No Short Cuts For a Deep Just Transition: Towards a Climate Justice Charter for South Africa

By Vishwas Satgar, Jane Cherry, Courtney Morgan and Aaisha Domingo


The purpose of this article is to make clear that the fight for a deep just transition is a crucial part of the working-class struggle. This article also highlights some examples and tools which two organisations are using to strengthen solidarity within civil society. In particular, we focus on the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign’s (SAFSCs) Climate Justice Charter process for South Africa. Both these organisations, through their grassroots-driven activism, recognise the need to urgently build systemic alternatives and solidarity between progressive civil society actors, movements, trade unions and other working class formations. The time to build alternatives and alliances is necessary now more than ever in the face of worsening climate crisis-linked shocks and extreme weather events, which are and will continue to hit the poor and the working class the hardest.

The deep roots of the Climate Crisis

The climate crisis is affecting every sphere of life and its effects are beginning to worsen. The world is recording the hottest temperatures on record for the past three years.  Extreme weather events like Hurricanes in the America’s, wild fires across Europe, typhoons in Asia, flooding in India, droughts on our continent, including South Africa stand out. Sea levels are also rising, placing many low-lying communities, populous coastal cities and island states in jeopardy.

Climate change is the result of a 150 years of carbon (coal, oil and gas) driven industrialisation. The rich industrial countries owe the world a climate debt. China and India are also now on this carbon treadmill. All the science is telling us that if we want to stop a 2 degree celsius overshoot, we have to stop extracting carbon now. If we breach 2 degrees celsius, run away global warming is a likely outcome. This will undermine the conditions that sustain life on planet earth, for humans and other life forms. We are currently at over 1 degree celsius increase since pre- the industrial revolution and are already experiencing the impacts of catastrophic climate change. South Africa, as a water scare country, will have more regular and longer droughts in a climate driven world.

For the past 20 years the United Nations has not provided transformative solutions for the climate crisis. Instead, market solutions like carbon markets, carbon off-sets, geo-engineering and expensive nuclear have been promoted. The US has refused a regulated approach to bringing down carbon emissions. Instead, it has stalled, obstructed, delayed, weakened and has now undermined the multi-lateral approach to climate change. After 20 years of failed multi-lateral negotiations that world is sitting with an ineffective ‘Paris Climate Agreement’.Today the US under Trump is poised to eclipse Russia and Saudi Arabia as the main producer of fossil fuels in the world. This gives license to more fracking, tar sands and carbon extraction. Currently, carbon still dominates the global energy mix and renewables are not taking off, according the International Energy Agency. A sector like globalised agriculture contributes about 40% of global carbon emissions and is also not part of the decarbonising conversation. Petro states, carbon capital, finance capital,  imperial power and the failed UN system are causing the climate crisis and are driving us into the age of the Anthropecene in which capitalism is endangering planetary conditions that sustain life.

Who will be Affected?

Climate change marries social and climate inequality. This means climate shocks like droughts have greater impacts on the working class and poor. For example, the recent drought in Cape Town had a severe impact on the natural environment, but its economic impacts were felt by workers. One of the economic impacts was that food prices went up significantly because of how the droughts affected crop growth, making some basic food items such as bread unaffordable for many working class families. Farm workers were also affected by the drought, because instead of using water saving techniques, and cutting back in other ways, in the interest of profit, many farm owners fired and evicted their farm workers. Water costs also went up to police consumption through Day Zero while the rich bought water, developed boreholes or they went on holiday. In the case of farmers (who control most of South Africa’s water) they held on to most of what they had.

The food and water crises, especially the ones seen in Cape Town recently were made worse by privatisation and mismanagement. With these failures, and in the face of the climate crisis, food and water resources will become even more scarce, therefore making it even more expensive and less readily available to the most vulnerable. Work will also become increasingly precarious. This means that climate justice is an important aspect of the working class struggle, and it is imperative that trade unions take this up and champion this cause. Climate justice is at its core, a working-class struggle.

The energy sector in South Africa is also facing a major crisis. The major mining houses have now reinvented themselves as global corporations. Along with the collapse of commodity prices these corporations are pushing major restructuring efforts, with tens of thousands of jobs being lost. In addition, South Africa’s current energy policy commits to a carbon-intensive future. The shift to a decarbonised and climate justice path will not be the outcome of polite lobbying of government ministers and policy makers. To achieve this, we must form a new working class led political bloc drawn from organised labour; community-based social movements representing the unemployed; community organisations; environmental justice organisations; and the new intellectuals of the radicalising student movement. Trade unions will play a critical role in this. Climate change will most negatively affect the poor, and workers. This means that trade unions (at least their members) will have the most to lose by ignoring climate change.

Below we introduce two organisations in South Africa who are strengthening the building blocks of this new political bloc as they develop tools and processes to train and mobilise communities around climate justice struggles towards a deep just transition.

