A group of people hold up a large white sign with black letters and a yellow X through it.

The Big Fix

Climate divestment activists draw inspiration from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle

The global boycott against South Africa’s apartheid regime is credited, in part, for helping to end it. Now, climate change activists are borrowing from the same playbook — pulling dollars from those who fund the fossil-fuel industry.

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

The current goal of Fossil Free South Africa is to get the University of Cape Town to remove funds from fossil fuel interests.

Credit:

Courtesy of Fossil Free South Africa 

The global boycott against South Africa’s apartheid regime was the largest of its kind in the second half the 20th century. This divestment movement is credited, in part, for helping to end the systemically racist, white-ruled government in 1994.  

Related: Denmark will phase out oil and gas by 2050. Here's how.

Climate activists are borrowing from the same playbook: For more than a decade, they’ve pressured institutions and governments to pull money out of stocks, bonds and businesses that fund the fossil fuel industry. 

“It was a very deliberate effort to connect the theory of change that had worked to bring about the at the end of apartheid and to connect that to the very real destruction of the planet, where Black and brown and Indigenous communities are at the forefront."

Emira Woods, Wallace Global Fund 

“It was a very deliberate effort to connect the theory of change that had worked to bring about the end of apartheid and to connect that to the very real destruction of the planet, where Black and brown and Indigenous communities are at the forefront,” said Emira Woods, a trustee at the Wallace Global Fund, which advocates for fossil fuel divestment.

Related: Three major environmental groups join Facebook ad boycott

For Woods, it’s part of her own history. When she was a college student in the '80s, she organized protests with fellow activists to demand that her school, Columbia University, stop investing in the South African government and companies doing business with the country

The fossil fuel divestment movement was also born on college campuses in the US about a decade ago. 

Now, according to 350.org, more than a thousand institutions in dozens of countries have committed to divest more than $14 trillion, with commitments ranging from the Islamic Society of North America and The Rockefeller Foundation to the federal government of Ireland. 

“People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies."

Desmond Tutu, as quoted in the Guardian, 2014

One of the leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, Desmond Tutu, has drawn a direct connection between the South African struggle and fossil fuel divestment. In a 2014 editorial in The Guardian, he wrote: “People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies."

Related: India cracks down on climate activists supporting farmer protests

Fossil Free South Africa, one of the groups leading the charge within South Africa, has had some wins. In 2017, the city of Cape Town agreed to divest from oil, gas and coal, the first city to do so in the “global south,” a term used to describe lower-income countries. 

“What we have been trying to do is to get them to actually tell us how they're making that commitment substantially. ... It's one thing to say if you're going to divest, it's another thing to actually start moving money.”

David Le Page, campaign coordinator, Fossil Free South Africa

A group of people pose under a banner that reads "Fossil Free"

The goal of Fossil Free South Africa is to decarbonize the South African economy. They successfully got the city of Cape Town to agree to divest in 2017.

Credit:

Courtesy of Fossil Free South Africa 

“What we have been trying to do is to get them to actually tell us how they're making that commitment substantially,” said David Le Page, campaign coordinator for the organization. “It's one thing to say if you're going to divest, it's another thing to actually start moving money.”

The city of Durban also agreed to divest last year.

Removing the funds of city governments represents a modest sum compared to the $6 trillion global fossil-fuel industry. But overall, it adds up.

Reports from industry experts say that divestment campaigns hurt the reputation of fossil-fuel companies. That, in turn, increases the public desire for regulation and can hurt the industry’s bottom line.

In a 2017 investor report, Shell named the divestment movement as a threat to its ability to raise capital. 

“This movement is a social movement that sort of asks people to take individual moral responsibility and for institutions to take collective moral responsibility on a very pressing human rights issue, an existential issue for humanity,” Le Page said.

Related: Young climate activists want a seat at the table

For some South African activists, the current call for divestment is not a repeat of history but rather, a continuation of a long struggle.

Makoma Lekalakala, a prominent activist with environmental justice organization Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, said the anti-apartheid movement in the '60s through the '80s was limited to the political and economic goal of ending a racist regime that perpetuated an institutionalized system of segregation — it didn’t focus so much on environmental justice.

“Not that environmental justice issues were not raised,” Lekalakala said. “They were raised, but they were not a priority.”

The coal industry was huge during apartheid, and after the regime fell, investment in coal continued. Black South Africans are disproportionately hurt by the resultant air pollution and toxic waste.

“We say that apartheid is gone, but based on the climate impact, the inequalities are so glaring that you ask yourself whether we are in the new South Africa or in the old apartheid South Africa.”

Makoma Lekalakala, activist, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg

Related: A global push for racial justice in the climate movement 

“Coal-fired power stations are located mostly where Black people and poor people live," Lekalakala said. “We say that apartheid is gone, but based on the climate impact, the inequalities are so glaring that you ask yourself whether we are in the new South Africa or in the old apartheid South Africa?”

For some young South African activists, divestment as a form of activism is a new concept. Kaylyn Fabing, a student at the University of Cape Town, is working to get her school to divest from fossil fuels. 

Related: Climate activists are taking their case to court

“Universities are seen as institutions of reliable information and rigorous research, and many of them also talk about the climate crisis. ... Divestment is an action that they can take that says, ‘Yes, we actually mean what we say and we care about our students' future.’”

Kaylyn Fabing, student activist for fossil fuel divestment

“Universities are seen as institutions of reliable information and rigorous research, and many of them also talk about the climate crisis,” Fabing said. “Divestment is an action that they can take that says, ‘Yes, we actually mean what we say and we care about our students' future.’”

She said she’s less inspired by the past than by current social justice movements around the world, like Black Lives Matter.

“[I’m] feeling kind of a kinship with other people that are fighting for people's rights,” Fabing said. “Just feeling this connection with them, like, yes, we're fighting for justice and we are partnering with each other for social change.”

Divestment advocate Woods said the trick with movements like this is to get beyond the divestment phase. In the case of climate change, that means putting money toward an equitable transition to renewable energy.

“Invest in what will build a healthy planet and what will protect people,” Woods said. “Particularly in those front-line communities now — and for generations to come.”

Related Content

close

We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. To learn more, review our Cookie Policy. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies and Privacy Policy.

Ok, I understand. Close
close

The story you just read is freely available and accessible to everyone because readers like you support The World financially. 

Thank you all for helping us reach our goal of 1,000 donors. We couldn’t have done it without your support. Your donation directly supported the critical reporting you rely on, the consistent reporting you believe in, and the deep reporting you want to ensure survives. 

DONATE TODAY > No thanks