Patrick Bond



South African political ecology reflects what is amongst the world’s most extreme cases of uneven and combined development, and as one crucial aspect of this condition, environmental degradation extends deep into the households and workplaces populated mainly by the country’s black majority. The budding socialist movement will, in coming months and years, increasingly embrace this condition just as profoundly as it does the need to reindustrialise the economy under worker and social control, while restructuring the reproduction of labour power in a humane, rational manner. As that process unfolds, there are opportunities to ‘red-green’ the aspirational strategies of manufacturing-localisation, minerals-beneficiation, land reform, geographical restructuring (including urban repurposing, the cessation of migrant labour relations and shifts from private to public transport), and renewable energy generation that are supported in principle today by all social forces aside from the most dogmatic neoliberals.
But to ensure that these strategies are not tokenistic, that they do not fall prey to ‘Green Economy’ eco-capitalist manoeuvers, and that they have deepening eco-socialist orientations, the immediate challenge is to wrench power from corporations and their allied politicians and state officials. That will also mean coming to grips with international vulnerabilities associated with post-1994 neoliberalism, with South Africa’s subimperial positioning in Africa, and most explicitly today, with the worsening failure of the BRICS project: the mistaken idea that alliance with Brazil, Russia, India and China would generate radically new global governance power relations that would successfully address economic, social, geopolitical and ecological crises from the top down.
In contrast, several bottom-up victories since the end of apartheid in 1994 offer examples of the decommodification, destratification and deglobalisation approaches that will be required to move forward the eco-socialist agenda: access to free HIV/AIDS medicines, the partial decommodification of municipal water and electricity services, and workplace health and safety class-action lawsuits (especially over silicosis). These are instances of struggle that bring home – to the scale of the body itself – some of the ecological processes most damaged by capitalism. There are also some isolated but important cases of environmental justice victories over polluters that contribute to broader eco-socialist conceptions and movement-building. And a few institutions and visionary leaders have begun to emerge to carry forward the eco-socialist agenda across South Africa’s rocky terrain.
Still, the most vital missing element in 2017 is a political party that generates an eco-socialist ideology deep within the society. All other ideologies currently in the mainstream of political discourse – especially nationalism, neoliberalism, petit-bourgeois radicalism, Black Consciousness and an ossified ‘Marxist-Leninism’ promoted by the official Communist Party, as well as half-hearted mainstream environmentalism – have failed to achieve the potential that a red-green political process offers. Even the best prospect for an eco-socialist ideology – the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) in alliance with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and a slow-maturing ‘United Front’ with social movements – has a great distance to travel before the merits of radical environmentalism are evident to the vanguard of workers and social movements.