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Dickinson to Durban » Environmental Justice, Environmental Politics, Mosaic Action, Student Research » What do Apartheid, COP17, and Poverty Have in Common?

What do Apartheid, COP17, and Poverty Have in Common?

By Timothy Damon ’12

Durban - A more modern slice of Africa

The answer: South Africa. Apartheid and COP17 may both have ended, but the effects of racism still continue to this day and climate change has only begun to manifest its seriousness. Poverty and unemployment, old problems, yet reign, as does the constant impact from HIV/AIDS.  It was against this backdrop that I experienced South Africa during the three weeks of our Mosaic. It was a trip that has left me with much to digest, but my reflections thus far have led me to see the country as a unique microcosm of the broader world, one in which the tension between addressing immediate and long-term needs is acutely felt and one where humans continue to struggle over the weighty decisions that will shape our collective futures.

It would be impossible to relate to you, the reader, the full extent of my experiences – the people, the places, the revelations. Rather, I shall provide as faithful a synopsis as possible, with more attention given to the third week, which we spent in the Valley of 1000 Hills. For more detail on COP17, please see some of my previous blog posts.

I should begin with the admission that I was skeptical about our plans for after COP17. They did not seem very relevant to the academic purpose of our trip and it had already been a very intense two weeks. Nevertheless, here is a case exemplifying the benefits one can reap from motivating oneself to go the extra mile and by seeking out new connections where none seem at first to exist.

As much as Africa had a strong presence at COP17, the conference was certainly not “Africa” – the major city of Durban could, minus its weather, be mistaken for any number of cities in America from the superficial vantage point of a temporary visitor. The nature of the meeting’s content also kept us focused on the international scene, with little chance to pause and foster a meaningful sense of place.

The small Makaphutu Children's Village, as seen from the surrounding hills

The Valley proved a remedy for both of these – and much more. Staying at a small retreat center away from the city provided us a deeper perspective, while volunteering at two children’s villages (Makaphutu and Lily of the Valley) let us see firsthand the struggles many South Africans face from a combination of poverty, unemployment, disease, and, yes, racism (ending Apartheid was only the beginning – true reconciliation seems not yet to have come).  Here I saw the people who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and yet who have the least ability to combat it or even to understand it. It was one thing to talk about “vulnerability” in a college classroom or conference hall; it was entirely another to hear it, see it, smell it, and touch it – especially when the one “teaching” you is an AIDS orphan or a local minister who has to decide how to allocate a very limited quantity of donated food and clothing items to the members of his entire community (a task I was actually enlisted to help with while running deliveries – having to decide who eats and who doesn’t, heartrending is still an understatement). This puts a face on the challenge of balancing the need for rapid economic development with the need to mitigate climate change and transition to a sustainable way of life.

Food Distributions - Too little for too many

In the end, people were extremely grateful for a few deliveries, some cleaning, and a couple coats of paint – what seemed to us like a minor contribution was to them a praiseworthy accomplishment; the former perspective from Western standards of plenty, the latter from South African standards of poverty. It not only shows how even a little good can go a long way, but also how much more we need to do to help them. Thus, it is even more disappointing to see the way our country endeavored to successfully lower the ambition of climate action during COP17 – 2020 is too late for action, at least the kind of action that will help the people we met.

Overall, I would say the third week gave me a valuable dose of realism concerning climate change and development, thereby complementing the COP17 experience well. I can see clearly the difficult position of South Africa, caught as it is between the stages of developing and developed countries – they are better off than most of Africa, yet they still need much more development for their people and will need to find a sustainable way to do it. And all of this is further complicated by its history of racial struggles and contemporary political problems. My experience in South Africa was – not to be cliché – life altering. I am sure this visit will not be my last, as I continue to maintain a connection of some kind with Makaputu and Lily. It is even possible my career will take me there to work on climate change and development. Whatever the future holds, it will be on a path influenced by this experience and all I have learned from it.

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5 Responses to "What do Apartheid, COP17, and Poverty Have in Common?"

  1. Mara E. Donaldson says:

    This is a profound example of the challenges of making ethical decisions with limited resources and real people.

  2. karkis says:

    Your blog shows how despite of much discussion about climate change and how it affects people’s lives, the people who have less power to deal with these changes are the ones who are usually the most ignored. People who are under the grasp of poverty can barely do anything to protect themselves from the effects of climate change, or to prevent it. They are mere spectators of the destruction caused to their environments by wealthy corporations and consumers, and have to face the consequences of actions they are not responsible for.

  3. Ethan Rayner says:

    First off, this sounds like an incredible experience and one that would change anyone’s outlook on the world. I like how you worded the challenge that they are facing as “balancing the need for economic development with the need to mitigate climate change and transition to a sustainable way of life.” The fact that there are communities like this one all over Africa with this same issue is frightening and an issue that should be resolved. I also liked how you were able to connect your experience in the villages of Makaphutu and Lily of the Valley to the COP17 conference. The two contrasting communities of the city of Durben, a thriving city, and the underdeveloped villages you visited proves we still have much work to do regarding sustainable ways of life.

  4. Claude says:

    This is a profound experience. I imagine by witnessing all of these things you felt strongly compelled to change it – change all of it. But, you and I and others, can not solve this problem all by ourselves. It is a universal problem that requires universal attention and action. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get political leaders to support this, making it harder to get citizens involved. This makes me feel as though the best way to get people involved is not through a “top-down” approach, but rather the own initiative of each individual person. While this seems far-fetched, it seems a lot more plausible then getting politicians or big business to support climate change and reversal of poverty. The externalities that you talked about which the South African people end up paying the cost for are an example of why politicians and business can not be trusted to deal with this situation. Climate change and poverty are a tag team that are quickly eroding communities, cultures, and PEOPLE!

  5. sam pollan says:

    As a member of the mosaic program, I must also agree with your observation of the schism between races. While the city of Durban during the conference had the facade of a successful, equitable society, the reality was quite different. I would also like to emphasize how moving it was to work with the local communities and provide the much needed assistance for the short while we were there. I have done a lot of community work across the world and I have never witnessed anything like the drop-off. This article is an excellent synopsis of our experience.

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