Will fossil fuel divestment take root in South Africa?

Arnot Power Station is a coal-fired power plant in Middelburg, South Africa. (Wikimedia Commons / Gerhard Roux)

Arnot Power Station is a coal-fired power plant in Middelburg, South Africa. (Wikimedia Commons / Gerhard Roux)

When the famously oil-rich Rockefeller Brothers Fund announced last month that it would be ridding its nearly $1 billion portfolio of fossil fuel investments, it was not only a coup for the student-led divestment movement that began a couple years earlier in the United States, but also further recognition of the South African anti-apartheid struggle, whose successful use of the tactic served as inspiration.

In a recent article for The Guardian, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote, “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the rising temperatures, seas and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Being a historical touchstone is nothing new for South Africans. When it comes to divestment — be it the U.S. campaigns against tobacco and sweatshop labor in the 1990s or the current global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — the anti-apartheid struggle is always cited as an influence. What is still largely new for South Africans, however, is actually being the ones to launch a divestment campaign. Despite being closely associated with the tactic, it was actually the work of international activists. As a result, there seems to be a sense among South Africans that such efforts are best left to wealthier countries — not to mention some skepticism about the actual importance of divestment to toppling apartheid.

“Divestment is a peculiarly ‘feel-good’ American concept,” said Terry Crawford-Browne, a former international banker, who became an activist in the 1980s, advising Tutu, among others, on the banking sanctions campaign against apartheid. He argues that this action made business in South Africa untenable and played a bigger role in ending apartheid than the divestment of American companies from their South African subsidiaries. Now he is advising the same strategy for the BDS movement against Israel, which has actually had a South Africa campaign since 2010.

As for divestment from fossil fuels, Crawford-Browne said, “I’m afraid that climate change remains too much of a middle class concern for most South Africans.” Dominique Doyle of the Johannesburg-based environmental justice organization Earthlife Africa, shared a similar sentiment, saying, “[Divestment] is indeed a very strong strategy for the climate movement, but perhaps has more strength right now in the northern hemisphere, where the capital for fossil fuel investment is generally held and maintained.”

Nevertheless, both acknowledge that South Africa needs to address its carbon emissions, which rank among the worst in the world due in large part to coal production. To make matters worse, the current government also supports widespread fracking, increases in coal exports and deep-sea drilling.

“We should lead the world in renewable energy – wind, solar, waves – but the vested interests at Eskom [South Africa’s leading power utility] and elsewhere are still pumping coal and now nuclear energy,” Crawford-Browne said. The latter has been a leading issue for Earthlife, which regularly holds demonstrations outside Eskom’s headquarters attended by the many poor people who are affected by the utility’s outrageous prices and pollution.

Yet, despite all signs suggesting South Africans are not interested in a divestment campaign against fossil fuels, students, faculty, staff and alumni at the University of Cape Town, or UCT, launched one last year. Although they have yet to persuade the university, or any other institution, the campaign is still in the design and research phase, with ambitions of spreading beyond South Africa, to include regional targets.

“Even 25 years later, South Africans remain divided on the subject of the anti-apartheid divestment campaign and the extent of its contribution to ending apartheid,” said David Le Page, a founding member of Fossil Free UCT. He is among those who believe divestment was a crucial tactic — if only for the global solidarity and widespread moral opposition it created. As such, he thinks it’s a great model for climate activists to follow. “This is, once again, a struggle about the fundamental human rights of Africans, who stand to suffer as much, if not more than, the people of any other continent should climate change go unchecked – while also being less responsible than any other part of the world.”

350.org’s Africa and Middle East team leader Ferrial Adam, who is helping Fossil Free UCT develop its campaign, said that the organizing is influenced by more than the anti-apartheid struggle. “It’s becoming a combination of that style of campaigning with some new tactics being introduced. For instance, the way Greenpeace campaigns — hanging banners, chaining themselves to gates, etc. — is fairly new and different in South Africa.”

Le Page also pointed to the struggle for HIV treatment in South Africa led by the Treatment Action Campaign in the early 2000s as a direct inspiration, citing its “multi-level approach, which combined building a social movement, civil disobedience, media work, deep activist education, legal strategies and international mobilization.”

Meanwhile, Durban-based political economist and UTC Fossil Free supporter Patrick Bond argues that organizers should also find inspiration in lessons learned. He described the transition of the apartheid regime to a government that adopted economically devastating neoliberal policies as a “good warning of going back too fast to the bankers you forced out.”

Best-selling author and journalist Naomi Klein, whose 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine” documents this transition and its fallout, is also a major supporter of the fossil fuel divestment movement. She recently spoke highly of its ability to create a more just economy, saying, “This is the beginning of the kind of model that we need, and the first step is saying these profits are not acceptable and once we collectively say that and believe that and express that in our universities, in our faith institutions, at city council level, then we’re one step away from where we need to be, which is polluter pays.”

Tutu also agrees that a transformative victory is within reach, calling last month’s announcement by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund “a tipping point of transition to a new energy economy that was just and equitable.”

If he and Klein are right about the potential of fossil fuel divestment, then no matter how South Africans engage with it, they will have played a crucial role.

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