Over the years we’ve been witnessing a number of civil society environmental victories. The latest being the MAKHANDA community’s triumph in the High Court compelling it’s local municipality to “clean up its act”.
But the reality is that our communities are still facing declining levels of service delivery, air pollution, illegal dumping and questionable developments which are causing damage to our environment and significantly altering our sense of place and well-being.
What can communities do to turn things around ? Vote in the upcoming local government elections you say ? Well, the reality is – whether you vote or not, and despite who you vote into council, you are still going to have to hold them accountable.
Unity is strength
Corruption, maladministration and environmental injustice thrive on divided communities. So it’s a no-brainer for communities to find common ground and foster unity and a common civic duty, sans political influence.
Organize and mobilize
Communities are more likely to have an impact if they are well organized and mobilized for action. Setting up a voluntary association like a ratepayers, residents or other civic body gives the community a distinct legal identity. Strong and ethical leadership is paramount to sustain any community structure.
Don’t hesitate to participate
Ensure that your community participates effectively during environmental impact assessment processes for development projects in your area. Make sure your voices are heard. You need to know what is happening in your community and what impacts certain developments are likely to have on the well-being of your community.
Hold industries in your area accountable
The good old days of secrecy and unaccountability may be long gone, but your right to access to environmental information is only as strong as your fight to vindicate it. Hold the municipality and industries in your area accountable for what they are putting into the air, the soil and our rivers. Ensure that your community’s interests are represented at all stakeholder engagement forums.
Hold your municipal officials (including elected officials) accountable
Municipal officials and ward councillors are public servants. Hold them accountable for service delivery problems. Ensure that complaints are promptly responded to and don’t fall for the excuse of “no funding” or “not enough manpower”. Problems affecting the environment, like sewage spills, demand prompt attention from your municipality. And unlike your constitutional right to access to healthcare and housing, the environmental right is not restricted by your municipality’s apparent lack of resources.
Hold provincial government accountable
Provincial government is in the unenviable position to ensure that local government complies with its statutory responsibilities. In terms of environmental obligations, province can direct a delinquent municipality to get its act in order. Non-compliance with these directives or notices have criminal repercussions. Know this and complain to province when all engagements with your municipality have hit a brick wall.
When all else fails, litigate
When you have exhausted all avenues of engagement with government or industry, it may be time to go to court. The constitution and environmental law affords a very broad legal standing to any person or group litigating to protect the environment.
The courts still remain our last bastion of democracy. So apart from using your right to vote in local government elections, communities have the power to effect positive change by holding those in power accountable through enforcement of our environmental laws.
Adv K Samie
Trust account advocate specialising in environmental law