Accelerating South Africa’s adaptation to climate change

In the series of articles by our Youth Newsroom reporters, Akhona Xotyeni from South Africa interviews Honourable Bantubonke Holomisa, the co-founder and elected president of the United Democratic Movement (UDM).

Honourable Bantubonke Holomisa

Pre 1994, South Africa was under the leadership of an authoritarian apartheid government which governed over the natural resources and land of the country, amongst many others, along racial lines. Many Black, Coloured and Indian South Africans who make up the majority of the population, were excluded into homelands that lacked proper natural resources and infrastructure.

Post 1994, after the newly elected government had taken over, environmental legislation was amongst the many laws which had to change and cater to all citizens equally and fairly. However, there are still evident challenges with regards to active public-private-civil participation which will be explored below.

While growing up in the rural areas in and around Mqanduli in the Eastern Cape, Honourable Bantubonke Holomisa was exposed to the beauty and value of the natural environment. In his daily activities at that young age, Hon. Holomisa was responsible for herding cattle and agricultural farming. Through this responsibility, he was taught about the value of protecting the land and how to rotate grazing and farming to prevent soil erosion. The land for Hon. Holomisa’s family and community was not only for immediate consumption and exploitation, but they saw the value of preserving it for future generations who would inherit it.

In a recent interview with Hon. Holomisa, the co-founder and elected president of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), a member of parliament, and the architect and non-executive chairperson of the Champions of the Environment Foundation, Hon. Holomisa and I explored the distortions and challenges South Africa as a country with a unique past faces with regards to environmental policies and the perceptions thereof.

In your perspective, do you think South Africa’s environmental legislation and policies are easily understandable and accessible for all citizens?

"No. I believe there is a big disconnect. Some South Africans are quite in tune, maybe not with the intricacies of environmental legislation and policies, but they are good enough eco-tourists and responsible citizens. However, the fact that the average South African does not think twice to litter, means there is a basic disinterest in the impact that this minor (mis)deed has on, not only the environment, but their own health."

Why do you think South Africa’s pace is slower than other countries with regards to declaring the climate emergency?

"Possibly exactly because South Africans lack an understanding of the impact their deeds have on the environment and the converse impact on them. At the moment, we are a nation of “consumers”, we live from hand to mouth and there are understandable reasons for that. We have to, however, transcend this time in our country if we are to preserve our environment, not merely for its beauty, but because it is what keeps us alive."

Do you think it is possible for South Africa to become a leader of the green movement at a continental and international scale? Please elaborate.

"For South Africans the green movement isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity, our food security depends on it. I therefore think South Africa has a responsibility to do so. We have political influence on the continent and therefore the world, but our political leaders must understand that the green movement will require political will. From a scientific perspective, South Africa has proven itself internationally in many technical fields; we have the brains, so to speak. Government must, however, invest more in research and development - bolster our universities and research institutions; and invest in our youth."

Do you think South Africa’s social, economic and political past has distorted how citizens lack to understand the connection between bread-and-butter issues with environmental challenges such as the water and agricultural crises, storms and energy strain?

"I grew up with the basics of respecting one’s environment, but there seems to be a disconnect in the generations that came after me. There are however socio-economic dynamics that “remove” people from these environmental imperatives. To paint a stark picture, if I live off a government grant, my survival and that of my loved ones are what is important. I must buy medicine, food and clothes, and try to find work, so why would I care if the black rhino dies out?"

Do you think as a country we are doing enough to adapt to current environmental challenges and are we proactive for the future?

"No, and I don’t think there is enough urgency. Some “big picture things'' might be falling into place, but to me the simple things such as combating soil erosion in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, and other parts of the country, and educating those citizens on overgrazing is not happening. Desilting of rivers and removal of alien vegetation, which could be job creation projects under the expanded public works programme, is not happening."

As a member of the Presidential Commission on Climate Change, please explain what the commission is for, what hopes do you have for your team and future members, as well as how do you hope to impact ordinary citizens?

"I think this is an important initiative to affect change in South Africa’s concerted response to climate change, for South Africa and its citizens. This body’s work will hopefully translate into meaningful changes in our legislation and bilateral and multilateral agreements that will impact climate change."

Environmental issues as human rights crisis

With Africa being one of the most vulnerable continents to the effects of climate change, and climate change becoming a human rights crisis in South Africa, It is important for public-private-civil partnerships in the country to accelerate the implementation of interdisciplinary policies to prevent the loss of livelihoods, plant and animal life.

Hon. Holomisa’s childhood and role as a public official have enabled him to have an impressive understanding of the complex intersectionalities between socioeconomic and environmental factors in South Africa. Hopefully this narration can encourage more of the country’s leaders to become more decisive and active on this matter in order to be able to educate more citizens as well.

Profile of Hon. Holomisa’s environmental background and contributions

Hon. Holomisa has an impeccable history as an environmental champion in the country. Since being elected as the Commander of the Transkei Defence Force and Head of Government from 1987-1994, Hon. Holomisa has also served as a Deputy Minister of the Environment and Tourism Department of South Africa in the Government of National Unity where he initiated the Consultative National Environmental Policy Process (CONNEPP). The CONNEPP has played a fundamental role in shaping the country’s environmental legislation which talks to pollution and waste, sustainable resource management, global and international cooperation and responsibilities amongst others. Amongst many other projects, Hon.  Holomisa has spearheaded the ceasing of elephant culling in the Kruger National Park.

In December 2020, Hon. Holomisa was appointed to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s inaugural Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission (P4C) and is currently serving on the Defence and Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries National Assembly Portfolio Committees.