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The next frontier: South Africa and participatory local governance in the Anthropocene

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The next frontier: South Africa and participatory local governance in the Anthropocene

By A Trevenen-Jones (BSc Agriculture, MSc Environment and Development, PhD)


Living conditions for South Africans and the rest of the world are changing fast. This abrupt and radical shift has significant implications for people’s daily lives, their prosperity and the natural environment.

We live in the Anthropocene – an era of unprecedented and accelerated change on planet earth due to human activity. The often-shocking phenomena associated with this, our new frontier, have become the norm. Today, we see multiple, non-linear challenges which typically intersect, thereby amplifying their impact. Challenges such as climate change, urbanisation, inequality, food insecurity and Covid-19. Those most vulnerable, like urban residents with low and variable incomes, are likely to suffer the most during these shocking events. But the transition to a resilient and just South Africa has already begun and new socio-economic and environmental opportunities are in the offing.

The National Development Plan 2030’s vision of a low-carbon economy that ‘leaves no-one behind’ is evidence of South Africa’s track record of climate action commitments, which span almost 20 years. Similarly, the Paris agreement climate targets and, more recently, the Climate Change Bill. The efforts focus on mitigation of and adapting to climate change and its impacts, however, and must be seen alongside developing actions that can facilitate future-fit resilience. In practice, shortcomings in South Africa’s participatory democracy, the social contract (horizontal governance) and co-operative governance (vertical governance) compound a lack of policy coherence together with a lack of capacity and constrained public budgets in local government. Local government and citizens are key to South Africa’s efforts to mitigate, adapt and achieve just transformation in the Anthropocene.

This paper critiques South Africa’s participatory democracy and co-operative governance in the Anthropocene. The areas of focus are action on climate change and the local governance of a ‘capable state’ in a social contract with its citizens.


Life and the Anthropocene

Life is about change. Not just momentary change, but a continual series of abrupt shifts that are, and will, profoundly impact humans on earth today and the generations yet to be born. This is a particularly acute characteristic of life in the era of the Anthropocene – anthropo for “man” and cene for “new” – and represents the first time that human activity is changing the state of the earth on a planetary scale (Stromberg, 2013).

Human endeavours are accelerating climate change underscoring the urgency to act before it is too late. Efforts must be made to stabilise the predicted Hothouse Earth climate trajectory to a human-friendly earth system state (Steffen et al., 2018). The Hothouse Earth trajectory tracks when interconnected ecological tipping points will be breached resulting in irreversible change (Steffen et al., 2018). An example is the Greenland ice sheet’s 1.50C ecological tipping point threshold (as measured against pre-industrial temperatures), which is expected to be breached by 2030 with a consequential 7m addition to the sea level and a growing threat to coastline settlements (Lenton et al., 2019).

The recent sixth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed that global temperatures have now risen 1.10C above pre-industrial temperatures – only just shy of the 1.50C rise that will threaten the ‘safe operating space for humanity’ on this planet (Rockström et al., 2009).

The United Nations Development 2020 Report aptly titled, The next frontier: Human development and the Anthropocene, declares that the:

Warning lights - for our societies and the planet - are flashing red…A new normal is coming. Covid-19 is the tip of the spear. Human choices, shaped by values and institutions, have given rise to the interconnected planetary and social imbalances we face. (UNDP, 2020:3-4).

As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, in the Anthropocene multiple challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, public health and food security intersect in a complex manner, and everyone is vulnerable in some form. This is an existential crisis; possibly one too large to fully fathom in the routine of daily living and governance calamities. A radical mind shift is needed – one that alters every aspect of how we live, the choices we make, how we act as a society and how we survive.

The participatory governance and legislative framework that underpins the way in which South Africans live and pursue their prosperity can no longer be viewed from a social perspective alone. An ecological perspective, which coherently engages people and the natural environment (Trevenen-Jones, 2011), is needed to frame South African governance and policy with local and global horizons. This encompasses the explicit and implicit notion of the social contract, which, for South Africans, was reinterpreted during the 1994 democratic elections and presented in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (RSA, 1996).

