OPINION | Matshidiso Lencoasa: A human rights' centered response to the climate question

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article
South Africa is often described as a climate change 'hotspot', writes the author. (Photo: Alaister Russell/Gallo Images)
South Africa is often described as a climate change 'hotspot', writes the author. (Photo: Alaister Russell/Gallo Images)

The climate crisis is impacting the realisation of human rights in South Africa such as the right to basic education and healthcare, writes Matshidiso Lencoasa.

In the midst of every crisis lies opportunity. The worsening climate crisis may create an opportunity to build back better by prioritising the protection of human rights.

At the beginning of July 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa green-lit the Just Transition Framework proposed by the Presidential Climate Commission, marking a significant step in decarbonising our economy. This framework aims to inform the policy for the country's transition to a greener and cleaner economy by outlining the actions government and its partners will take to achieve this.

This could be an opportunity for the country to respond, mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis in a manner that does not further marginalise those most vulnerable - effectively an opportunity for policymaking and budgeting to protect human rights of those disproportionately affected by climate change.

To receive Opinions Weekly, sign up for the newsletter here

South Africa is often described as a climate change "hotspot". The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that reduced precipitation can already be detected, while droughts, heatwaves, flooding and intensified droughts are projected to occur more frequently. These extreme weather events have already devastated the country, notably the April floods in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), which claimed the lives of over four hundred people. Moreover, if left unchecked, climate change is predicted to push up to 130 million people globally into poverty over the next 10 years. This is especially concerning for our nation, where 1 in 5 people live in extreme poverty as of 2020.

READ | OPINION: Livhuwani Nemakonde: KZN floods - Focus should be on disaster risk reduction

In this context, transitioning from coal to a low-carbon economy has been regarded as a vital step in fighting climate change. Considered one of the milestones of the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow, South Africa secured a multibillion-rand deal with developed nations to curb high emissions and reduce the country's reliance on coal. This deal attracts more than R140 billion worth of investment opportunities for the country, and the World Bank has reported that low-carbon economies could create over 200 million new net jobs in the next decade in 24 major emerging economies. The deal and climate budgeting have the potential to unlock massive economic opportunities, but we must ensure that everyone shares the benefits from this green economy. In a country wracked by harrowing inequality and socioeconomic inequities, it is essential that policymaking and budgeting of the public purse ensure that we do not continue to leave people behind.

Similar to other global phenomena, the climate crisis is deeply unfair in that the poorest people in the world who contribute the least to climate change are the most vulnerable to its impacts and the least able to adapt to the crisis. Africa accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions at just 3.8%, yet is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. However, decision-making processes for emissions reductions and adaptation policies tend to exclude socially, economically and politically marginalised perspectives.

April floods impacted schools

The climate crisis is already impacting the realisation of human rights in the country. Section 29(1) of the Constitution contains the right to basic education. The Constitutional Court has confirmed that the right to basic education is not subject to progressive realisation meaning that it is immediately realisable. Unfortunately, the April floods in KZN affected 630 schools – 124 of those schools were seriously damaged. This was concerning, as the province struggled to reopen 72 schools in the weeks following the floods. Moreover, in the Eastern Cape, ten schools were damaged by floods, exacerbating a crisis where 54% of contact teaching and learning time was lost in the first half of 2020 due to lockdown school closures in the province.

Despite this, the education sector is still on the periphery in climate change conversations. While the President alluded to the overhaul of the education system to prepare learners for a greener economy, the Basic Education sector is not one of the sectors required by the proposed Climate Change Bill to formulate an adaptation strategy and plan.

Fiscal policy and spending allocations have the power to equip schools to be climate resilient, protecting education attainment for learners in the country, particularly those most vulnerable to interrupted schooling owing to climate change. However, the national budget has been characterised by cuts to spending that constrain the basic education department's ability to provide safe school infrastructure in response to climate change. Spending on public school infrastructure increases by 4.5% (R710 million) while the school infrastructure backlogs grant decreases by 3.2% (R247 million) over the next three years. However, the consumer price index (CPI) inflation rate skyrockets, peaking at 7.4% in June 2022, reflecting real-term spending cuts.

