OPINOIN: South African unions and activists call on workers to join climate strikes

by Zwelinzima Vavi and Alex Lenferna
Friday, 13 September 2019 13:03 GMT

Demonstrators take part in a protest against climate change organised by the YouthStrike4Climate movement in Durban, South Africa March 15, 2019. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

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Zwelinzima Vavi is the General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions

Alex Lenferna is South African climate justice campaigner at 350Africa.org

In the past year, South Africa has seen a slate of devastating impacts which have brought home the reality of climate breakdown. The raging floods in KwaZulu Natal, that washed away homes and roads, killing over 70, displacing nearly 1500 people, and costing over R1 billion in damage in the province, is just one sad example.

Eastern Cape is facing an ongoing drought that is ravaging the province, leaving many communities without access to water and posing a widespread threat to food security. Likewise, throughout the Karoo region, a crippling drought is driving agriculture to the point of “collapse”.

Studies show that, as a result of human-caused climate change, South Africa faces deepening inequality and is already 10-20% poorer. Therefore, it is worsening an already dire situation of deep inequality, poverty and unemployment, proving that what we are facing now is not only a crisis related to the climate, but also to social justice and human rights.

Over the last few weeks, South Africa has been experiencing outbreaks of violence against foreigners. The xenophobic attacks are also connected to the climate crisis, as increasing climate impacts are eroding traditional livelihoods across Africa, driving people from their homes and increasing migration.

While the impacts of climate breakdown are already devastating, the world’s foremost scientific bodies tell us if we do not act to rapidly transform our societies away from polluting fossil fuels, we will face much worse. South Africa, as one of the world’s biggest climate polluters, has a responsibility to act – a responsibility which we are currently failing to uphold due in large part to government inaction.

The lack of climate action from our government means we will need to take to the streets, build a broad and diverse movement, and demand action for a just transition away from fossil fuels. Across the world, we have seen that when labour and the climate justice movement stand together, we can win big on ensuring robust transformative action on climate justice which brings benefits to the many, not just a few.

Together as leaders in the trade union and climate justice movements respectively, we reject the notion that action on climate change is necessarily in opposition to the interests of organised labour and job creation. Rather, if we embrace a just transition to a predominantly socially owned renewable energy future, we can both protect workers in sectors like coal and ensure robust job creation and sustainable economic growth.

Unions like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) have been calling for a just transition towards a socially owned renewable energy future for close on a decade now. Those calls seem to have fallen on the deaf ears of the government, locking us into a highly indebted, dysfunctional coal power system, rather than embracing a more affordable and reliable renewable energy future.

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) has endorsed the call of young people across the world for a Global Climate Strike from the 20th to the 27th of September. SAFTU was the first union federation in Africa to endorse, and we are now joined by the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) and unions across the world representing tens of millions of workers. It is time for labour and the climate justice movement to stand together for a just and sustainable world that works for all of us.

In South Africa and across the world, the climate strikes are being led by children and young people. While it is inspiring to see young people lead, we cannot allow them to stand alone. That’s why we will be answering their call for solidarity and taking a stand for climate justice, for a better, more just future. We’re calling on all workers of the world, for the world, to unite and stand with us.

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