Principle of intergenerational equity likely to fail in South Africa

18 October 2012

Photo: Des Harding

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being interviewed by an extremely astute Oxford scholar, reading for her Masters Degree in Geography and the Environment.  She has subsequently earned that degree with distinction and has moved into the hallowed environs of reading for a PhD at Oxford.  Well done Sarah-Jane Littleford.

Sarahs dissertation focussed on the prospects for intergenerational equity (IGE) in South Africa, using acid mine drainage (AMD) as a case study example.  If we use Wikipedia as a general source for a definition, then we learn that

Intergenerational equity in economic, psychological, and sociological contexts, is the concept or idea of fairness or justice in relationships between children,youth, adults and seniors, particularly in terms of treatment and interactions. It has been studied in environmental and sociological settings.

Basically, its the duty of those living now to ensure the protection of the environment for those who come after us.  Civil Society should hold their governments to account for this legally-binding responsibility.

South Africa’s Constitution is one of only eleven countries where IGE is constitutionally-ensured (or supposed to be if only the government were up to the task).

Littleford’s comprehensive analysis concludes that

IGE is an implausible outcome in RSA, due to government inability – under the pressure of AMD – to balance competing interests of environment and economics.

This thesis provides justification for the assertion that intergenerational equity will not materialise in the Republic of South Africa. The Constitution, Bill of Rights, and subsequent environmental legislations are informed by philosophies of Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Edith Brown Weiss, and employ intergenerational concerns through distributive justice and social contract theory. Government acts as fiduciary trustee with duties to protect natural resources for present and future generations.

However, these philosophies have shortcomings that limit implementation, which has precipitated a governance crisis for government. This has been provoked by acid mine drainage, a pollutant resulting from mining activities that confronts long-term environmental management. With no effective plans to manage this issue, government is neglecting its intergenerational responsibilities and abrogating Constitutional purpose. This situation is exacerbated by multiple understandings in different sectors of society of the significance of intergenerational equity and how it is best implemented; such miscommunications are deepening the governance crisis.

Thus, although the Republic of South Africa Constitution guarantees intergenerational equity in theory, it is hard to achieve in practice and is an unlikely outcome for the country. 

And AMD is just one environmental issue where government has failed! Government has, for too long, been too lenient on not only the mines but a whole slew of activities that pollute our surface waters.

It’s one thing having marvelously-formulated Bills of Rights, Constitutions and etc.  It’s quite another finding responsible gatekeepers to ensure their implementation.

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