoids the distractions of chasing GDP).

Only then, I think, will the practical solutions that tend to be the focus of thinking about climate change find their proper place and alignment. Only then, will we perhaps have a chance of averting the worst unintended consequences of technology.

Business Day: ‘Signs are the climate is right for divesting from the fossil fuel industry’

Published in Business Day on 19 July 2017, for Fossil Free South Africa

It’s time to tell your financial services provider and company pension fund trustees you no longer want to be invested in destroying your future

It’s difficult to directly link extreme weather events such as the Cape storm and Knysna fires to climate change. The causality of such events is always complex.

But an increase in extreme weather events like these are very much what has been predicted by scientists studying climate change. Climate change “loads the dice” in favour of such events, which in Knysna caused seven deaths, left 4,000 people homeless and forced the evacuation of another 10,000.

Human-induced climate change is largely caused by the global warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions, most of which come from burning oil, gas and coal: fossil fuels.

SA is more vulnerable to climate change than many countries, with its average temperatures having increased by at least 1.5 times more than the observed global average (0.65°C) over the past 50 years. In the face of this emergency, you would think SA would be taking a leadership role in combating climate change. But it does not.

The Climate Action Tracker groups countries into four categories according to the gaps between stated collective commitments to the ambition established at the Paris climate talks — to hold average global warming “well below” 2°C — and their actual individual commitments.

SA’s nationally determined contribution is in the lowest category: inadequate. If the whole world behaves as poorly as SA, the global temperature increase will exceed 4°C in this century and global civilisation will, by most scientific assessments, most likely end, crushed by multiple stresses — drought, heat stress, extreme weather, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss — on infrastructure, food production and human health.

Economists gloss over this terrifying scenario with the dry language of massive “damage to GDP”, but that doesn’t capture what Robert Pindyck of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology describes as “the possibility of a catastrophic climate outcome”.

Most people in SA believe that because they do not live close to sea level or are desert-bound nomads, they will be immune to the worst effects of climate change. They may be, for a while, if they can close their ears to the cries of people outside the gates as they pile their children into an oversized 4×4.

Being a developing country is no excuse for SA’s lack of ambition. As Eskom makes itself an abuser by holding the renewable energy programme hostage, 48 developing countries have committed to 100% renewable targets; and all those with climate commitments ranked as “sufficient” are developing countries.

China, India and Brazil are far more ambitious than SA, where people persist in the delusion that fossil fuels are needed for development. There are relatively few stable jobs in the coal industry, many are dirty and dangerous, and a small levy on renewable energy could ease a “just transition”. Using fossil fuels for development is rather like burning down the house to stay warm. Their promotion in government policy is now a matter of state capture, not the rational pursuit of the best interests of all the people.

Eskom should be dedicated to getting low-cost clean energy to all, but it is now run as a source of subsidy for greedy coal interests at great direct and indirect cost to citizens. UK consumer energy prices are falling as fossil fuels are phased out; SA’s continue to mount.

Most of SA’s contribution to escalating climate change comes from Eskom, Sasol, and the rest of the coal industry: companies such as Anglo Coal, Exxaro, BHP Billiton and Xstrata, cynically funded by big banks that purport to be concerned over climate change. Globally, companies such as Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil still work to block the development of cleaner energy. Even economics textbooks now state proper climate policies are blocked by the natural resource industries.

For a secure future, people should stop investing in these companies, and invest where possible in cleaner energy.

Critics argue that divestment transfers ownership to less scrupulous investors, but it also helps to avert fossil fuel energy development, raise the cost of capital and end social consent to the fossil fuel corporate sector.

Around the world, hundreds of institutions now worth more than $5-trillion, led by universities but including cities such as Paris, Melbourne, Oslo and Copenhagen and a country, Ireland – are stopping their investments in fossil fuels.

In May, Fossil Free SA convened a workshop for financial services professionals in Cape Town on divestment, part sponsored by Futuregrowth Asset Management. It was aimed at building understanding of climate and carbon risk — and the divest-reinvest movement – among financial services professionals and to catalyse the creation of divested funds and instruments (jury still out). Representatives of 15 financial services companies attended.

Tracey Davies of the Centre for Environmental Rights spoke on the implications of the landmark high court finding that the minister of environmental affairs should have considered the climate change effects of the proposed Thabametsi power station before authorising it.

Paul Chandler of the UN-supported Principles for Responsible Investment outlined the proposals of the G-20-appointed task force on climate-related financial disclosure, which produced recommendations that all significant corporate emitters should be reporting on their exposure to climate and carbon risk.

There are few reasons to fear that divested funds will lose value. During the divestment workshop, Sam Gill of ET Index Research in London described how to “cut carbon, beat the market”. ETI’s analysis shows that a JSE SWIX index-based portfolio would have performed substantially better over the past four years if strongly divested.

