This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 9 September 2021.

As a former public interest environmental lawyer, I have been astonished by recent public attacks on “environmentalists”, attributing to them incredible levels of political power and influence.

In an opinion piece in the Business Day on 23 August, coal executive Vuslat Bayoglu writes that there is “a new dimension of state capture …. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), usually with transnational links, dictate the pace in the issuing of domestic business licences such as environmental authorisations and water use licences”.

If an NGO were to state that the mining industry was “the new dimension of state capture”, or make any of the other outrageous accusations levelled against them by Bayoglu, it would be slapped in short order with a defamation claim. But let’s think for a minute about how deranged this accusation is.

By “dictating the pace of issuing business licences”, Bayoglu presumably means the exercise by civil society of the rights set out in our environmental legislation, and in the Constitution, to submit comments, objections and appeals in response to licence applications. This is an integral element of a democratic state, based on the principle of ‘’audi alteram partem”, or “let the other side be heard”.

This may slow things down, but not because of gleeful anti-development mischievousness on the part of NGOs. The delays arise because (in addition to mind-boggling levels of inefficiency, incapacity and incompetence) many of the authorities responsible for licensing decision-making consider their mandate to be economic development, regardless of its environmental or social cost. As a result, they are incapable of objectively analysing environmental impact assessments (which are paid for by developers). They are also very often incapable of properly applying environmental laws and principles, forcing those who are entitled to a fair hearing to resort to the courts to get one.

Our entire system of so-called environmental regulation is rigged in favour of development. It is laughable to suggest that NGOs have any real power in this system – I would need ten of these columns to list the projects that have been authorised in recent years despite their obviously disastrous social, climate, water and biodiversity impacts.

Which brings me to the other attack, by Mike Muller, former DG of water affairs and a national planning commissioner. Muller “contributed extensively to water, energy and environmental policy between 1994 and 2015”, which one would hope would give him pause for self-reflection, but it appears not.

Muller’s theme is a condition of the World Bank loan for the construction of the now-epically disastrous Medupi: that Eskom install sulphur dioxide (SO2) “scrubbers”, i.e. equipment that reduces the amount of SO2 that enters the atmosphere.

SO2 is a toxic by-product of burning coal, with significant harmful health impacts, and installing the “flue gas desulphurisation” technology to reduce it is expensive. Muller blames environmentalists for the fact that Eskom is contractually obliged to install these scrubbers. He claims that the reason that the loan condition exists is that, because the “climate arguments were easily dealt with” in relation to Medupi, and so activists “focused instead on SO2 emissions”.

Muller argues that because SO2 has a (slight) cooling effect on the earth’s atmosphere, we shouldn’t worry about the SO2 pollution from Medupi, because it will imperceptibly “offset” the heating effects of the power station’s gargantuan carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2021, to assert that the climate impacts of the planet’s 8th biggest coal-fired power station are “easily dealt with”, and to suggest that it’s a good thing to use one source of pollution to minutely mitigate the negative effects of another, is bizarre.

But Muller also entirely misrepresents the opposition to Medupi by environmental activists, as David Hallowes – one of those activists – sets out in detail in a thoughtful response to Muller. Medupi was opposed on every ground, from its climate impacts to the inevitable time and cost overruns. Activists were also keenly aware of the enormous risk that the project would become a hotbed of corruption. If they had had a real seat at the decision-making table, we might not be saddled with this climate-destroying corruption machine, and the mountain of debt that comes with it.

In the face of cascading sustainability crises, the categorisation of environmentalists by people like Bayoglu and Muller as some distinct, irrational subset of the population is ridiculous. But perhaps their desperate attempts to make us believe that the people who are actually willing to act to tackle these crises are obstructive and dangerous, is a sign that those environmentalists are finally making progress.

By Tracey Davies