It’s an agreement between the government and the citizens as to who has what rights and duties. This contract is further detailed at the level of local government and in communities where, for example, the provision of basic services is a right and the payment of rates and taxes is a duty for local residents.

Developmental State in the Anthropocene

Since the first democratic elections in 1994, institutional and policy values have centred around the notion of South Africa as a developmental state. In practice, this notion has been defined by a legacy of programmes that aim to achieve the just socio-economic transformation goals inherent in the Constitution. The goals include the right to a safe and healthy environment (see section 24 of the Constitution) alongside the twin policy mandates of poverty eradication and economic growth and development. One such programme is the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa (AsgiSA) launched in 2006 to overcome barriers like inequalities, infrastructure constraints and deficiencies in government capacity standing in the way of achieving these mandates (Presidency, 2007).

Essentially, the approach has been to deliver on basic rights and economically grow and develop all spheres of life to lift people out of poverty while crafting an inclusive, equitable socio-economic space for citizens to improve their wellbeing and live in prosperity. Progress has been imperfect with initial successes mostly in reducing poverty. Significant inequalities persist, poverty is still on the increase and employment is on a downward trajectory (World Bank Group, 2018). Furthermore, Covid-19 has amplified the number of people living in poverty and increased other existing inequalities such as access to food in urban communities. The combined impact of climate change is eroding the eradication of poverty even further (World Bank, 2021).

Indeed, climate change is likely to make it particularly difficult to address poverty. Hotter temperatures, droughts and floods have a dire impact on well-being, nutritional security and homes.

South Africa faces these challenges against the background of an ongoing lack of government capacity, local service delivery inefficiencies, urbanisation trends, tenacious spatial settlement disparities and a coal-based economy. However, its participatory democracy, with its framework of mandatory legislative instruments, has the potential to effectively navigate and address the challenges for present and future generations in the Anthropocene.

Participatory Democracy, Cooperative Governance and Climate Action

The mitigation of and adaption to climate change – especially the goal of a just transition to a local low-carbon economy as advocated for in the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) (National Planning Commission, 2011) – is supported by the participatory democracy (horizontal governance) and cooperative governance mechanisms (vertical governance) in South Africa. While governance mechanisms are in place and South Africa has made increasingly bold climate action commitments, locally and globally, survival in the Anthropocene for people and the planet demands immediate, urgent and wide-ranging transitions in the routine practices of governance and livelihoods.

This paper critically explores the delivery context as well as the social contract relationship between local government and citizens since they routinely engage and are in close proximity to the impacts of a changed and hotter earth. Both are also important actors in mitigating, adapting and transforming to climate change. A just transition can arguably be viewed as a unique opportunity to strengthen the social contract between local government and communities to overcome inequalities and realise a more inclusive, equitable and resilient South Africa in the ‘new frontier’.

Just Transition and Development in The New Frontier

Democratic change in South Africa has focused on redressing the apartheid legacy and realising transformative and equitable socio-economic development. Integrated development planning with attention to realising a sustainable environment and settlements has been an important part of this. The former Minister of the National Department of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, asserted that human settlements are ‘integral’ to the government’s efforts to change the lives of South Africans for the better. She aimed to ‘empower communities’ which ‘includes transforming the apartheid spatial planning and patterns of social exclusion’ (DHS, 2020:4-5). New freedoms and choices, mobility, economic development and access to education and health services have changed the way South Africans live (DHS, 2020). Yet, the choices faced by South Africans – with signposted years of 2030 and 2050 up ahead – are embedded in a rapidly changing Anthropocene delivery context. Poverty, inequality and achieving prosperity for all remain familiar challenges. The way in which vulnerabilities and freedoms are experienced, and responded to, on the new frontier is increasingly unfamiliar, complex and often counter-intuitive.

The NDP astutely recognises that the state cannot achieve its constitutionally enshrined obligations and developmental mandate without more proactive citizen engagement in the social contract (National Planning Commission, 2011). Trevor Manuel, then chairperson of the National Planning Commission, stressed that:

On the present trajectory, South Africa will not achieve the objectives of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality. There is a burning need for faster progress, more action and better implementation. The approach of the plan revolves around citizens being active in development; a capable and developmental state able to intervene to correct our historical inequities; and strong leadership throughout society working together to solve our problems… [a] need to enhance the capabilities of our people so that they can live the lives that they desire (National Planning Commission, 2011:1).

