Social and climate justice is everybody’s business

Professor Melanie Murcott says environmental, social and human rights are intertwined.

Professor Melanie Murcott says environmental, social and human rights are intertwined.

Published Nov 19, 2022


Durban - Melanie Murcott’s parents fled from South Africa because her mother grew up in a black household in Merebank and her father was white.

Both were anti-apartheid activists and the associate professor in administrative and environmental law at the University of Pretoria credits them for her ongoing passion for social and environmental justice.

Murcott has dedicated her new book, Transformative Environmental Constitutionalism, to her mother and father, Jean and Charles Murcott, who married when their union was a crime in South Africa. They went into exile in the UK.

“Coming from a single-parent household in Merebank, Jean wanted to elevate her community, change the mindset of apartheid, and pursue social justice. She was actively anti-racist. She was one of the first black women to become a minister of the Methodist Church, and a trail-blazer until the end of her life in November 2020. I was born in the UK in exile. Were we in South Africa, I would have been born a crime. My mother’s passion for social justice inspired me to write this book along with the fact that we are in a planetary emergency that is causing grave injustice,” said Murcott.

Murcott, a lawyer, and her family returned to the country of their birth when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, overjoyed to be part of the transition to a democratic country.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. It is challenging but fulfilling. The idea for Transformative Environmental Constitutionalism is drawn from my upbringing and wanting to advance social justice, which cannot be achieved without a functioning environment,” said Murcott.

The cover of Professor Melanie Murcott’s book.

Her book aims to help fulfil South Africa’s constitutionally protected environmental rights.

Murcott said that although the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment and Department of Mineral Resources and Energy have developed some good regulatory frameworks, there are major implementation failures, and laws that could potentially be implemented to advance social and environmental justice often give way to unsustainable economic development. This means that courts have an important role to play in holding government actors to account.

“For example, the Department of Mineral Resources is approving fossil fuel developments that are set to cause social and environmental injustices in the country, such as the proposed oil and gas exploration along the Wild Coast, which would be devastating for the climate system, marine life, and indigenous communities that rely on the fish in that area,” said Murcott.

Murcott said President Cyril Ramaphosa argued at COP27 that the country needs finance to protect the climate system, yet the Minister of Mineral Resources is pushing a fossil fuel agenda that would cause further harm to the climate system and undermine the goals of the UNFCCC. These mixed messages from the government are confusing and troubling.

She focuses on developing legal arguments that tackle the injustice that degradation to the planet causes, especially for vulnerable people and those living in poverty. She said the Durban floods were a good example: people living in poverty in low-lying areas are first and hardest hit. When the environment is degraded, all of their other rights are threatened, including access to food, water and sanitation, and housing. She makes recommendations about how the courts can apply and interpret SA’s transformative laws to create precedent and develop legal remedies that advance social, environmental and climate justice in intersecting ways.

But, she added, broader change was needed, including a transition to renewable energy and better sewerage systems to protect the most vulnerable.

“Government needs to actively implement its new Just Transition Framework (developed by the Presidential Climate Commission) that has several positive policy goals, and needs to urgently enact and begin implementing the Climate Change Bill, which was introduced in 2018,” said Murcott.

Murcott said everyone had a role to play in taking care of their environment. Most people know about environmental degradation but do not necessarily know what to do. She said people also faced other challenges and social ills, making it difficult to prioritise environmental issues.

“Studies have shown that women are more aware of environmental challenges than men, for instance, because they are mostly the caretakers in households in both urban and rural areas, and they deal with the impacts of water shortages and other challenges first. It is not easy to tackle these problems, but there are many impactful grassroots social, environmental, and climate justice movements and organisations that are doing incredible work, such as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA),” said Murcott.

Her recommendations for people who want to play a part in actively advancing social, environmental and climate justice include eating responsibly, supporting sustainable farming and small-scale fishers, reducing waste, supporting the efforts of waste pickers, using less water, influencing markets through buying locally and sustainably produced food, and empowering local communities to pursue ecologically sustainable food and energy. These changes can help shift systems.

Murcott is also working on a on animal law with Amy Willson, executive director of Animal Law Reform South Africa.

“We hope to establish Animal Law as a new field in SA by reflecting on human-animal relationships in various contexts such as food systems, biodiversity conservation, and animals as pets, and how the law needs to evolve to better protect animals,” said Murcott.

  • Transformative Environmental Constitutionalism was published by Brill in October 2022, and is available as an EBook, at (

The Independent on Saturday