Dawn of environmentalism: eco-activism during apartheid

DURING the struggle I was active on campus. Following the campus unrest at UCT, similar in many respects to the current youth revolt against the system, I enrolled in a course in environmental geoscience whilst also studying politics. It became clear the way forward was to ‘politicise ecology and ecologise politics’, in fact this was the slogan of a small reading circle and green group back then, by the innocuous sounding name of Cape Town Ecology Group (CTEG).

CTEG went on to co-host the very first National Conference on Environment and Development, held at UWC in 1991, in conjunction with Ebrahim Rasool’s World Council on Religion and Peace.

CTEG postcard

Following the tumultuous year of 1988, and the terrible month of August in which the End Conscription Campaign, along with its duel campaigns against the war on the border, and alternative community service in the township, was banned, there arose, another green group by the name of Earthlife Africa. Initially a club from Wits had met the very same month in Yeoville, following the debacle, with the key person being Peter Lukey. At the invitation of fellow CTEG member Alfrieda Strauss, I attended a hastily convened meeting of several lefties and war resisters in a commune in Observatory, where Peter was in attendance. He had come down to Cape Town hoping to launch the movement nationally, and though aware of the activities of CTEG, wanted to take the campaign to a different level.

It was thus that I found myself traveling in my volksie to Dal Josaphat to attend the inaugural congress of ELA the very next year, and the birth of an environmental justice movement, drawn from conservation groups, botanical societies and the ragtag remnants of the ECC, and whose members were predominantly white bearded males, all well-educated, middle class and armed with degrees, mostly from the natural and social sciences. ELA provided an outlet for banned individuals, and a cover for NUSAS affiliates and persons struggling under the whip of the security branch.

I had just launched the first edition of Kagenna Magazine, which was to become an eco-anarchist zine and was still then a bit of a campus rag, and had embarked on a furious letter writing campaign around the globe, calling for an end to apartheid, imploring publishers for assistance in my publishing project and networking on a variety of pressing issues. The artsy cover of our first issue designed by Nat Tardrew would inspire the ELA logo, I still remember the brief: We want to create the ‘Coca Cola of Environmentalism’, something which will catch the public eye and thrive! Needless to say we ended up with a sixties inspired brand which as I write this, has gone through at least one revision.

During a break in one of the Dal Jasophat sessions, we set about drafting the constitution of the Earthlife movement and formerly adopting the name.

Henk Coetzee and myself sat outdoors under the trees with a rather bemused Peter, pondering where to begin the epic. I opened a copy of the magazine I was plugging, and showed them both a page outlining the principles of the German Green Party. We used the document as a template, and arrived at a few key phrases. One, included the unleashing of human potential, which I thought would prevent the movement from turning into a mere political talkshop or pressure group. I am still proud of my small contribution, but saddened that despite the auspicious origins of the ELA constitution, the movement seems to have become exactly what I had predicted and feared.

It was then simply a bright, abundantly virtuous post-ECC green moment. The first time that the academic theories being discussed at CTEG, on campus and in other circles were actually being implemented. Lukey and I had initially wanted to start a branch of Greenpeace, and having written to both groups, one in the UK and another in Europe, we had both received word back: Don’t join us, start your own movement.

Although I had thus issued forth in the collective birth of Lukey’s child, and a grouping which would soon spread like wild fungi and fynbos, I retreated back home, to my commune squat in the relatively luxury of Tamboerskloof, to continue writing for South Press and Grassroots, and Kagenna.

The Cape Town Ecology Group, not to be outdone, proceeded with its political agenda. I guess having freethinkers such as Karen Rolfes, author Michael Cope and Julia Martin as a conduit for funding meant that CTEG took the initiative in what would soon become a launchpad for the later series of environmental conferences based on justice.

Kagenna on the other hand, was the recipient of bootleg copies of tapes and books, and assorted literature which made their way into the country, despite the special branch, via Sheila Fugard and Samten de Wet. We feasted on Whole Earth Review, Buddhist magazines, Pagan faire, and the occasional New York Times. The postbox overflowing as Jay Scott delivered and played postman. He would also help me to write a letter from London excusing my inability to attend the draft and my seat on the troop train which had already been booked by the apartheid military command.

Kagenna itself was a pastiche, a bricolage of photocopied, appropriated, copyleft samizdat. The first issues were produced at all night publication parties, followed by underground music and theatre art events, exhibitions, live performances where crowds of hippies, students, anarchists, freaks, politicos, rebels, queers, lefties from across the colour line, mixed despite the Group Areas Act and security legislation.

So alongside an eclectic line up of black township jazz and white rock, there would be an environmentally themed art exhibition, people dressing up, raging against the system in the best possible way and thus ‘politicise ecology and ecologise politics’ became “socialise ecology and ecologise society”. The aim here was to mix and blend the youth culture, provoke the political culture and emerging environmental justice movement in order to create sustainability of a broader and wider environmental narrative.

During this frenetic period I found myself writing essays and articles for what turned into a series of environmental supplements for South Press. Not to be outdone by the surge in output, the Weekly Mail, whose Eddie Koch was also writing on environmental justice and Bev Geach issued forth its Green Pages, and despite John Yeld’s often meek contributions to the Argus, a veritable catalogue of eco-organisations, across the spectrum found themselves under the spotlight,as South Africa experienced a green uprising of sorts.

Every conservation group was turned inside out. The wildlife society became the wildlife and environment society. Environment was no longer simply about saving trees, but included humans. My critique of irritating white conservationists and the save the rhinos and penguins brigade, and thus also by implication, Earthlife Africa, was having mixed results. On the one hand, it brought a new political frisson into play, the earlier phases of environmentalism,  in other words conservationism, and the simple invocation within the Freedom Charter itself, to “save the soil”, acted as bedrock for new offshoots under the rubric of the Greens. At the same time, the resulting politics, provided cover for radical political activism.

It certainly made the anti-apartheid movement seem less threatening and more agreeable, as common ground was found from left to right. The farmers and boers, could now talk to the comrades about agrarian reform, without having an anti-Marxist cadenza. The commies could pave the way to ecosocialism, not with bulldozers and barricades, but by saving water, growing organic food and recycling campaigns.

A recurring theme of all of my writing from this period, linking apartheid and the environment, was the introduction of the concept of ‘ecological sustainable development’, which followed from the Brundtland Commission. I had ordered a book called ‘Our Common Future’ from a catalogue put out by David Philip Publishers. I proceeded to publish a review. This was soon followed by essays and articles and an entire supplement geared towards the concept. Calling the late Barney Desai of the PAC for comment I received word that policy would soon be forthcoming, likewise Trevor Manual of the ANC issued forth as South carried the general theme alongside the release of political prisoners and unbanning of organisations.

Later I would become critical of the manner in which all of this environmentalism equated with business as usual and a reiteration of race and class privilege. Yet, looking back at this period, it is without any doubt a broad campaign for environmental justice which clearly resulted in the inclusion of Earth rights in our Constitution. The phrase “ecologically sustainable development” and also the post-Brundtland concept of an “environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations” both appear in article 24, which is an impressive clause dedicated to the Earth.

The foundation document is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

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