Sustainability as the cornerstone of South Africa's progress

Vishaal Lutchman, MD of Transport at Zutari, a leading consulting engineering and advisory firm, talks about sustainability as an enabler for growth and development in Africa.

Vishaal Lutchman, MD of Transport at Zutari
Vishaal Lutchman, MD of Transport at Zutari

The concept of sustainability is considered differently for developing countries versus developed countries. Developed economies tend to look at sustainability with a significant focus towards environmental impact and preservation. In contrast, developing countries consider sustainability from a socio-economic perspective, which includes  infrastructure-related challenges, for example.

Sustainability is envisioned differently as it relates to issues faced in the country, the region, the continent, and the world. In part, a contributing attribute is the concept of freedoms that matter in South Africa and is argued to be necessary for incorporation as it will play out in the success of sustainability initiatives.

Notwithstanding that we are globally disconnected on sustainability priorities, it remains that varying perspectives do increase dissonance by influencing how we define, behave, debate, construct developmental strategies, execute projects, and transform societies to remain sustainable. We all see sustainability and its constructs differently depending on one’s background, culture, experiences, and prevailing aspirations.

If we are to work as a unified collective to address sustainability at a global level, we must find each other – which is an altruistic view. We can argue that our power crises have brought a disconnect to the fore, creating the renewables versus coal discourse. It exemplifies environmental versus social/economic debate towards achieving a sustainable energy solution when one acknowledges the forces at play attempting to influence decisions.

The sustainability pillars – namely social, human, economic and environmental – serve as the basis for defining and articulating sustainability strategies concerning programmes, initiatives, and actions. Sustainable development pillars are the same. However, they excluded the ‘human’ pillar. Also called the cultural pillar, it is a recent addition to the initial three. These pillars have been researched and constructed for businesses, communities, public sector agencies, and others to assist with meaningful and relevant applications.

Social refers to initiatives that support healthier, fair, and just communities. Environmental refers to preserving environmental resources so as not to over-exploit them, thereby allowing ecosystems the chance of recovery. The economic pillar refers to economic and financial sustainability in developing and using efficient assets. The cultural pillar enables initiatives when a given society’s beliefs, processes and practices are protected and nurtured. The identity of communities should remain intact for sustainability to flourish.

Socially just communities with strong economies and robust cultures will find the environmental pillar key to sustainability. A hard push on the environmental pillar may confuse other communities that are more concerned with near-term survival and will potentially prioritise other pillars. As postulated above, I would argue that the latter applies to South Africa, Africa, and other developing countries. Having made a case for differences in sustainability priorities, it can be seen why there would be a different emphasis on sustainability initiatives across communities. Hence a departure point would be to define sustainability and sustainable development for each community in geography.

The initiatives relevant to sustainability in South Africa and other African and developing economies relate to, firstly, poverty and inequality: South Africa is struggling with elevated levels of poverty and income inequality exacerbated by one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, which can hinder efforts to achieve sustainability. Poverty exacerbates environmental degradation as people may resort to unsustainable practices such as overexploitation of resources or reliance on polluting technologies.

Secondly, services such as access to clean water and sanitation relate to the adequate provision of infrastructure. South Africa currently faces the challenges of providing adequate access to clean water and sanitation facilities for all. Lack of access to safe water and sanitation affects public health and leads to contamination of water sources and improper waste disposal, contributing to environmental degradation, of which the recent cholera outbreak is indicative.

Thirdly, deforestation and biodiversity loss in developing countries often results in high deforestation rates, driven by factors such as agricultural expansion, logging, and fuelwood collection. Deforestation reduces biodiversity and contributes to climate change by releasing greenhouse gases and disrupting ecosystems.

There remains a current disconnect between developed and developing economies. Adding insult to injury, many advanced economies continue to trade and maintain the demand for natural resources while professing sustainable ideologies in the same breath. Employment on the back of providing and maintaining infrastructure is a short-term initiative that has a direct and positive impact.

Fourthly, climate change vulnerability relates to the environmental pillar, where developing countries are often more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to factors like limited resources, weak infrastructure, and high reliance on climate-dependent sectors like agriculture. This vulnerability can increase extreme weather events, food insecurity, and water scarcity risks.

In addition, energy access and clean energy transition is a problem that South Africa faces currently. It is common to many developing countries that still rely heavily on fossil fuels for energy, leading to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Lack of access to modern and clean energy sources also limits economic development opportunities in these countries.

Lastly, but not limited to waste management, rapid urbanisation and population growth in developing countries have led to increased waste generation. However, countries often lack adequate waste management infrastructure, leading to problems like open dumping, landfill pollution, and improper disposal. The sustainability mentioned above is somewhat a mixed bag as it pertains to the pillars, but all have an infrastructure solution. As there is an endless list of problems, I postulate that initiatives that underpin freedom will gain the greatest buy-in as it promotes socio-economic progress.

Addressing sustainability requires a comprehensive approach involving various stakeholders, including government institutions, international organisations, civil society, and the private sector. Efforts should promote sustainable development practices, improve access to clean water and sanitation, promote renewable energy adoption, protect biodiversity and forests, strengthen infrastructure, and build climate resilience.

Freedom in South Africa is about the struggle for people to think, theorise, interpret the world and write from where they are located, unencumbered by perpetuated colonial influences. In many developing economies, locals engage in diverse struggles for cognitive justice while trying to interpret the world as they see it. South Africa is no different.

Therefore, it comes to the fore that South Africa can only articulate sustainability if it achieves political, cultural, economic, and other freedoms. The motivation is that the sustainability pillars corroborate the necessary freedoms and can therefore serve as the motivation for where the focus should be. As South Africa has transitioned to political freedom, economic freedom will allow for socio-economic growth and prosperity. If citizens can engage in economic activities of their choice, such as starting a business or choosing their employment, it is thought that an appreciation for sustainability can progress.

In South Africa, it will be reasonable to link sustainability to economic freedom to garner the support to transform existing practices, methodologies, and policies to incorporate hard-coding requirements that embody sustainability. There is a sincere need for the government to adopt socioeconomic development and, by implication, sustainability as its core purpose in how it leads the country, which is currently not the case; hence there is an argument for what causes growing unsustainability.

A key construct of South Africa’s socioeconomic freedom is land ownership and wage inequality, which have yet to be meaningfully addressed and have become a political bargaining chip with no real resolution. Both issues are significant and may secure the comfort of the majority that freedom is possible. By implication, South Africans risk losing their freedoms to the extent that we may even lose our hard-fought political freedom should we proceed on our current trajectory.

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