 The Solution: A Deep Just Transition

The Co-operative and Policy Alternative (COPAC) and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) are championing grassroots driven approaches to address the climate crises and promote a deep just transition in South Africa. COPAC was established in 1999 as a grassroots development NGO. COPAC has identified the food, water and climate crises as three of the most important challenges of our time. In response to the systemic nature of these crises, COPAC believes that the only sustainable way forward is for us to advance systemic solutions towards a deep just transition.

A deep just transition involves a complete break from fossil fuels, and a transition to a low or zero carbon society done in a manner that limits the negative impact on workers and communities. Further, the deep just transition isn’t only about energy and climate jobs, but it is about food, transport, water and all major social systems. For COPAC, the deep just transition is about sustaining life now and into the future.

But how can a deep just transition be achieved? What are these systemic solutions? Drawing from COPAC’s experience in the development sector for 19 years, coupled with international examples and theory, it has realised that a deep just transition must come from below by a people-led push for alternatives. Examples of this include food, seed, water  and energy sovereignty, the solidarity economy, indigenous knowledge systems, socially owned renewable energy, and climate jobs. COPAC’s recent endeavours actively promote two of these alternatives, namely food sovereignty pathways and water sovereignty, as discussed below.

Grassroots-led Alternatives: Food and Water Sovereignty

In 2014, COPAC, together with the Foundation for Human Rights and other grassroots NGOs, hosted inter-provincial dialogues on the right to food. Out of these dialogues the idea of a food sovereignty campaign was established, one that would provide a platform to unite movements, sectors, communities and organisations championing food sovereignty. This platform was realised in early 2015 with the launch of the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC), as a loose alliance.

Despite limited resources of member organisations, SAFSC has had a notable impact in the food sovereignty sphere in South Africa as it has initiated a number of activities at national and local levels. It hosted a hunger tribunal (2015), national bread march and drought speak out (2016), drafted a People’s Food Sovereignty Act and launched it at a people’s parliament (2017), engaged government departments with the Act (2017) and hosted national and local activist schools (2015-2018). The drought, its links to climate change and its disproportinate impacts on workers and the poor have been central to these campaign interventions. Hence the SAFSC is now championing food sovereignty pathways to feed communities, villages, towns and cities, in this new phase of its activism.

In March 2018 COPAC coordinated a dialogue with parliament, SAFSC and local water activists on the water crisis and People’s Food Sovereignty Act in Cape Town. This engagement was guided by two grassroots tools developed by COPAC and SAFSC, namely the Act and an activist guide on water sovereignty. In addition, dialogues were kicked off in Mitchell’s Plein, Elsies River and Rylands with local activists and community organisations.

Grassroots activist tools are one of the key ways that COPAC seeks to promote popular education and activist training in communities. These tools encourage deeper understanding about the systemic nature of the various crises we face. They also seek to combine progressive ideas from international examples with local struggles and solutions. Building grassroots capacities to overcome these crises is one key step towards a deep just transition.

One notable tool is COPAC’s activist guide on water sovereignty, entitled ‘Building People’s Power for Water Sovereignty.’ The purpose of the guide is to democratise knowledge on water so that people can be empowered to become water activists who can work in their communities to build sustainable local solutions to the crisis. COPAC aims to go further with this tool and process and reach beyond local formations to build alliances and momentum for a grassroots-driven climate justice charter process, as discussed below.

The people’s climate justice charter process: Building momentum and alliances with civil society for a just transition

What started out as a water charter process is now about a climate justice charter for South Africa, given the connections between climate, energy, water, food, production, consumption and finance that has emerged in numerous dialogues. In coming months a participatory process  will evolve through a series of dialogues across South Africa. It will also be a grassroots-led process that will provide a platform for input from environmental justice organisations, grassroots movements, affected communities, working class organisations, unions and citizens using social media. The Charter will be launched at a people’s assembly in 2019. Through this process, COPAC and SAFSC aim to build a strong red-green alliance for climate justice in South Africa that can transform the state into a climate emergency state and create the space for systemic transformation from below.

No shortcuts towards a deep just transition

It is clear that solutions to the climate, food and water crisis cannot come from the current capitalist system. There are in fact no short cuts. More climate shocks mean more misery for the working class and the poor. COPAC and SAFSC believe that it is imperative that progressive civil society works together to form a new working class led political bloc. The climate-crisis-induced water and food crises affect us all and the struggle should be first and foremost the struggle of the poor and working classes. COPAC and SAFSC recognise this and invite input from all organisations, unions and working-class formations to join them in this long, difficult, but life-sustaining  journey towards a deep just transition. Without mobilising united working class and popular power, the climate crisis will destroy South Africa. We need to act now.

The People’s Food Sovereignty Act and water activist tool can be accessed at


Vishwas Satgar is the Board Chairperson of COPAC, Jane Cherry is a COPAC Organiser, Aaisha Domingo and Courtney Morgan are in-turns at COPAC. All are South African Food Sovereignty Campaign activists.

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