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How Is Apartheid’s Legacy Making Climate Change Impacts Worse in South Africa?

How Is Apartheid’s Legacy Making Climate Change Impacts Worse in South Africa?

How Is Apartheid’s Legacy Making Climate Change Impacts Worse in South Africa?

Climate change has already decided the theme that will define the year 2022 for Southern Africa: extreme weather and natural disasters. 

Having sparked widespread drought in West and Central Africa, and sent locusts to ravage essential crops in East Africa; the beast that is the climate crisis subsequently set its sights on washing away the continent’s Southern region at the beginning of the year. South Africa is the latest victim. 

Right off the back of catastrophic extreme weather in neighbouring countries Mozambique, Madagascar, and Malawi in the first three months of the year — which you can read more about Here — South Africa Felt like it was inundated by floodwaters.This is still having an impact on thousands of lives. 

The country’s KwaZulu-Natal province experienced heavy downpours from April 8, 2022; the rains led to destructive flooding and landslides that consumed thousands of homes, businesses, and infrastructure, and killed an estimated 448 people. The damage that climate change has caused is enough of a tragedy to consider, but what if we told you that the apartheid regime — despite coming to an end back in 1994 — had its hand in making matters worse? 

That’s right. The same oppressive regime to which the country owes its intense inequality and poverty rates; the same regime that is still casting a shadow over the country’s governance; the same regime that the country has been determined to run far away from — is also exacerbating the impacts of the climate crisis on South Africa and its people.

But, we hear you ask, how can apartheid, having ended several decades ago with the declaration of democracy, be connected to the impact of climate change as it’s happening today? It all has to do apartheid-era planning. 

Apartheid spatial planning has always been a problematic structure in need of dismantling, it played a crucial role in separating the country’s people, and is in fact, continuing to succeed at doing just that. It is now a major environmental problem and the KwaZulu-Natal flooding brought it into the spotlight as a critical issue that requires urgent solutions. 

What Is Apartheid Spatial Planning Really?

In one sentence? It is the physical separation of citizens that the apartheid regime uses to systematically oppress Black people and other people of colour. 

The system is far more complex than can be summarized in one sentence.

South Africa is the most unequal country on the planet, with large gaps between the rich majority and a small wealthy minority. South Africa’s inequality is why Thabo Mbeki, a former president, famously described the country in two nations, adding: “One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure…” 

“The second and larger nation of South Africa,” he continued, “is Black and poor, with the worst affected being women in the rural areas, the Black rural population in general, and the disabled. This nation lives under conditions of a grossly underdeveloped economic, physical, educational, communication, and other infrastructure.” 

The country’s deep inequalities also manifest in the manner in which the country’s towns and cities were built and who lives where.

Under the apartheid regime and through the use of legislation such as the 1913 Land Act and 1950 Group Areas Act, the country was designated into white, Black, Coloured, and Indian areas — with Black and Coloured areas often being the furtherst away from economic activities and usually on low lying, non-arable, and densely populated areas. 

The 1913 Land Act for instance reserved just 13% of all the country’s land for Black people, and both the Group Areas Act and Land Act were imposed through forced removals which dispossessed many people from their land, homes, and families — so that white urban areas could be built. 

AsStatistics SA in a 2016 report: “The legacy of apartheid still has a hold on the social structure of South African urban space… The high density townships — dominated by Black African, Coloured, or Indian/Asian residents — are disconnected from the CBD [central business district].” 

In addition to peri-urban areas (areas immediately adjacent to a city or urban area), people were also forcibly removed to rural “homelands”, which also faced challenges around development and infrastructure. 

What does Apartheid Spatial Planning and Climate Change have to do?

Many of the areas that were demarcated for Black people are not only far away from economic opportunities, but they are often built on areas prone to flooding — such as the densely populated Alexandra township in northern Johannesburg, which has homes built on the floodline of the Jukskei River that often floods the area. In Cape Town, the Western Cape, townships also sit on low-lying flatlands. These flatlands are prone for flooding and fires and are often difficult to reach for emergency services. 

Some of the most severely affected areas in the recent floods that devastated KwaZulu–Natal province were poorer areas and areas built on floodlines. 2019 saw heavy rains that also caused flooding. The climate action plan was released by eThekwini municipality (a KwaZulu-Natal region)According to the report, heavy and disruptive rains will become more frequent in their area. 
Khumbulani Radibe, a worker in a petrol station, sits upon the rock where his house was swept away in floods in Nhlungwane near Durban, South Africa on April 19, 2022.
Image by AP Photo

The climate action plan also noted that poorer areas would be the most vulnerable to flooding and drought, stating: “EThekwini Municipality recognises that people living in informal settlements are the most vulnerable communities in the city. Many informal settlements are situated in environmentally sensitive areas, including floodplains, low-lying areas, or on land with steep slopes or unstable soils.” 

