ANC slams government inertia on environment

Issue 

ANC Environment Desk chief Tami Sokutu has slammed his party for going back on its environmental promises, saying that those in power appear to want a weak, limited and ineffective ministry and department of the environment.

"Before the elections the ANC committed itself to taking environmental issues seriously. What is happening now not only makes a mockery of these promises, it contradicts and undermines the Reconstruction and Development Program (RDP)," said Sokutu. "The signals coming through are quite clear; there is no political will from government or the environment department to tinker with a comfortably ineffective and toothless system."

Just two examples from the many that Sokutu cites suggest a disturbingly conscious decision to ensure that the environment ministry and department of environment affairs continue as if there had been no change in government: the exclusion of any public participation in any environment-related decision-making and the apparent decision to maintain the white, male-dominated apartheid-era selected Council for the Environment as the only high-level advisory body.

The pre-election-designed 1994/5 budget for the Department of the Environment illustrates the priorities of those in control. While conservation of flora and fauna was allocated R73 million and Antarctic research R25 million, issues concerning the human environment, such as pollution and waste, received R1 million.

"Not only does present policy support polluters, it externalises these costs in negatively impacting upon the health and well-being of the poorest people," said Sokutu.

Despite the RDP's clear call for the active participation of civil society and representation by the ANC National Environment Task Group, the National Ministry and Department of Environment Affairs (DEA) have done nothing to suggest they have even read the program. RDP recommendations for an independent and permanent commission on the environment to ensure transparency and accountability of government agencies seem to have become conveniently lost.

The only move made by DEA has been to ask the "illegitimate" Council for the Environment to convene a "big meeting" to consider the RDP's environmental proposals.

Sokutu is not happy with this: "Firstly, we want a representative National Environmental Advisory Forum to replace this illegitimate apartheid creation insensitive to the needs and concerns of the majority of the electorate. Only a restructured and representative council or forum can have the capacity and legitimacy to design and call such an important meeting. It worries us that progressive NGOs and interested and affected parties such as rural structures, unions, civics, churches and others continue to be excluded."

Sokutu notes that the public is rapidly losing hope and confidence that the ministry and Department of Environment Affairs will ever be a champion for environmental issues.

"From my meetings I see that the ministers accept the status quo and the weakness of their department. They lie down and take it. If only they would shout, they would be surprised at how many people would support them. Judging from their actions since the elections, this department is weakening the environmental cause not strengthening it."

However, Sokutu was positive about developments in some provinces. "At the provincial level there are encouraging developments, particularly in enabling public participation." Provinces such as the PWV, Northern Transvaal, Western Cape and Eastern Cape have held consultative meetings and appointed ministerial advisers from previously excluded communities.

Sokutu believes there is much work needed before those in power understand and accept the central role of environmental protection in enabling sustainable development.

Where do we go to from here? "We have to work on our regional ministries to get them to show the way. Also, now that there is now a parliamentary standing committee on the environment with some power, we must keep them updated and informed so they can act in the public interest," concluded Sokutu.
[From South Africa's Environmental Justice Networking Forum.]

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