Moreover, the NDP's vision of a just transition to a low-carbon economy by 2030 signals a dramatic shift to the traditional mandates (National Planning Commission, 2011). How poverty eradication is achieved, and what constitutes prosperity, needs to be re-envisioned in this new frontier. The challenges of and efforts to address poverty eradication and persistent inequalities, urbanisation, and the crafting of space for people to enjoy human rights and chart their routes to prosperity will all be exacerbated in this new frontier.

South Africans are ill-prepared to realise this just transition. Historical settlement and planning disparities – which remain evident as reliance on fossil fuels and inadequacies – curtail the practice of participatory democracy and the cooperative governance model. To be climate active and achieve low-carbon lifestyles will require the full and urgent realisation of the potential inherent in the social contract between citizens and the government. Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, underscored the need to ensure South Africans are climate literate so as to better equip them for the new choices that lie ahead locally and globally within the context of South Africa as a climate ‘responsible global citizen’ (Creecy, 2020). Climate literacy, climate targets and the NDP 2030 vision are, therefore, vital steps but they can also brush over the granular detail of what is involved in realising the just transition to low-carbon lifestyles.

Climate Action and Governance in South Africa

Climate Action Commitments

Cognisant of the urgency to take immediate action, climate action is incorporated into South Africa’s NDP 2030 (National Planning Commission, 2011) and the country is a signatory of the multilateral Paris Agreement committed to keeping global warming below 20C (preferably 1.50C) compared to pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC, 2015). The Paris Agreement is ambitious, yet the science shows a significant disparity in life on earth between the half-degree difference of its two targets. A 20C increase will lead to a breach of ecological tipping points followed by irreversible and cascading impacts that will cause a new planetary equilibrium referred to as Hothouse Earth (Steffen et al., 2018).

South Africa aims to leave no-one behind while keeping greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) low. This will require strategic and widespread socio-economic transformation driven by regulation, innovation, mitigation and adaptation measures. It will require effective participation fostering commitment and shared responsibility, especially between local government and citizens (residents). In September 2021, the cabinet approved a comprehensive climate change bill to protect the environment for the well-being of present and future generations, thereby providing a bold and rigorous legal framework.

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, was scheduled to table the bill in parliament in November 2021 after the local government elections. In addition, South Africa’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) was to be presented with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at COP26. The NDC represents South Africa's contribution to global efforts to reduce GHG emissions and to mitigate climate change.


National agreements, strategies and plans such as the NDP, the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and Goals and possible commitments to the Nutrition for Growth (N4G) summit in December 2021 have enormous implications for citizens and government.

Cities and their local governments, especially, are viewed as essential to the implementation of programmes such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The intersection with other SDGs such as zero poverty, zero hunger, good health, and wellbeing climate action together with SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities is of specific significance. This is because of the link between citizens and local government (horizontal governance) and service delivery and participatory governance. Also of significance is the intersection between them and other spheres of government through cooperative governance (vertical governance) and global climate and other SDG commitments (UN, 2015).

South Africa’s participatory democracy relies heavily on the social contract between citizens and the state. This contract stretches beyond voting to fully realising Constitutional rights, governance mechanisms and inclusive and equitable development. Participation is underpinned by a robust legislative framework that sets out the provisions for legislatures to establish constructive democratic tension between elected officials and administrations. This has primarily been a feature of the national and provincial government spheres rather than local government.

In terms of its constitutional mandate (see section 42 (4) of the Constitution), the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) provides a participatory platform at the level of the province (RSA, 1996). It plays an important and unique role in facilitating coherent cooperative governance that respects the synergies and mandates of each sphere of government guided by the principles of cooperative government and intergovernmental relations. While this is an effective vertical governance mechanism, which engages horizontal governance when it seeks communities’ feedback on policy and delivery, the question remains as to the readiness of these climate action and sustainable development institutions and mechanisms to give better effect to local governance across government spheres.

