Democratic Eco-Socialism in South Africa

South Africa’s Carbon Capitalism

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world according to any measure and since apartheid. Ironically, this is a conclusion of the World Bank in its recent 2018 report. The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) have made these observations since 2014. Their research has shown that the top 10% gets two thirds of South Africa’s income. While, half of all South Africans are chronically poor, living in households with a per capita income of R1,149 or less per month. With South Africa’s drought, our first major climate shock, these inequalities have been made worse through high food prices, for instance. In addition, new climate inequalities have been created through the privatisation of water. The working class, unemployed and poor have borne the brunt of the drought. Alongside racialised and gendered super exploitation, high unemployment and increasing poverty, South Africa is a carbon intensive economy, based largely on coal. It is the 14th highest emitter of carbon emissions in the world, and despite energy inequality, has a per capita carbon footprint higher than China, India or Brazil. Carbon capitalism was the bedrock of apartheid and was part of ANC hegemony, and then dominance, in the post apartheid period. With the climate crisis, South Africa is a carbon criminal state, contributing to the greenhouse effect and the extinction of the human species and other life forms. It is an ‘eco-cidal' capitalism destroying the conditions that sustain life.


Limits of Historical Socialist Alternatives: A Marxist Ecology Critique


South Africa has had a diverse socialist imagination which has included Sovietised socialism (even Trotsky’s minimum program), revolutionary nationalism and social democracy. The ANC–Alliance is shaped by all three versions of 20th century socialism. While these socialisms have not come to the fore in South Africa in the post-apartheid period, but lurk in the national liberation imagination, they have been theorised in a manner that grounds them in particular assumptions about nature and historical experience of these socialisms. From a Marxist Ecology perspective these socialisms have the following problems: (i) A blindness to the fact that Marx was an original systems thinker, who connected human social relations with nature. Marx understood the labour process mediated the relationship with nature. Further, the human-nature relationship underpinned a ‘metabolic relationship’ with nature as a whole. This means the more capitalism undermined natural cycles and eco-systems the more the antagonism with nature deepened. (ii) An absence of thinking about value creation as grounded in both nature and labour. While labour was ‘priced in’, all these socialisms externalised the costs of nature in the production process. So pollution, climate change, species extinction, eco-system destruction, for example, are not taken into account in how production is organised. Nature must be conquered. (iii) These socialism’s are all productivist. They copied capitalism’s obsession with growth, which meant that accumulation and wealth creation were based on the assumption of endless resources. There were no ecological constraints. (iv) All these socialism’s are obsessed with technology as progress. Technology is not neutral and is embedded in class relations. For corporations, science and research are about profit making. So unleashing the ‘forces of production’ will not necessarily meet the needs of society and, worse, will have destructive consequences for nature. Genetic engineering of seeds is a good example of this. 


The Struggle for a  Democratic Eco-Socialist South Africa


South Africa’s historical socialist alternatives are limited and inappropriate for the struggle to address ecological crises and, particularly, the dangerous contradiction of climate crisis. Moreover, the dominant carbon capitalism is the real challenge. This capitalism produces class, racialised and gendered inequality but it also produces climate inequality and ‘eco-cidal’ destruction of human and non-human life forms. In this context democratic eco-socialism is central to the demand: ‘System Change, Not Climate Change’. It recognises that ‘democracy’ (rights, freedoms, procedures and institutional forms) is about a people’s history of struggle against capitalism and oppression; ‘ecology’, or the human relationship with nature, is essential for our survival and ‘socialism’ is necessary to ensure the end of exploitation, racism and gender oppression and ensure the rational organisation of society to meet human needs. In a rapidly heating world, with 12 years left to prevent catastrophic climate change and an overshoot of 1.5°C, democratic eco-socialism has two crucial tasks as part of the deep just transition. First, it has to build a transformative climate justice movement that builds a red-green alliance that can lead society. This means environmentalists have to become socialists and socialists have to become environmentalists to ensure fundamental transformation of capitalism. A new post carbon bloc of counter-hegemonic alliances led by the working class has to crystalise. This is already happening (See Open Letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa [1]). Second, a programmatic approach to democratic systemic reform including decarbonisation; democratic planning; food, seed and water sovereignty; socially owned renewable energy;  climate jobs; zero waste; mass clean energy public transport; solidarity economies; a substantive basic income grant has to be scaled up now. There are no stages in this struggle to secure human and non-human life. 





Workers World News

Series: Debating Brazil

Privacy policy

All content is the copyright of ILRIG or their respective rights holders, and cannot be used without prior permission.


Contact Us

Phone: +27 21 447 6375
Fax: +27 21 448 2282

Room 14 Community House
41 Salt River Road
Salt River
P.O. Box 1213
Cape Town
South Africa