By Ketshepaone Modise, Climate Energy Officer Earthlife Africa Johannesburg

 Women of all ages and from different parts of South Africa gathered at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg and GenderCC’s annual Gender and Just Transition Seminar. The women were singing and chanting thought-provoking songs like “Kubi Kubi! Weh! Siyaya! Izwe lethu, solithata nge Just Transition!” – it was an atmosphere of bravery and passion, coupled with a fierce desire for justice, capable of changing South Africa’s environmental landscape. I felt a sense of belonging.

As I soaked up this energy, I imagined that this must be exactly what the women of 1956 envisioned the future to be, where women are not afraid to voice their opinions – this includes having a say on developments that could affect their livelihoods and their environment, and even their way of life. For those who are leading the country’s community-based just transition consultations, are we consulting and listening to the voices of women who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change? Are we considering the additional burden women carry, who must rely on energy sources that are harmful to their and their families’ health such as mbaula with coal, paraffin, and firewood? As we speak of the transition towards a low carbon economy and energy system, we must consider the different contexts for different women in South Africa. What exactly do they need in their communities?

However, since most of the just transition consultations take place online, it is a major concern that decisions about their energy future are being made without their input. How will the transition ever be just without gender-sensitive policies, equity and inclusivity?

In a powerful presentation, MaMphatheleni Makaule from Dzomo la Mupo said that for us to be able to solve our environmental challenges we must use the indigenous knowledge perspective. She encouraged us to rely on our native knowledge to find ways of reducing our carbon footprint. I am inclined to agree with MaMphatheleni, we will never get environmental nor social justice without looking to our indigenous knowledge for answers. We must find those indigenous knowledge holders and consult with them.

Just Transition is not a small concept, and while it certainly has a lot to do with energy production and supply, it actually involves (and will have impact for) all sectors of our society. It is not as simple as merely ramping up energy production. We must consider the risk to people’s cultural heritage and the natural environment they rely on. How do we plan to protect those who may be negatively impacted? We need to be very careful in how we move. Climate change affects everybody. So, we all must be part of the solution. There is no room for working in silos, lest we intend to leave people behind. The approach must be led from the bottom-up, where people on the ground are allowed to not only be part of the process but to also lead in the decision-making.

Since the just transition is more than simply addressing the pervasive energy poverty in South Africa – it should also aim to address the high unemployment and deepening inequality – I am concerned about the conversations around privatisation of renewable energy technologies. Should we not seek to pave a workable pathway for more projects that are socially owned? The transition won’t be particularly just if it leads to higher electricity prices that further marginalise the people from low-income areas, or if it does not seek to create equal opportunities for grassroots communities who also have access to the same natural resources, i.e. the sun and wind.

The highlight of the event, for me, was celebrating the first-ever Woman Environmental Justice Activist Award. The awards process was amazing! To see all the nominees embracing each other, it never felt like a competition. It was thrilling to see the joy in everyone’s eyes as the winner, Ntombizodwa Rannyadi from Soweto Gauteng, nominated by her peers, took it home. What a joy it was to see women wanting another woman’s efforts to be recognized. And that crown – first awarded to Earthlife Africa Director Makoma Lekalakala, by James Delaney in collaboration with Lizzy Ketsekile and Paara Dizamuhupe in 2020, for her efforts in the socio-economic and environmental activism – was so unique, it just added to the overall excitement of the event.

Exceptional women must not only be brought to the table but must also be encouraged to make their own way there, to listen with courage and compassion and speak robustly, shaking tables where needs be. It really was inspiring to have women, from different walks of life, come together and speak about what just transition means to them, in their own language and within their own context. The energy in the house was contagious. Women full of zeal, ready to combat climate change, emphasizing that everyone must be considered as South Africa moves towards a low carbon economy.

For more information about our work, follow Earthlife Africa Johannesburg on Facebook and Twitter.