Furthermore, these real terms cuts occur in the context of government's consistent failure to meet deadlines contained in the regulations relating to minimum uniform norms and standards for public school infrastructure, including the eradication of pit toilets, which continues to leave learners in impoverished communities behind in education attainment, further exacerbating education inequality inherited from apartheid.

Impact on healthcare

Basic education is not the only right severely impacted by climate change. Climate change is already affecting healthcare in devastating ways, notably death and illness from increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. A report by the IPCC warned that the global population exposure to deadly heat stress is predicted to rise from 30% today to 76% by the end of the century. This is alarming as our country already faces a myriad of health challenges exacerbated by adverse socioeconomic conditions like poverty, malnutrition and the highest global prevalence of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.

As we have observed from the Covid-19 pandemic, health crises require developing nations like ours to divert scant resources towards a response that would have otherwise been channelled into strengthening the health system and addressing existing vulnerabilities and fault lines. For example, the Health MEC of KZN Nomagugu Simelane reported that around 85 health facilities were destroyed by the flood and as of May 2022, the department had not received any funds from Treasury and had to reprioritise their already budgeted funds.

Similar to basic education, the national budget has fallen short in protecting access to healthcare. While the healthcare revitalisation grant increases by 5,2% (R349 million) this year, the 4.5% CPI inflation rate results in real terms increase of only R8 billion. This lack of funding limits health departments' abilities to adapt to the effects of climate change.

In addition to rapid temperature rise exacerbated morbidity, climate change has adversely affected and will continue to affect the mental health of people in the country. A study conducted by Lancet on climate anxiety in children and young adults found that 59% of the 10 000 participants experienced increased anxiety owing to climate change. Unfortunately, the country grapples with mental health unpreparedness as exhibited by challenges with mental healthcare provision that endure in Gauteng following the Life Esidimeni tragedy. While this is disputed, many government officials have maintained the claim that provincial budget constraints were the driving force necessitating the deadly transfer of mental healthcare users out of facilities into unprepared NGOs. Policymaking and budgeting that do not address the impact of climate change on the right to healthcare may leave the health system underprepared for worsening mental health caused by climate change.

The gendered risks of climate change

Although the impact of climate change is felt by and is projected to continue to affect all South Africans, black women and women who live in poverty and/or have precarious employment may continue to experience this disproportionately. Gendered social norms and inequalities have resulted in women holding positions burdened by environmental change, like water collection and smallholder farming, who immediately feel the impacts of drought or disaster. Women make up 60 - 80% of the agricultural labour force in our country, and with the increasing occurrence of droughts caused by climate change, failed harvests threaten women's ability to feed and provide for their families.

Want to respond to the columnist? Send your letter or article to with your name and town or province. You are welcome to also send a profile picture. We encourage a diversity of voices and views in our readers' submissions and reserve the right not to publish any and all submissions received.

In June this year, Ramaphosa announced at the G7 Leaders' Summit that South Africa will inculcate gender-responsive budgeting in our processes. Climate policymaking and budgeting have the power to address the root causes of gender inequality by prioritising the most marginalised and realising the rights of the most vulnerable groups in South Africa ensuring black women are not persistently trapped in an inescapable cycle of poverty. 

Although the ongoing climate crisis is daunting, it can serve as an opportunity for budgeting and policymaking processes to prioritise the realisation of human rights for all in the country.

-Matshidiso Lencoasa is a Budget Researcher at SECTION27. 

*SECTION27 explores this topic further with three young climate activists on Episode 1 of the second season of the Climate Justice Coalition Podcast, Just Us and the Climate.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Show Comments ()
Voting Booth
Are you still optimistic about the future of South Africa?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, I believe the potential is still there
19% - 755 votes
No, I feel we cannot reverse the damage that has been done
49% - 1987 votes
I will only be able to say after the 2024 elections
32% - 1297 votes
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.