Drawing on their case study of South Africa,Alina Averchenkova, a governance and legislation specialist, and her colleagues from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment assert that South Africa has the ‘most elaborate and consultative climate governance systems observable among developing and emerging economies’ (Averchenkova, Gannon & Patrick, 2019:3). Even so, they argue, that notwithstanding robust horizontal and vertical governance mechanisms, there are several barriers, including insufficient human and technical capacity as well as ‘ownership’ of the problem and solutions, tensions between the public and private sector, state capture, corruption and a distracted leadership, in the way. Of relevance to this paper is the critique that the ‘lack of alignment and policy coherence’ poses a systematic roadblock to South Africa’s climate objectives (Averchenkova, Gannon & Patrick, 2019).

Active Citizens and Local Government

The principle of public participation in all spheres of government is embedded in the Constitution to the extent that, in the local government sphere, the Local Government Municipal Structures Act (RSA, 1998a) requires that municipalities review and address the needs of local communities and establish participatory mechanisms such as public participation forums. These forums include engaging citizens on the Integrated Development Planning process. Participatory governance is further directed by the Local Government Municipal Systems Act (RSA, 2000).

For reasons ranging from a lack of technical lay-person capacity to civic awareness to available time to finances and IT skills, public participation has lagged the legal framework designed to secure it. The expectation that basic service delivery should be provided by local government and citizens paying for these services tend to define the social contract between citizens and this sphere of government. This largely transactional relationship can obscure the full potential of the social contract in South Africa’s participatory democracy. Citizens from wider civil society encompassing the private and non-profit sectors and academia, could, for example, play a more proactive role in formal and informal partnering with local government. This will better realise a just transition within urgent Anthropocene-driven timeframes.

Achieving climate and sustainability commitments like those set out in the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC, 2015), the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (UN, 2015) and the NDP 2030 (National Planning Commission, 2011), requires ‘active citizens’ and a capacitated ‘developmental state’. This is especially important in the routine of citizens’ daily lives – where and how they live – and in local government. Ramodula and Govender (2021) assert in the White Paper on Local Government (RSA, 1998b) that a developmental local government is to be aspired to as it facilitates socio-economic benefits and wider prosperity for local communities. Even so, these benefits, they contend,are undermined by well-intended public policies that are insufficiently interpreted into delivery (Ramodula & Govender, 2021).

This inefficiency, together with a top-down flow of policy (vertical cooperative governance) rather than a two-way flow between local government and higher spheres of government, is compounded by a lack of policy coherence across all spheres (Averchenkova, Gannon & Patrick, 2019). Further hindrances are a lack of capacity and public budgets in local government. The result is an emphasis on local government function rather than an additional focus on the aforementioned potential of a pro-active local government and citizens who are proactively engaged in driving local agendas for consideration in international and national agreements, public policy and strategies.

Coherent governance is critical considering the unique socio-economic and environmental context of cities and the importance of cities for the successful realisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cities exert a profound and far-reaching influence on the environment and societies outside their boundaries as a result of population density, economic significance, affluence and ensuing global resource requirements. Cities are also centres of knowledge, technology and innovation (Wiedmann & Allen, 2021:1).

The character of the Anthropocene era may leave local governments without sufficient capacity and budget to manage and serve communities. In a time of climate change and climate action, the traditional post-apartheid/new democracy rights and service delivery obligation arguments need to transform, particularly where the relationship between ‘capable state’ and ‘active citizen’ is about a future-fit mindset.

The relationships between primary and secondary cities as well as multi-stakeholder engagement with both citizens and local government in rural communities underpin the resilience of today and tomorrow’s frontiers. These actions prompt participation, and with it, elevates citizens’ voices through vertical governance mechanisms such as cooperative governance. Everyone becomes an active citizen in this new world of the Anthropocene even if they don’t act, which in itself is action since a business-as-usual environment drives change on a local and planetary scale.

Granularity of ‘Active Citizens’ and Hothouse Earth

Population Trends

Who are the ‘active citizens’ – those with constitutionally endowed rights that enable them the freedom to pursuing prosperity? The ones who are part of the social contract?