Some argue that this was a transitory arbitrage opportunity, but there are good reasons to doubt the future of fossil-fuel companies. The share of the sector in the S&P500, for example, has declined from 25% to 6.9% since 1980. Globally, according to MSCI research, investors would have been better off without fossil fuels in their portfolios since 2007.

SA’s philanthropists, too, should give serious thought to how they invest: there’s little point in funding education or health when it is done with investments that effectively steal from the future in which our children must live and work.

South African philanthropies probably command endowments well in excess of R15bn, according to research by GastrowBloch Philanthropies. Yet they have, with the exception of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, made little progress towards aligning investments with values.

There’s more to the evils — and immense costs — of fossil fuels than climate change. But besides resource wars and economic instability, University of Cape Town research indicates that more than 27,000 South Africans are killed yearly by air pollution every year. And the industry is extremely corrupt: in SA, deeply linked to those overseeing a “silent coup”.

The academic authors of the Betrayal of the Promise report argue that “Eskom and Transnet, in turn, are the primary vehicles for managing state capture, large-scale looting of state resources and … a continuous source of self-enrichment and funding for the power elite and their patronage network”.

No one who loves SA should be invested in fossil fuels.

Fund managers say there is not yet any visible local demand for divested funds and this is true. But divestment is the right thing to do and, given the accelerating renewable energy revolution and regulation of greenhouse gases, the smart thing to do. Sing it to the heavens, before they overheat.

It’s time to tell your financial services provider and company pension fund trustees you no longer want to be invested in destroying your future.

• Le Page is the co-ordinator of Fossil Free SA.

Success at the Eco-Logic Awards for Fossil Free South Africa

So towards the end of April, I won the Eco-Warrior category of the Enviropaedia 2015/16 Eco-Logic Awards. Many, many thanks to everyone who has supported Fossil Free South Africa and Fossil Free UCT, especially Robert Zipplies (who screened the doccie that spawned the idea and helped boost everything to a new level by formalising and fundraising for the campaign), our management committee (Cormac Cullinan, Happy Khambule, Nick King), William Frater who has greatly bolstered our credibility in the dialogue with UCT, and the comrades who signed that first letter to UCT in 2013 that kicked everything off, who included Jane Notten, Claire Kelly, Gina Ziervogel and Eduard Grebe. Also thanks to stalwarts like James Irlam, Giorgina King, Kirtanya Lutch, Tania Katzschner, Kai Coetzee, and to the many people who donated to our first crowdfunding campaign, and supported our late 2014 road trip. And of course,, which started the international divestment campaign.

Here’s hoping this award will help raise the profile of the campaign. We’re on the winning side of history, the world is decarbonising – but still not fast enough, and still without understanding the deeper cultural roots of our problems – the lack of faith in and care for each other, the compulsive desires for more-more-more, the excessive faith in technology, the religious attachment to economic growth, the loss of reverence for nature.

Why UCT should divest from fossil fuels

Written for Fossil Free UCT

The thinning of our polar ice caps is frightening  I truly fear for the lives of my grandchildren. – Leon Lederman, Director Emeritus, Fermilab; Nobel laureate (Physics, 1988)

2 °C [global warming] is certain death for Africa. – Lumumba Di-Aping[1]

As a leading Afropolitan university, UCT can show Africa and South Africa true leadership [by divesting]. – Phoebe Barnard, SANBI and UCT

People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. – Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Every year, thousands of students graduate from the University of Cape Town with the expectation that they are embarking on long, productive careers in a generally socially and economically stable world, where their values, knowledge and skills will serve themselves, their families and society. But that stable world can no longer be taken for granted. It is now profoundly threatened by climate change (and multiple other negative consequences of undifferentiated economic growth).

Fossil fuel companies have become rogue companies intent on preserving an extremely destructive business model no matter the cost to people and planet. If they continue to resist changing their business model, they must be shut down. Continue reading “Why UCT should divest from fossil fuels”

Business Day: ‘The value of an endlessly expanding GDP is doubtful’

Published in Business Day, 24 April 2014

THE speed at which a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is growing has for the past 60-70 years come to be considered the most important measure of whether a country is succeeding or failing. But what if our most cherished notions about what makes a nation successful are wrong? What if economists who lead the obsession with this metric are, in fact, charlatans?

There have been some very prominent critics of our obsession with GDP growth.

In 1968, Robert Kennedy noted that GDP includes the costs of air pollution, road accidents, managing crime, militarism and environmental destruction, but does not include the “decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike … the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials”. He concluded that GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy pointed out in 2009 how GDP figures have come to be widely misused: “GDP statistics … are increasingly thought of as a measure of societal wellbeing, which they are not.” Continue reading “Business Day: ‘The value of an endlessly expanding GDP is doubtful’”