Africa, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs

ENVIRONMENT-SOUTH AFRICA: Political Sins Continue to Scar the Land

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 23 2007 (IPS) - While South Africa’s “homelands” – areas formerly set aside for blacks – have been relegated to the dustbin of history for more than a decade, their legacy lives on in the form of land degradation, and even desertification in northern and eastern parts of the country.

Ten homelands were created along ethnic lines under the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act of 1959. This was in a bid to strip black South Africans of their national citizenship and make them citizens of homelands that were ultimately intended to become independent. The Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act of 1970 made all blacks citizens of these regions, irrespective of where they resided.

“Apartheid policies ensured that 42 percent of the people lived on 13 percent of the land (the homelands). This overcrowding…resulted in severe erosion. As the land became increasingly degraded and thus less productive, subsistence farmers were forced to further overuse the land,” notes the Enviro Facts Project, a think-tank funded by the Southern African Nature Foundation.

With the demise of apartheid, homeland legislation was discarded along with other laws entrenching segregation. But difficulties remain says Klaus Kellner, a professor at the School of Environmental Sciences and Development at North-West University; he points to persistent soil degradation.

“Land tenure is a problem in the former homelands. People don’t own the land; the land is owned by the government – so they think it’s a government problem,” he told IPS. “I think it is the people’s problem. If they don’t look after it, the land will not be there for the next generation.”

According to 2004/2005 statistics from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, about 13.6 million people live in the former homelands. Official figures from 2006 indicate that there are 47.4 million people in South Africa.

Disputes about the responsibility for dealing with land degradation notwithstanding, it is clear that the current pattern of subsistence farming cannot continue. “We must create alternative livelihoods for the people, like (through) eco-tourism, so that they don’t live off the land,” said Kellner.

Ismail Khan, a researcher at the University of South Africa in the capital, Pretoria, agrees; his work focuses on the links between poverty and land degradation.

“Poverty must be addressed for people to earn more money through jobs…If poverty is addressed, it would ease the pressure on land,” he told IPS. “The majority of the more than 40 percent unemployed South Africans live in remote rural areas with no decent earnings.”

The precise extent of joblessness in South Africa is disputed. Government puts the figure at 25.5 percent, but some believe it is considerably higher.

However, alternatives for income generation will not eliminate the need for initiatives to address the existing problems of land degradation.

“Desertification is more of a challenge to us than ever before. It poses a huge threat to rural communities who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods,” Deputy Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi observed in 2006, which was declared the International Year of Deserts and Desertification.

“Millions of people are directly affected by natural resource degradation, and many of them live below the poverty line,” she said. “They depend on natural resources for survival. Yet the capacity of our country’s land, water and biological resources to sustain its people is eroding. Tonnes of productive land are now lost and many once pristine conservation areas are denuded.”

Noted Kellner: “We…need to educate, train and raise awareness of the problems of desertification. This requires research institutions, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and government to work together to fight desertification.”

“But more important, we need people on the ground in the villages in rural areas to feel the benefits, otherwise they will not buy into it. They want to know what’s in it for them,” he added.

About 20 programmes have been put in place to address desertification; however, Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has expressed concern about the level of co-ordination between these initiatives, saying it does not match what is needed for land to be managed sustainably.

The situation is of even greater concern if predictions about climate change are taken into account.

“A number of climate change reports say we are going to have less rainfall. This means there will be less vegetation and less water for livestock,” said Kellner. “Food, fibre, fodder and fuel are going to get less and less if we don’t address desertification.”

Already, “Ninety-seven percent of South Africa is arid or semi-arid. We shall be hit hard by desertification.”

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