Last week 15 environmental activists graduated from CER’s annual Environmental Rights and Remedies for Activists training course. Here they reflect on the specific challenges facing women activists and in South Africa and the need for human rights defenders to be empowered to act against environmental law violations.
Lihle Mbokazi, an environmental activist and human rights defender working in a coal mining-affected community in KwaZulu-Natal, is one of this year’s graduates.
According to Mbokazi, coal mining in the area where she lives has led to a number of problems, including air pollution, water pollution and environmental degradation.
“Since the mines arrived the rivers have started to run dry and there has been a big increase in air pollution. Every little drop of water that we collect, even from rain water, is tainted with dust from the mines which makes it dangerous to drink.”
For Mbokazi, attending the 2021 Rights and Remedies Course was a way to empower herself and bring knowledge back into her community.
“After every session I would go back to my colleagues and tell them about all the new information I am learning and the dynamic skills I am gaining. I just wish that I had known about things like the amazing NEMA legislation earlier. What really stood out for me as well and made my heart beat faster was the beauty of our Constitution. I want more people to know about the protection it can offer us.”
Mbokazi is also quick to agree that women activists in South Africa face particular threats and problems.
“Being a woman and an activist in South Africa is very difficult because people view you as being forward and wanting to change the world to your way of thinking. As a woman you face a lot of intimidation – which I don’t think is the same for men.”
Nkele Pretty Ndaba, an activist from Limpopo province, also works as an activist in a coal mining-affected community. She agrees that gender plays an important role in the work that she does.
“The environmental issues I see that have been caused by mining in the area where I live affect women more. Also, as an activist I used to be afraid that people would not take me seriously, but thanks to the Rights and Remedies course I feel I now have the knowledge I need. I am ready to take action!”
Pfarelo Bolongo joined the Rights and Remedies course from Musina in Limpopo Province, South Africa. She, too, works on issues of environmental justice and youth empowerment.
“Gender inequality is very real and gender-based violence is very real. Women are killed, they are not safe in South Africa and on top of that they are affected more by unemployment and environmental issues. So it is a very big problem,” she says.
Bolongo believes that the Rights and Remedies course is a powerful way for activists in many different parts of South Africa to prepare to deal with common problems such as water, air and soil pollution and the effects of climate change. She believes that the work she and the other activists do can lead to a better future.
“When I think about what kind of environment I would like to live in in the future, I see a place that is free of pollution, with fresh clean air and no water shortages and equal opportunities for men and women.”
Speaking at the closing ceremony, keynote speaker and well-known climate youth activist Ayakha Melithafa reminded graduates of the importance of understanding environmental rights in order to create meaningful change.
“As activists the work we do is not fun and games or a hobby, in fact it is truly a matter of life or death. Not only because it is a difficult space and often a dangerous one, but also because we understand the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to hold our government to account.”
Melissa Fourie, Executive Director at CER, also saluted the hard work of all participants and encouraged graduates to use the knowledge they have gained as tools and weapons in their work.
“We find ourselves in a fundamentally unjust system that enables the exploitation of people and planet, and that rewards those who create most profit from doing so. That system has now grown so fierce and insatiable that it threatens to destroy us all. As activists, standing up to this system may not be the easy or safe path to take – but it is the path that matters most. ”
In closing, Matome Kapa, Head of Activist Support and Training at CER, thanked all the graduates: “This course would be nothing without our participants, what we are building here is important for our country, our region, our continent and the world and we need to capacitate the environmental justice movement with the skills to hold private and public institutions accountable. We thank our funders for the support to ensure that this important work continues.”
Watch the Rights and Remedies class of 2020 reflect on their work over the last year here.