An opportunity in climate crisis for all of us to work for a better future

Rubble from the beach in Durban after recent heavy rains and floods across KZN. Photo Credits: Komeshan Naidoo.

Opinion | Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork South Africa

On Tuesday morning, April 12, around 1.15am a neighbour called my mother-in-law warning her of the rising water in their semi-detached house. Getting out of bed, she stepped into already knee-high water. Panic-stricken, the family gathered a few essentials and got their car out of the yard.

Others in the neighbourhood were not so lucky as they climbed over walls to get into higher properties to escape the gushing waters, or stood helpless atop tables and other furniture as their homes flooded, unable to get out and fearing the worst. Some families in their neighbourhood of Springfield, Durban, lost loved ones in mud slides.

Fifteen minutes after my family left their house, banks collapsed and a mudslide engulfed their house. Two days later when the flood subsided, but the danger was still present, we entered the house and salvaged some documents and clothes. That was all we could save.

Everything else in the house – irreplaceable mementoes, much treasured furniture passed down through generations, groceries and clothes – were in a heart-breaking heap of mud-covered, water-drenched and fast-moulding mess.

For many the biggest loss however is a sense of place, especially in Springfield, where the descendants of market gardeners were relocated by the apartheid regime from the Tram and Magazine Barracks – still live. There is a pervading sense of despair and hopelessness in this close-knit community where many have lived through floods more than once in their life-times.

Ironically, among the documents saved was a 35-year-old settlement letter from the then-chairman of the Disaster Relief Fund which allocated R1 406 to my mother-in-law for losses she suffered in the 1987 flood damage. In a further cruel irony, it was just last year that the furniture damaged in these floods were finally restored only to be now destroyed in the mudslide.

As we filled sandbags to protect what was left of the home and redirect the storm and sewage waters flowing around our ankles in the mud strewn streets I recalled the words of Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. She was pleading for action with nations at the UN climate jamboree in Glasgow in November 2021. She spoke of the suffering from the impacts of climate change and, reciting the words of Eddie Grant, she asked: “Will they mourn us on the frontline?”

I now reflected on the reality of the frontline. I am not only a campaigner advocating for climate justice, I am an individual on the frontline living climate injustice. As groundWork, we have advocated since the 1990s for an urgent shift from fossil fuels. In 2005 we started conversations on alternative energy that laid the foundations for the discussions on the just transition.

In 2010, together with Earthlife Africa, residents from Lephalale and 192 organisations globally, we called on the World Bank not to grant Eskom the $3.75 billon loan to build more polluting coal fired power stations but rather that there should be concrete plans made for a “just transition”, towards increased energy for the poor and well-paid “green jobs”.

We were vehemently opposed by the ministers of finance, energy and public enterprises. Since 2011 we have worked with workers and unions calling for a just transition and over the last few years, together with coal-affected community partners and the Life After Coal campaign, we have developed an Open Agenda for the Just Transition. A transition that recognises the fact that for us to have a future where we will live well with each other and the earth, it must be based on equality between people. It must come with service delivery, infrastructure development, housing, health systems and decent jobs that are resilient to climate change.

The one in 100 flood is a misnomer from the past that has changed irrevocably. Consider the reality that Durban was hit by flooding in 2022, 2019, 2017, 2007 and 1987. The recent floods have broken daily rainfall records, with last week’s rain deluge dropping about a third of Durban’s annual rainfall on the 11th of April.

How do we respond? Government has been warned repeatedly and it is not a surprise that people are angry. People in the neighbourhood complain about the lack of democracy, how they are never heard, how the many calls to the council about blocked stormwater and sewage systems are ignored.

In vain the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, has since 1995, called for a disaster preparedness plan, a management plan to manage the damage when it happens, and a recovery plan to learn from the mistakes and build a better city. It is now time for an open democracy, where people and government speak with each other.

Come speak to the people where they have lost lives, land and belongings and build a future with them, using the strength people. This is an opportunity to build a resilient city that serves people first.

On the Presidential Climate Commission, with fellow commissioners from the Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa, youth and labour, I have visited communities to hear their concerns about climate change and a just transition. What we have heard was that people are excluded from decisions by local government. People want what was promised them in 1994 – municipal services, housing, roads, schools, health care, clean air and water.

Since our first meeting with the president, I have said that for people in townships climate change is about developing services and homes that are resilient. This flood highlights the urgency. The commission must seek to act with urgency to advise how we stop the madness of relying on fossil fuels, ensure that we adapt to a climate change reality and develop a resilient economy that serves people first.

If we are going to have justice, as the commission wants, it must start with an open democracy where people are heard, engaged with and trust is built. Come to the frontlines and fill the sandbags. Let us respect nature and use the crisis as an opportunity to build a new and open democracy.