South Africa’s population of about 60.3 million people is projected to be about 66 million in 2030 and 70.5 million by 2050 – reaching a plateau of 79.5 million in about 2070 (World Population Review, 2021). Projected trends show that South Africans are living longer – women (67.7 years) and men (61.5 years) – and that the youth is an important dimension. Additionally, population growth is beginning to slow (Stats SA, 2016; Stats SA, 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic may adjust this temporarily, but the overall trend has shown a consistent rise, which is likely to continue. In all likelihood, South Africa is at what former international public health professor, Hans Rosling, termed the global age of ‘peak child’ – a demographic trend where the number of children born today is unlikely to increase in future generations, which would ultimately lead to a population growth plateau (Rosling, Rosling & Rönnlund, 2018). Even so, the granularity of the data shows a youth bulge, with almost 30% of the population aged 0-14 years, and 50% under 25 years of age (Stats SA, 2019).

The implications for local participatory governance, active citizens and climate action related to this population data are far-reaching. The youth bulge offers hope given the strong youth advocacy for climate action. Those of us presently active in the economy, and more broadly, ‘active citizens’, aged say 30 years would be 60 years old in 2050, and 80 in 2070. On this timeline you, your children and grandchildren will be the ‘active citizens’: the ‘present and future generations’ referenced in sustainable development including the National Climate Change Bill. From this view, generations collapse in time making this time and action about the almost-past, present and future generations.

Cities and Urban Communities

South Africa continues to rapidly urbanise. Urbanisation is typically associated with changing lifestyles, shifts towards unhealthy diets (Hawkes, Harris & Gillespie, 2017) and increasing socio-economic and environmental inequalities (Burdett, 2016). The spatial network of both primary cities – Cape Town, eThekwini, Johannesburg and Mangaung – and secondary cities – Emfuleni and Mbombela – is characteristic of a landscape unevenly interrupted by rural communities across South Africa’s provinces (South African Cities Network, 2020).

Proactive, coherent policies together with participatory and cooperative governance are needed to: (a) Ensure the voices of cities and urban communities filter upwards and across governance spheres; and (b) Realise social inclusion and equity in cities and urban communities. Turok and Visagie illuminate the value of cities as having ‘considerable potential to combine prosperity with social inclusion, and thereby provide pathways out of poverty – but this is not automatic or inevitable’ (2018:3).

According to current MEC for Economic Development and former mayor of Johannesburg, Parks Tau, writing in the State of South African Cities Report: ‘Cities are about people, first and foremost’ – a phrase that emphasises the importance of urban residents. South African cities should be safe, liveable, socially integrated, economically inclusive and globally competitive with an active citizenry (South African Cities Network, 2016:7).

Urbanisation and pervasive inequalities underscore the importance of urban planning. Spatial connectivity between cities and rural communities is of similar import and be done in such a manner as to support socio-economic prosperity and food and nutrition security – and be attentive to localised interpretations of climate action, including the National Climate Change Bill. An Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) was developed which responded to the urbanisation trend and the 2030 vision outlined in the NDP (National Planning Commission, 2011). The framework encompassed the notion of inclusive, participatory governance in urban planning and spatial transformation (Integrated Urban Development Framework, 2022).

South Africa’s IUDF is coordinated by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA). This framework is a critical policy tool and a key to climate action in urban areas as it strives to give effect to both horizontal and vertical participatory governance through a “shared understanding” of what constitutes best urbanization management and how best to achieve ‘the goals of economic development, job creation and improved living conditions’ (IUDF, 2022).

Just Transition, Low-Carbon Economy

Proactive Legacy of Climate Commitments

How prepared are local governments with regard to their governance mechanisms and active citizens for life on a hotter earth by 2030 and more so by 2050? Interestingly, South Africa has been a leading light in terms of climate awareness and policy, regardless of being under-capacitated and practicing poor participatory governance. In 2004, South Africa designed the National Climate Change Response Strategy, approved the National Climate Change Response White Paper in 2004 and, in 2011, climate action was included as an explicit element of the NDP. The NDP recognises the essential relationship between people and the non-human world, the impacts of South Africa’s largely fossil fuel economy and commits South Africa to a more sustainable ‘low-carbon economy’ development path (National Planning Commission, 2011).

