I recently traveled to South Africa as part of a school study-abroad trip. While I was there, one of the things I was most interested in was environmental policy in South Africa and how it relates to global issues and the environmental movement. I have always been interested in South Africa; it is a unique country in a unique position. It can be classified as both a developing and developed country: while it is the second largest economy in Africa. With established infrastructure that continues to expand, South Africa is riddled with underdeveloped rural zones and plagued by various social and economic woes. I was lucky enough to be able to see both sides of this magnificent country in my travels. Because of the economic contradiction, South Africa has a unique relationship with the environment.
South Africa is an industrial powerhouse. Large cities cover much of its countryside and mass production keeps the nation’s economy rolling. At the same time, the nation is still a developing country. A high percentage of its people live in intense poverty in underdeveloped rural zones. Electricity reaches few of these areas and many inhabitants lack access to basic resources and opportunities. To make matters worse, the government is often accused of widespread corruption and red-tape and its lack of funds and resources make environmental concerns almost non-existent in policy.
All these things make South Africa notoriously inefficient at creating environmental regulations. For instance, unleaded gas was not introduced to the country until 1996 and catalytic converters, which control vehicle emissions, are not mandatory in South Africa. Its industrial sector is also largely unregulated. In major cities like Durban and Johannesburg, air and water pollution is high. Garbage litters the beaches, which are suffocated by oceanfront development in Durban. Johannesburg is often enveloped in a haze of foul smog. Therefore, South Africa faces many of the same issues that other countries with high economic development do: while their economies skyrocket, so do the negative environmental effects.
Kosi Bay - Photography Dana Ek
This brings us to the most difficult decision of our time: how do we change the system? Our current one runs on the idea of “progress,” a term we have coined to embody the idea of economic growth and constant development. The model works through rapid development in the cheapest possible way, which produces negative environmental effects. However, green energy and policy is expensive under the current model. The system does not usually allow for cleaner environmental policy until there is substantial development and market security. This is not a quick process and, by the time this is achieved, there is usually a host of environmental issues created by the industrial system. Therefore, environmental issues may be harder or even impossible to tackle by the time the system allows it.
In recent years, there has been growing critique of this system. However, it is just beginning to emerge and, under the current conditions, our global industrial capitalist model does not show signs of changing anytime soon. As the issues get increasingly grave and stakes ever higher, we are developing increasingly complex and expensive technologies to try to curb this issue.
However, we may be going about this the wrong way. This is not our only option. The South Africa I just described was only part of the South Africa I saw. I spent a substantial amount of time in rural South Africa, and I was inspired by what I saw there. I specifically want to talk about a Zulu community in northern Kwa-Zulu Natal, in an area called Kosi Bay, a tourist attraction that sees many visitors each year. While some of it is a developed coastal area full of attractions for foreign visitors, this was not the Kosi Bay I experienced. Just over the several low mountains bordering the lake there is a small village community, locally referred to as Kosi. The people there live in the same way they have for decades, in small handmade huts along the lake. They have very little connection to the modern world and they live an ecofriendly lifestyle. They control human and livestock waste. They have a clean and reliable water source in the lake they live next to. They live within walking distance of the beach. Hidden by the mountains and jungle, this section of Kosi Bay is nearly untouched by humanity; the white sand beaches stretch for miles, clean and isolated; the blue water is clean; the air brisk and salty. The locals get their sustenance and livelihood almost exclusively from the environment, especially fishing. Yet they have designed a system that prevents overfishing by the creation of fish traps. These fenced portions of the water allow fish to swim in but not out. They live in this enclosed section of the lake with plenty of natural space and food, similar to the idea of a corral. Enough fish are kept so that they can be taken when needed for cooking, and those that are not needed thrive in an area enclosed by the natural environment. The jungle, the lake, and the ocean are all fully utilized by this small community of Zulu but they have managed to co-exist mutually with their environment.
Observing this Zulu settlement was an eye-opening experience for me. It showed me that, when united as a community, we can still pursue a healthy relationship with our ecosystems. I am not advocating a return to primitive living. But this was a much needed reminder for me that humans may not be inherently destructive. There may still be an answer for the environmental issues we have created, and we may not have to look far to find it. Perhaps it is with us in our ancestral instincts, laying forgotten. I think this is a powerful case study to show what can happen when a community unites. This does not have to be exclusive to the Kosi Bay community. This can be anywhere; it does not have to be limited by geography, it can stretch to our global community! Our idea of progress should not be allowed to consume us and make us forget our roots, for they might be what brings us into a brighter future.