Apartheid and the environment in South Africa


By Zanny Begg

"Apartheid not only degrades the inhabitants of our country, it degrades the earth, the air and the streams ... the greening of our country is basic to its healing" writes Albie Sachs, a spokesperson for the ANC.

Erosion, water pollution, desertification and deforestation all threaten South Africa's ecology. "Mayibuye-i-Africa" (Come back Africa) is a traditional chant of the freedom movement which now, according to Sachs, refers not only to legal title but also to the quality of the land itself.

South Africa's ecological problems are inextricably linked to the social engineering processes pursued by the ruling white governments. The country's resources have been exploited for the benefit of the white minority.

In 1913, the Land Act limited the land that the black population could own to 7% of the total. In 1936 this was increased to just 13% as "compensation" for the loss of voting rights by the black population. The Land Act put enormous pressure on the land reserved for the blacks, with disastrous ecological consequences.

In 1948 the Nationalist government instituted apartheid, a cornerstone of which was the creation of the bantustans, the so-called "homelands" for the African population. In the following decades, massive forced removals of the African population took place. Between 1960 and 1985, more then 3.5 million people were shifted against their will.

Most of the black population was shifted on to barren and unproductive land. The white government deliberately prohibited the urbanisation of the black population through the Native Amendment Act and a series of "pass laws". The express intent of these laws was to keep the black population out of white areas and create a pool of black labour power ready to serve the white population. In the words of

Dr Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, "The native who comes into the white area does so because he is there to serve".

The rural population is now estimated to be around 13 million and is expected to grow to 15 million by 2010. Most of these people are crowded onto the poorest quality land in the homelands. Among the white-owned farms in Natal, the population density was only 22 people per sq km, as opposed to the black homeland of Kwazulu, where it averaged 76. In Cape Province, the 1980 rural population density outside the homelands was only 2 people per sq km, while in the Transkei homeland it was 55.

The chronic overcrowding puts enormous stress on fragile land. In 1954 the government-appointed Tomlinson Commission calculated that the Minsinga district in Kwazulu could carry only 2100 families and 17,400 cattle adequately. By 1980 14,000 families and 72,600 cattle were living there. This overuse of land is typical of all the homelands.

The artificially induced population pressure is creating an environmental disaster. South Africa now has the fifth worst soil erosion in the world. Once beautiful forest and scrub lands are being turned into dust bowls. Observers describe the environment in the homelands as "lunar in its desolation". Erosion gullies split the hillsides and form huge unproductive valleys, many over 20 metres deep. During the 1960s it was estimated that 400 million tonnes of topsoil were lost annually. The figure has increased since then.

Damage from overstocking is compounded by the poor inhabitants clearing the land for fuel wood and timber to build houses. In some areas the deforestation is so complete that the local communities are forced to burn animal dung for fuel. This further degrades the land by depriving it of fertilisers. Once it is cleared of foliage and deprived of fertilisers, there is little left to hold the soil together.

Even when communities are aware of the environmental problems, there is very little that they can do about them, crammed into unproductive land, provided with no facilities or support and given no other means to

secure their survival.

Siswana, a resident of the Thornhill "temporary" settlement camp, describes the impossible situation in a book on environment and change in South Africa, Restoring the Land, "The farmers who were here before us were able to look after the land. But the land was too small for us. With such overcrowding we could not look after it. As more and more people came into Thornhil they removed trees to erect shacks. Soon the place had no trees left."

Lack of clean water is also a huge problem. Soil erosion has silted many of the homelands' water supplies. Millions of people are denied access to clean drinking water, and many families spend up to three hours a day looking for water.

Moreover, the current drought is estimated to be the worst this century. Last November activists who organised the Northern Transvaal Development Forum (NTDF) concluded that access to water in the bantustans was being used as "a political weapon".

Delegates to the NTDF complained that blacks were being charged for access to water and that in parts of some homelands, like Lebowa, only whites are allowed to use the local dam.

The South African Defence Force (SADF) is trying to make political mileage out of water distribution. In most areas of the northern Transvaal the SADF delivers water to the local communities and uses this contact to try to discredit the ANC and promote the image of the government.

The government has allocated R3800 million for drought assistance for white farmers and only R6 million for farm workers and their families, even though the latter are more vulnerable. The agenda of the government is not drought relief but the protection of privileges for the minority.

In February 1991 President de Klerk was forced to repeal the Land Act. The abolition of the Land Act and the Group Areas Act removes some of the formal

structures of apartheid. For the back population, however, while the bantustans still exist and blacks are still poor and discriminated against, not much has really changed.

The freedom movement is demanding far more fundamental changes. As the ANC considers strategies for winning back the land for the majority, it is also starting to confront the state of the land that a new South Africa will inherit.

Max Sisulu, a leader of the ANC, believes that "environmental reconstruction constitutes a major task of a free and democratic post-apartheid South Africa". The ANC has launched an environment policy and is starting to look more closely at what needs to change if South Africa's natural environment is to be saved.

The ANC regards poverty as the main environmental problem. People will destroy their environment only when they are left with no other choices for survival. While 60% of the population lack electricity, timber will continue to be burned for fuel. While the land is overcrowded, people will continue to exhaust its nutrients.

Dismantling the bantustans and redistributing land will be crucial for breaking the cycle of poverty. Only when the years of forced removals and dispossession are reversed will people be able to protect and look after the land. Not only will the land in the bantustans and the government reserves have to be redistributed but also, the ANC National Land Commission argues, some white farms will have to be shared among the black population.

Many blacks are going to have to learn how to farm again. This represents a real opportunity for a democratic South Africa to develop sustainable agricultural techniques and move away from pesticide-

dependent techniques.

As the bantustan system is dismantled, the shift from rural areas to the cities will continue. Already cities are facing desperate environmental problems, with huge sprawling shanty towns. The installation of proper houses and sanitary conditions for the urban

population is mandatory for the protection of the health and environmental safety of South Africa's black population.

The democratisation of South Africa represents the greatest hope for environmental change. Environmental issues have to be linked to questions of poverty and social justice. [Zanny Begg is a national coordinator of the Environmental Youth Alliance. EYA is supporting the Australia-New Zealand tour organised by Resistance for Gerry Ndou, the ANC Youth League international affairs secretary, between June 28 and July 24. For more information contact (02) 690 1230.]

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