Just Transition to Low-Carbon Lifestyles

The NDP envisions that by 2030 South Africa’s transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy and just society [should be] well underway. All sectors of society should be actively engaged in building a competitive, resource-efficient and inclusive future having undertaken the difficult steps to adjust. By then, the country will start to reap the benefits of the transition (National Planning Commission, 2011:179).

Simply put, the NDP framework is replete with significant transformative leaps in the way South Africans live, address inequalities and envision what defines their own prosperity and expectations. Local government will shoulder a fair proportion of the responsibility of implementing the national climate policy.

During the one-year consultative period there was a lack of widespread consensus amongst citizens – across many sectors – as to how a just transition and a low-carbon economy can and should be realised (National Planning Commission, 2011). However, there was consensus about key steps to mitigate and adapt to climate change. For example, new and existing technology, such as solar energy, will be important. Many jobs in the present economy are expected to be lost, while new jobs, requiring new skills sets, will emerge. A significant amount of public budget and personal household expenditure will be needed. Those most vulnerable now will become even more vulnerable during the transition (National Planning Commission, 2011).

South Africa’s voluntary commitment made at COP15 (Copenhagen) in 2009 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below the ‘Business as Usual’ trajectory by 34 percent in 2020 and 42 percent in 2025 (conditional on support from developed nations) has been widely celebrated. Even greater commitments, with greater significance, have been made since then. In 2015, South Africa became a signatory to the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda with its 17 integrated goals including poverty eradication; zero hunger; affordable and clean energy; transformed industry-innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; climate action and promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies; and strong institutions and access to justice (UN, 2015).

The agreement directs complex intersections of global, yet local, commitments such as halving food waste by 2030 (Goal 12.3 under Sustainable Consumption and Production). The goal has enormous implications for the food systems such as retailers, households and local government waste management. Was food waste – defined as waste produced from point of retail to consumption – a country, it would hypothetically be the third-largest emitter of Greenhouse Gases (GHG), with only the USA and China ahead of it (Scialabba, 2015).

Reducing food waste domestically is an example of a just transition being at the very heart of daily life and the social contract. The collection of household waste is a local government service paid for by residents. Reducing food waste is thus a local government and global sustainability commitment. In addition, the significance of reclaiming and redistributing food before it is wasted to citizens in need – especially to those most vulnerable in terms of food insecurity and those with low and/or variable incomes – underscores the social and wider ecological impact an effective social contract can have at the local government level. Reducing home food waste is also a crucial climate action that all active citizens can act on by partnering with local government: from the private sector to non-profits and community-based organisations to individuals. It will require more than ‘reduce, re-use and recycle’. It will require a mind shift to a circular or regenerative economy and lifestyles, that is, where almost nothing is wasted; where diversity of paths keep food (and other products) in use; and where organic ‘waste’ is used to nurture nature and support food production (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2021).

Governance and Realising Low Carbon Commitments

Given the volumes of GHGs already in the atmosphere causing the earth to overheat, urgent efforts are needed to further reduce emissions. This must happen alongside experimental geo-engineering solutions aimed at lowering the earth’s surface temperatures. For instance, painting roofs white to reflect back heat energy to manage existing GHG in the atmosphere (Wadhams, 2017).

The 2021 local government election manifestos of ‘building back better’ and ‘growing together’ take on a deeper and critically nuanced significance in light of the social contract and low-carbon commitments. It is arguably misleading in the era of the Anthropocene to infer a sense of continuity with the past even if the intention is ‘building back better’. However, these slogans highlight the social contract of government and citizens doing things together to realise a better existence. Even so, there is a thread of normalcy – of more of the same but better – which detracts from the reality of the urgent, business unusual and wide-ranging demands of South Africa's local carbon transition strategy.

