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


Al Gore brings climate reality to Jozi

Al Gore is a busy man and my request for an interview during his visit to Johannesburg is declined. But I and 900 people worried about climate change still get to listen to him for an entire day in a cavernous hall at the Sandton Convention Centre – it’s like sitting through his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, and then have him explain it all to you again in detail, just in case you missed something.

Gore is the former US vice-president turned warrior for a habitable planet. His roving Climate Reality Project is here in Johannesburg to train lots of people to become effective advocates for stopping climate change, and the variety of people attending is remarkable: school children and professionals, small business owners and idealists mingle with NGO workers, government officials and Bantu Holomisa (MP, and leader of the small Eastern Cape-based United Democratic Movement).
Continue reading Al Gore brings climate reality to Jozi

‘Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli’

Voices of Liberation Albert Luthuli coverOne 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 ‘Voices of Liberation: Albert Luthuli’

The wonder and hope of planetary ecological restoration

Replacing a sea front that used to be concrete, restored dunes now protect the shore at Durban's North Beach.
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 The wonder and hope of planetary ecological restoration

For more sustainability, add democracy

Democracy leaders: Norwegians gathered in Oslo in July 2011, following a horrific mass shooting, calling for more democracy to meet terror. Pic from and link to Escribanas.
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 For more sustainability, add democracy

The indigenous forester of Smutsville

While I was staying in Wilderness over the holidays, a friend took me to meet William Pedro of Smutsville township, Sedgefield, who has for the last 15 years been running a successful indigenous tree nursery tucked away in the forest at the foot of a coastal dune.

Sedgefield is a largely white community with a great many retired people, notorious for petty complaints to the local authorities. Smutsville, the impoverished township that supplies Sedgefield’s labour and soaks up its poverty, is hidden away out of sight in the coastal dunes, and Pedro’s nursery is hidden away in thickets at the foot of one of these dunes. You’d not know it’s there, looking from the cluttered streets of the townships, where the presence of two white men in my friend’s bakkie (small pickup) provokes sarcastic and, um, colourful comments from some locals as we drive by.

Speaking in Afrikaans, Pedro tells us about the droughts he has seen in this region, particularly around 1960, when rivers that usually flow strongly dried up completely.

“The earth has its own cycles; when it must, it reduces the human population with sickness or disaster. I have learned these things over 50 years of observation.”

“When the Department of Land Affairs pulled out from this venture, I had to make this nursery work myself.”

Now he supplies trees to numerous other local retail nurseries – which probably sell them for four times what he charges. He is highly critical of the dependence of many in his community on government and white people for money and work.

On a sweltering day, his nursery was a small, cool paradise beneath the trees, where he is now in the midst of planting a million new seedlings that hopefully will end up around the much-deforested southern Cape to slow climate change and species loss.

South Africa slowly shredding democracy, in line with international best practice

Following yesterday’s passage by the National Assembly of the Protection of State Information Bill, and the Black Tuesday campaign’s comparison with the days of apartheid, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether ‘this takes us back to the dark days of apartheid’. And a lot of anger from those, including the government, who says it’s ridiculous to make that comparison.Black Tuesday protest in Cape Town - pic Odette Herbert

“The only result this unfortunate comparison and the planned campaign, in which people are urged to dress in black, will achieve is to dilute the real history of the Black Wednesday and insult the victims of apartheid’s barbaric laws,” said ANC Chief Whip Mathole Motshekga in a statement.

Of course, it would be quite wrong to suggest that we are now back in the darkest days of apartheid. But Motshekga’s statement ignores the trend. And the trend is away from freedom. His argument that “the rejection of a public interest defence is in line with international best practice on security in the US, Canada and the UK” is chilling, and not only because he is factually incorrect, as Pierre de Vos has pointed out (there is a public interest defence in Canada).

Because what passes for democracy Continue reading South Africa slowly shredding democracy, in line with international best practice