A climate change response, with a feminist perspective

Published Apr 22, 2024


April 22 is Earth Day and this presents an opportunity for us to reflect on the global climate crisis that has, over the years, led to the ecological crisis we are faced with in South Africa, notwithstanding the fact that the ecological crisis is a global crisis affecting countries in various ways based on their socio-economic conditions.

I am not an environmentalist and so I will not delve into details about climate change or natural disasters. However, from a socio-economic point of view, I am interested in the adverse effects of free market capitalism – the foundation of South African economic policies since the advent of our democracy.

The global climate crisis has contributed to deepening the crisis-level socio-economic conditions of black working-class women in South Africa who are disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment and inequality and are front-line victims to natural disasters as agents of the social reproduction of capitalism.

Over the past century, South Africa has seen many natural disasters that are said to be induced by the global crisis. The natural disasters have been indicated by a myriad disasters, including floods, droughts and storms that have led to water restrictions in the urban agricultural sector (Climate Analysis Group, 2018: 1; Institute for Security Studies, 2018: 2). Also, it is predicted that by 2050, the Amathole District in the Eastern Cape will be affected by higher annual average temperatures, which will adversely affect water and food security. Evaporation rates will also probably increase and agricultural outputs could reduce.

Moreover, a study by researchers from Wits and the University of Brighton, UK, published in the South African Geographical Journal, tells us that the disastrous flood that hit Durban in April 2022 was the most catastrophic natural disaster yet recorded in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in collective terms of lives lost, homes and infrastructure damaged or destroyed and the economic impact.

The floods led to 459 people losing their lives and 88 people were still missing by the end of May 2022. More than 4 000 homes were destroyed, 40 000 people left homeless and 45 000 people temporarily left unemployed. Experts contend that similar disasters could be expected to occur amid the global climate crisis, however, adaptation strategies could assist as coping mechanisms.

The founding father of communism, Karl Marx, has taught us that the most indispensable means of production is the worker, and the maintenance and reproduction of the working class remains a necessary condition for the reproduction of capital.

Feminists would add that social reproduction is unpaid work done by women because of patriarchy. In our country, social reproduction is performed by black working-class women, either as unpaid work in their homes or cheap domestic labour for upper classes,

I posit that these are the same women who are in the front line of the climate crisis. While I agree with feminist theory in so far as social reproduction is unpaid work done by women, I also believe that our feminisms must adequately address and deal with capitalism’s nature of intensifying women’s oppression. The root of numerous challenges faced by black women are exacerbated by socio-economic conditions and capitalism’s reliance on women’s unpaid social reproductive labour for its reproduction. This must not go unchallenged.

Like all other crises, and while climate change continues to affect the country in its totality, provinces like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal will continue to be adversely affected as they are made up of rural nodes characterised by high rates of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The provinces are also where black working-class women continue to be the face of such socio-economic conditions.

What is needed in the South African context is a just and feminist transition. The belief and argument that free market capitalism is too entrenched to be dismantled and capitalism too big to fail, and, as some free marketeers have often argued, that with minimal state involvement in the markets as the tides rise all boats will rise, has proved over the years to be nothing but a fallacy.

In countries like ours, inequality, unemployment and poverty have not only continued in post-apartheid but have intensified. As policy makers chop and change free market policies, it is black working-class women who are disproportionately affected by the intensification of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

It is true that to attain gender justice we must dismantle patriarchy. However, we must acknowledge that race, class, patriarchy and capitalism intersect and mutually reinforce one another another. These are breeding ground for oppression. With the climate crisis, we have what Jacklyn Cock says is a historic opportunity because to solve it, we need radical transformative change in how we produce, consume and organise our lives. Perhaps we could imagine a new democratic eco-feminist order for our country. An order in which economic policy formation does not only consider women’s conditions but is progressively biased towards women and one that considers that if we don’t continue to place measures that will manage capitalism in so far as, and for purposes of this piece, ecology is concerned, we might destroy what is left on our planet and there would be nothing left to produce or consume.

Be that as it may, there is hope, we can learn lessons from countries such as Northern Syria where a women-led anti-capitalist and eco-socialist revolution has been undertaken, informed by ideological leader Ocalan (Abdullah Ocalan, was the Kurds’ ideological leader.

In the late 1970s, Ocalan and other Kurdish college students in Turkey formed a Marxist group, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which was dedicated to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan and would later launch an armed struggle). It also emphasised women’s roles in the revolutionary struggle, writing from prison in a paper that “the 5 000-year-old history of civilization is essentially the history of the enslavement of women”, and that it was time for women to rise up.

In other words, it is possible to reimagine South Africa, even though the representation of women in key decision-making institutions remains progressive much more needs to be done, especially in so far as the socio-economic conditions of women are concerned. Women continue to be in the front lines when natural disasters hit and continue to be the face of poverty and hunger.

Feziwe Ndwayana is a postgraduate student in economic sociology

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