Like the NDP, a consultative process was undertaken with South Africans to determine the country’s updated NDC ahead of the last annual climate conference, COP26 (Glasgow), held in November 2021. The NDC re-committed itself to the 1.50C preferred temperature threshold supported by GHG emissions targets of between 398-510 Mt of CO2-eq by 2025 and 350-420 Mt CO2-eq by 2030 (DFFE, 2021). Even for non-scientists, the magnitude of these targets would be evident. Large transformations in the practice of daily life will be expected from all citizens, and across all sectors, in a short space of time – and they are unlikely to be comfortable ones.

To what extent do ‘consultations’ meet the principle of participatory governance given the challenges of participatory and cooperative governance is a further question. If consultation is to be an effective mechanism of collaborative governance, then, as Johnson and Howsam contend, they need to be ‘characterized by a degree of decision-making power, or, at least, the power to directly influence decisions’ (2018:253). The academics contrast this with the notion of ‘high intensity’ engagements with participants aimed at creating a shared understanding and goals. This is more akin to participatory governance.

South Africa’s National Climate Change Response Policy (RSA, 2011) can be viewed as an evidence-based participatory policy development process. The document was developed on the basis of a mixture of emerging climate science evidence, government mandates and local and global climate engagements. The engagements include the successive Midrand events namely the National Climate Change Conference in 2005 and the Climate Change Summit in 2009 – both of which brought South Africans from multiple sectors together (in-person and later virtually) for consultation.

Paradoxically, political will is evident while public participation is less evident based on the history of South Africa’s climate policy and strategy actions together with the recent September 2021 cabinet approval of the Climate Change Bill (scheduled to be tabled in parliament in November 2021). In addition, the cabinet also approved the revised NDCs and South Africa’s negotiating position for COP26.

This new legislation points to South Africa’s dedication to keep GHG emissions well within the Paris targets and to pursue an ambitious strategy for doing so within shorter time spans. It will require the public and private sector and all active citizens to work together. To coordinate and provide integrated mitigation and adaption responses to climate change and the impacts thereof, as well as to realise future resilience. It will also involve significant financial cost as outlined by the Van Diemen (2021) reports in the Daily Maverick including the cost of an accelerated plan to close Eskom’s coal power plants as part of a systemic shift towards renewable energy – a project which will cost ZAR 750 billion.

Climate action is unlikely to be driven at sufficient scale and intensity by South Africans – private and public – which makes the argument of consultation versus participation initially moot. The burden falls on government to consult and drive climate action through legislation and NDC targets. Beyond this argument is the need to be more participatory post legislation with a view to modifications and in relation to the practical needs of implementation.

Such an approach will require bringing together all South Africans from cities and rural communities to business and community-based organisations. Particular attention must be given to those most vulnerable specifically applying a gender lens. Climate action demands technical proficiency, wide-reaching and just socio-economic transformation from local government – and all citizens. Therefore – if international and national commitments are to be met – capacitation, communication and outreach need to be an active and intense part of future participation and implementation. Government and citizens need to help each other rather than stand and wait on the boundary of expectation. They must re-evaluate expectations and act beyond the direct transactional view of the social contract.

From Single Issue to Complex, Systematic Issues

As is the case elsewhere, the challenges facing South Africa are immense. However, there are also new opportunities for the country on a climate resilient, just and transformed frontier. These opportunities are likely to emerge alongside a radical change in lifestyles; income and job creation; service delivery and interpretations of prosperity.

As the Covid-19 pandemic showed, there is never just one global-local challenge. There is a complex, non-linear existence of multiple challenges including the pandemic + climate change + loss of biodiversity + urbanisation + existing public health + food and nutrition + security challenges – all of which amplify the impact on people and the planet and competes for immediate attention. Efforts to influence any single or multiple policy lever(s) to mitigate and adapt to a crisis, like the pandemic and/or climate change, is likely to have unintended and often unpredictable knock-on effects. For example, lockdowns to manage the spread of Covid-19 in South Africa not only impacted income and jobs, but as many as 9 million ‘extremely poor children’ lost access to free school meals and education (Roelf, 2020).

