Do political parties care about the environment? Here’s what their manifestos say

Are our political parties addressing the bedrock issues of survival, or are they only interested in the short-term goal of re-election? Mandi Smallhorne investigates

What issues persuade you to favour one party over another – jobs, corruption, service delivery, land policies?

There are more crucial and bedrock issues than these.

We’ve been feeling the possible impacts of the climate crisis in South Africa – extensive, crippling drought, several massive wildfires, extreme weather events – and seeing the news from the rest of the world of melting glaciers and permafrost, of huge reductions in insect and worm life, of Adelaide in Australia experiencing a record temperature of 46.6°C in January, followed by hundreds of thousands of Australian cattle dying in massive floods a few weeks later.

Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe are still reeling from a deadly cyclone.

Our world is built on four pillars of life: air, water, soil and biodiversity (a rich mix of flora and fauna, including birds and insects and grasses and trees).

If we do not make these our first priority at this critical stage, we risk a terrible fate.

In this country, with water constraints and fragile soil, we need to be very diligent about protecting these four precious things, and about fighting climate change to ensure our own and our children’s futures.

You could do worse than choose who you vote for on these issues – not only for their own sake, but also as a weapon against social evils.

Noëlle Garcin, Action 24 project manager with the African Climate Reality Project, says: “Climate and environmental issues are intrinsically linked to key concerns such as economic and social inequality, health, housing and energy access, as well as governance and corruption. You’ll find that what drives climate change is often the source of other social, economic and environmental ills.”

Contrary to the way climate and environment issues are often portrayed, they are far from being a “rich people’s problem”, she says.

“The solutions for reducing and adapting to climate change just happen to give us the opportunity to achieve social and economic justice. Well-designed environmental and climate policies do not undermine socioeconomic welfare; quite the opposite, they stand to benefit the people, the environment and the economy at the same time. As an example, there is empirical evidence that shifting to renewable energy would deliver more and better jobs.”

All fall down

A look at the manifestos presented by the ANC, the DA, the EFF, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) shows that they have one thing in common – while they all include a section on “the environment” or, in the ANC’s case “renewable energy”, they do not have the kind of coherent and inclusive approach to the climate and the environment that is needed.

“All this green stuff” is largely seen as something that is apart from important areas such as trade and industry, agriculture, land issues and mining, when, in fact, says Garcin, “climate change cuts across almost all sectors of governance, either because they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, or because they are affected by the changing climatic conditions – or both, as is the case in the agriculture sector. We need simultaneous and coherent policies in multiple areas, something the draft Climate Change Bill published in 2018 clearly emphasised.”

In other words, “the environment” should be a golden thread that runs right through any and all policies.

A sign next to the Klipspruit River, southern Johannesburg, warns people that the water and surrounding area are toxic

Before any promises are made or policies written, the governing parties and members of parliamentary committees should be required to ask: “How will this affect air, water, soil and biodiversity?”

It should be a unified and organic part of policy thinking and policy-making.

Promises, promises

The manifestos offer clear evidence that parties are not thinking this way. Their policies, to start with, lack overall consistency in environment terms.

“Consistency between sectoral policies is paramount,” says Garcin. “For instance, we are developing strategies and policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But how ludicrous is it then to push for offshore oil and gas exploration in the name of energy security and economic growth, as we see with Operation Phakisa? [We’re looking at producing 370 000 barrels of oil and gas a day over the next 20 years at a time when we must focus our efforts on pumping less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.] Or to laud coal as a ‘natural endowment’, or to consider an Energy and Metallurgical Special Economic Zone in Limpopo powered by yet another coal-fired power plant? Can we reconcile these policies with our climate change goals? Unfortunately, the answer is no.”

Tshepo Peele, a campaigner at, agrees: “The ANC has been talking more about climate change and renewables, yet, in the same breath, it is pushing for clean coal – something that isn’t practical or possible.”

Targets, please

While all the party manifestos waffle on a fair bit about “a healthy, sustainable environment”, talk about “climate resilience” and give a nod to “renewable energy”, much of it sounds like a Hallmark card for Earth Day.

Where are the specific goals? Where are the outlines of plans? How do we as voters hold you accountable?