The plan highlighted at the time that around 25% of the city’s population were living in over 550 known informal settlements — and 164 of these, or about 1 in 3, are located or partially located on floodplains. The report noted that homes in these vulnerable areas were often built with materials that are not resilient to extreme weather events. 

Following the floods in KwaZulu-Natal this month, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa’s Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister, In a press conference, he stated that poor spatial planning was a key factor in the destruction in the province.

What is the Best Way to Do It?

Little has been done to address apartheid spatial planning in the years since apartheid ended, and South African cities are still largely segregated along racial lines — meaning the country’s poor continue to live in isolated, rural, poorly built, and under-resourced areas. In addition to this, municipalities are not spending enough on infrastructure — including spending on infrastructure intended to make South African communities more resilient to climate change.

South Africa’s Auditor General has regularly raised the alarmAbout the low amount of infrastructure investment and the challenges associated with infrastructure projects being not completed and/or maintained. Investments in public infrastructure are crucial to preparing and protecting poor communities from the increasing effects of climate change.

Furthermore, South Africa’s own National Development PlanThe NDP acknowledges the importance and necessity of planning for climate changes, especially for those in poorer communities. The NDP says, “developmental challenges must be addressed in a manner that ensures environmental sustainability and builds resilience to the effects of climate change, particularly in poorer communities.” 

South Africa is often criticized for having great plans and policies but they are hampered or rendered ineffective by a lackluster political will and follow-through. This inertia must end to reduce poverty and inequality, as well as prepare for extreme weather that will be more frequent.

Another problem that requires immediate attention is the failure wealthy countries to keep their promise of $100 billion a year every year from 2020-2025 to help low-income countries (which contributed the least to cause the climate crisis) adapt to climate change — a pledge that countries Now, I have saidFunding won’t be available until 2023. This funding could be a big help in countries like South Africa, which are currently suffering the worst effects of climate change. 

What does it mean for the Mission to End Extreme Poverty?

Natural disasters are not only a major cause of destruction, but also a significant obstacle in the fight against extreme poverty. Nation’s must spend substantial resources on rebuilding and recovery. Add the impact of spatial planning into the mix — knowing that without it, the effects of natural disasters in South Africa would not be as immense — and poverty is undoubtedly exacerbated. 

The climate crisis is unsurprisingly directly linked to Global Goal 13, which requires immediate climate action. The lack of action from current leaders to rectify the planning of the past — that is unnecessarily extending the way climate change is affecting South Africa — is fueling the climate crisis fire in the country. 

Extreme weather has also affected Global Goal 4, affecting school children in the area. Estimation of Department of Basic EducationThe floods affected an estimated 631 schools, with only a little more than 100 completely unaccessible. The flooding also has the potential to impact children’s access to basic nutrition (Global Goal 2 for zero hunger), as 9 million childrenIn the country, school meals are a major source of nutrition. These are estimated to number 1.7 million and come from KwaZulu-Natal

As infrastructure was destroyed by the storms (including around 4,000 homes), so were essential health care facilities and clinics, without which, life-saving health services will become unavailable to those who need them most. According to officials in the province an estimated 58 hospitals have been affected by the intense storms, impacting the UN’s Global Goal 3 for access to health care. 

The fact that spatial plan is still in existence and has not been properly addressed has an effect on Global Goals 9 and 11 for sustainability and communities. Apartheid spatial planning is another way that inequality continues to define South Africa. 

Finally, in terms infrastructure and reconstruction, local officials Estimated to be R17 billion (just over US$1 billion) will be needed to recover from the impacts of the storm. There is no word on whether this amount includes building smarter and more inclusively, away from previous structures, but government officials have confirmed with Global Citizen that there is now planning and discussion around rectifying spatial planning in the country’s most vulnerable areas. 

What can we do to help? 

Africa will continue to be the hardest hit by the climate crisis. If not addressed immediately, extreme weather patterns and floods will continue. 

Learn more about the impact of climate change on Africa. Sign up to become a Global Citizen by visiting our website or downloading the Global Citizen App. this quiz actionLearn more about the situation. 

You can also tweet relevant world leaders to take action to ensure wealthy countries honor their pledges to assist low-income nations in adapting to the climate crisis Here

To help with immediate relief for those impacted by the KwaZulu-Natal flooding, you can also support GlobalGiving’s South Africa Flood Relief Fund — which helps vetted partner organisations to provide food, water, and emergency medical supplies to people and displaced families — by donating Here. You can also find out about other ways to help. Here.

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