The implications for local government and active citizens are that the traditional focus on single issues (and rights) – like water and sanitation, zoning for urban agriculture and road infrastructure – are outdated. Instead, there are complex, systemic issues. Addressing these issues requires technical understanding, sacrifices and trade-offs; multi-stakeholder participation with local government; coherent socio-economic, environmental and governance connectivity between urban and rural communities; in addition to energised, proactive and cooperative vertical governance.

Although more is needed, an inspiring example of resilient planning in response to the shocking events of the Anthropocene was the situation in the City of Cape Town between 2015 and 2018. In this time, consecutive years of low rainfall resulted in an extreme drought that impacted water availability and services in the metropole. The severity thereof drove the city to develop a count-down clock to a D-day, called Day Zero, which was the day when the local government would ‘default’ on its social contract obligation to provide city residents with access to potable water. Day Zero was ultimately avoided – in part because sufficient rainfall eventually fell and in part because of the success of the Day Zero campaign – whereby Cape Town residents limited their daily water usage as per water provided by municipal services.

Extreme droughts like this are expected to become the norm with similar impacts for the City of Cape Town and its residents. This experience has highlighted the importance of local government’s ability to partner with residents to face climate challenges and to develop a robust strategy to mitigate and adapt to shocking events like climate change and the pandemic (public health) (RSA2019).

Cape Town’s resilient strategy with its 20 goals and 75 actions is defined by five pillars namely: a compassionate, holistically healthy city; a collaborative forward-looking city; a connected, climate adaptive city; a capable, job-creating city; and a collectively shock-ready city. Throughout these pillars, complex issues such as urban food systems, the economy, and health are systematically addressed and partnering with all ‘active’ resident citizens is prioritised (RSA, 2019).


The experience of the Covid-19 pandemic (2020/21) and that of the City of Cape Town during the drought of 2015-2018 illustrate how active citizens working with government to mitigate the realities of the Anthropocene is key to the survival of people and the planet. This is especially true in the local government sphere (state) since it is more coherently connected to local residents (citizens). In higher spheres of government, working together should be pursued through horizontal and vertical governance mechanisms. The social contract, South Africa’s participatory democratic framework and the cooperative governance structure underpin these mechanisms.

South Africa has been undergoing socio-economic transformation since the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. However, new challenges such as rapid urbanisation and shifts in population demographics – such as the youth bulge – together with climate change are emerging. Previously environmental changes were gradual and predictable. The changes seen in the Anthropocene, however, are not. The rapid environmental transformation of the era is now more than just anecdotal. The challenge of keeping global temperatures below 1.50C above pre-industrial levels is increasingly difficult as traditional lifestyles including wasteful food consumption and the use of fossil fuels like coal continue unabated.

Similarly, traditional approaches to poverty eradication, income, and job creation need reviewing if prosperity for all is to be achieved on this new frontier. The new norm is about abrupt, unpredictable and extreme scale shocks that often amplify complex intersections of systems. Intersections include food and public health systems and challenges such as poverty and urban inequalities.

How people live and define prosperity – and how they engage as active citizens with a ’capacitated state’ in South Africa’s participatory democracy especially at local government level – needs immediate attention and realignment with the climate, low-carbon vision. Without this, ambitious climate actions and GHG emission reduction targets such as those in the Paris Agreement’s NDC and the Climate Change Bill are unlikely to be reached within the short timeframes required. A sufficient scale to facilitate a just transformation towards the envisioned low-carbon economy and a resilient, sustainable, inclusive and equitable future for present and future generations will not be achieved.

South Africa has a robust governance structure in place. However, the technical capacity for governance and active citizens and more coherent policy design and coordination across government spheres are needed.

The voice of local horizontal governance needs to be given higher priority and legitimacy in provincial and national government spheres given the importance of local government’s role in effecting change in the routine of daily life, multi-stakeholder engagement and proactive citizenry. Equally, local governments can no longer afford to wait for direction from other spheres of government as how to solve their capacity and budget constraints. Local governments and citizens have the legislative mandate to act and should be doing so proactively, together as a community, and as one city. This will likely require an Anthropocene-driven evolution of the expectations and practice of the social contract.


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This article has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

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