The IFP, for example, says it will champion “effective environmental governance and climate resilient development measures”, and will ensure that renewable energy is part of the energy mix.

But the most concrete promises it makes are to criminalise canned lion hunting, create specialist wildlife courts to fight rhino poaching and ban single-use plastics – all with no time horizon.

The EFF devotes quite a lot of space to the environment, but then, in a manifesto that comes in several parts and spans more than 50 pages, you have a bit of elbow room, don’t you?

However, once again, there’s no clear shape to the party’s commitments – you can’t see an underlying policy, just populist bits and pieces.

Four of its 18 commitments relate to “rapidly increasing” protected areas in South Africa; nationalising all game reserves; including local communities around the protected areas; and empowering them against poaching.

However, it does commit to making the department of environmental affairs the main decision maker when it comes to activities such as development and mining.

The thinking may be piecemeal and scattered: “The EFF will require all citizens to clean up their community once a month.” Really? Perhaps the party needs advisers who are better informed (a promise of zero acid mine drainage is a real stretch), but at least this party makes two solid statements that provide goals.

“The EFF has been most specific about its 2025 commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 10%,” says Peele. This is an actual target to which the voting public can hold the party.

“However, it hasn’t been explicit about implementation plans to achieve this very ambitious target. Its energy mix is still heavily reliant on coal and nuclear, which could suggest close relations with trade union interests.”

In addition, the party commits to reduce pollution in rivers by 60% in the same time period.

Power to the people?

Energy is, of course, a major factor over which all parties have mulled.

“The DA wants to secure our energy needs by diversifying the energy mix, but there’s no clear intention on supporting progressive renewable energy programmes, nor does it have a principled objection against the fossil fuel industry,” says Peele.

Like the ANC and the EFF, says Garcin, the DA promotes “environmentally friendly electricity from coal, nuclear and renewable sources, which demonstrates its lack of political commitment to shifting to sustainable, low-carbon energy generation”.

The UDM, the DA and the ANC have at least done some thinking about public transport, which is essential in a country trying to seriously reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The UDM’s dream of a high-speed passenger rail system linking cities is worth reading – as is the whole UDM manifesto, despite the fact that it only mentions climate change once.

The UDM sees the importance of awareness of climate change and other environmental issues by committing to a campaign run through schools and media, especially on community radio stations.

You’ll find many references to land issues and water infrastructure, but almost nothing that indicates an awareness that climate change will necessarily shift the way we use land and water, nor that it necessitates higher levels of active stewardship.

Unless you count this statement from the UDM: “We will also introduce ‘green battalions’ to counter, among other things, soil erosion, overgrazing and deforestation, and to also protect biodiversity, especially in rural South Africa.”

Taking the lens of climate change to these manifestos leaves one feeling disappointed. What’s missing, says Garcin, is “a holistic, ambitious and innovative vision of what a low-carbon, just and inclusive society should look like – and of the deep systemic transformation that must take place to achieve it”.

“None of the manifestos articulates climate change or environmental sustainability as critical, cross-cutting aspects of their programme for the next five years. There is a deafening silence around these issues.”

Of course, there are lots of other issues that demand attention, but the immediate and damaging impact of climate change – and the possible positive impacts of tackling it – demand that the main political parties “show leadership by placing climate change high on the agenda, and mainstream climate response into all policy sectors.

It seems as if they are oblivious to the urgency and scale of the climate crisis and how it is going to undermine our ability to achieve socioeconomic justice in the very near future,” says Garcin.

Peele agrees: “The elephant in the room is the inadequate mention of climate change as a direct impact on the environment, the economy and people’s lives. There’s mention of environmental protection and renewable energy, and the ANC refers to a just transition for workers. This goes to show that they are addressing the symptoms and not necessarily the root cause of the issue.”

With no clear winner in the manifesto stakes, voters should aim to push parties hard on promises around the environment, energy and other relevant sectors after the elections.

And perhaps by the next election, a party will have formed that weaves the environment through every policy.

There’s one shaping up right now – search Facebook for a group called sharp#.


How can we force politicians to think about the long-term consequences of their decisions and policies on the environment?

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