Editorial: Democracia real YA!

As climate negotiators bluster in Durban, nowhere is the democratic deficit clearer than South Africa itself, writes Emma Hughes

December 11, 2011
4 min read


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.

December is the month of plastic baubles and technological must-haves, when politicians look to boost flagging growth figures with consumerist intemperance. It is always a fitting month to host the ‘conference of procrastinators’, as Patrick Bond has dubbed the UN climate talks. On this occasion the tired gaggle of government and business negotiators assembled in Durban, South Africa.

2012, the year when the first phase of the Kyoto agreement ends, is upon us. Instead of replacing it with more ambitious targets, the principle of mandatory emission reductions seems about to be abandoned. Climate change is rapidly falling down the list of political concerns, replaced by the crisis of finance – the integral role of capitalism in the climate disaster is conveniently ignored. As always, the vested corporate interests of northern countries will be a major stumbling block. Increasing consumption is the only logic that will hold any sway in Durban.

Richer countries also have the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ in their sights. The now infamous US state department negotiator Todd Stern, whose bullying tactics at Copenhagen 2009 were revealed in the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, expressed his contempt for any claim that there is historic responsibility for climate change. He stated: ‘The sense of guilt or culpability or reparations – I just categorically reject that.’

The facts are, still, terrifying. In 2010, carbon emissions rose by a record amount. We must start to reduce carbon emissions by 2017 if we are to avoid water shortages and mass migration. Current pledged cuts would put us at a 5 degrees celsius temperature change. This would mean large parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable.

Our political elites are so in thrall to private finance that they will not act to save their own citizens. Nowhere is this democratic deficit clearer than South Africa itself. One in six South Africans live in shacks (see our interview with Bandile Mdlalose this issue). Some 2.5 million homes do not have electricity, and companies predict a 125 per cent price increase in the coming years.

Yet despite its energy-poor majority population, South Africa is the world’s 13th-largest carbon emitter. It is part of a bloc of rapidly industrialising countries that have skilfully, if cynically, set up their economies to make carbon trading work for them. You won’t see South Africa fighting for binding emissions targets.

Of course, most of South Africa’s carbon emissions are created by mining and manufacturing commodities for the global North – only 16 per cent of South Africa’s total energy consumption is used by its residents. Both the products and the profits are syphoned off for northern countries, leaving the nation’s citizens with depleted and polluted resources.

This is a government that is failing its people. The ANC, as Vishwas Satgar argues this issue, have become overseers of Afro-neoliberalism. Accompanying this is a narrowing democratic vision: opposition voices are marginalised, politicians are market servants and participation is limited to voting – a particularly inadequate option in a de-facto one party state.

The campaigns of the African climate justice movement find themselves oddly disjointed from the climate negotiations – their demands on jobs, energy poverty and extraction will not even be discussed at a summit concerned with quantitative targets. The climate discussions have always been framed in terms that suit northern elites, though even within these narrow parameters an adequate solution evades them.

The domination of politics by corporate interests extends far beyond the climate talks, as neoliberalism brings its limited market democracy to every arena. In Europe, the IMF, assisted by Europe’s ‘inner core’, is once again asserting its right to dictate national polices. Some solutions politicians refuse to discuss: taxation on the rich, significant losses to banks or credit easing for the poor.

But there is a rising tide of resistance. The largest UK strike of my lifetime took place on 30 November – one organised by unions that are starting to address the dual crises of economy and environment by demanding the creation of one million climate jobs.

And from Romania to Peru, the Occupy movement has spread to 82 countries. Beginning with the indignados in Spain and Greece, the reclaiming of public space for debate and deliberation has been a crucial aim. The participatory politics practised by protesters is far removed from our tick‑box democracies.

In a political system dominated by corporate finance, creating more participatory forms of democracy, although crucial, will not be enough. We also need economic democracy. The challenge to Occupy activists and trade unionists alike is to begin a move towards a democratic economy by collectively organising our own productive forces and striving for cooperative workplaces. To become a regenerating force that creates real democracy, we must also create real economic change.


Emma Hughes is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. She also works as a campaigner with environmental justice organisation Platform.


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