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What is Environmental Racism and How Does it Impact South Africans?

Jul 23, 2021 | Earth, Education | 0 comments

South Africa is a prime example of a country where environmental racism thrives as a result of decades of systemic racism. The Group Areas Act which was implemented in 1950 stated that all races should be separated and have designated areas in which they’re allowed to live or work. It forcibly removed people of color from their homes and land to outlying areas. More often than not, this meant they’d have to live in areas which were previously seen as uninhabitable.

In Cape Town, when the winter storms arrive each year Black communities who live in townships on the outskirts of the city suffer the most because of flooding, as the land they were forced to live on is highly vulnerable to floods. Although the term may be new to many people, this in fact is a result of environmental racism. Created in 1982 by civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis, environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. These hazards can be man-made or natural.

Environmental racism takes place mainly through laws, policies and regulations by the government like the Group Areas Act, or by corporations. It preys on vulnerable communities with little to no socio-economic standing, or knowledge of these laws and the impact it could have on them.

In the United States, Black and Hispanic communities are exposed to significantly more air pollution than White people according to an article by the Scientific American. It says that Black people consume 56% more air pollution than they produce, Hispanics consume 63% more while White people consume 17% less than they produce. Third world countries are also the dumping grounds for the waste of more developed regions. 44 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated in 2017 globally, and 80% of that waste was exported to Asia to be “dealt with” according to an article by Peter Beech on There’s even a town in China where 80% of the children have been poisoned by water that’s been contaminated by old computer parts. In the UK, a 2009 governmental report found that Black children are exposed to 30% more air pollution than White children.

One of the most well-known and recent incidences of environmental racism took place in Flint, Michigan in the United States. The Flint government tried to save money in 2014 by using the Flint river as the town’s new water supply. However, the water wasn’t treated properly and the majority Black population were exposed to extremely dangerous levels of lead and E.coli in their water. 12 people died from the contaminated water, while over 6000 children drank the water too.

In their thesis Environmental Racism in South Africa: A Sustainable Green Solution, Danielle Darmofal says the impact of environmental racism is multi-faceted. “Environmental racism affects the townships in more ways than just physical health; the segregation and lack of resources causes immense socio-political inequalities as well. The lack of basic amenities such as clean water and electricity can also increase the crime levels in the area, especially if there is a high rate of unemployment.”

So, what’s being done to promote environmental justice and bring an end to environmental racism in South Africa? Organisations like the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town and Johannesburg are making it easier for vulnerable communities to speak out and fight unjust laws and corporations. They do this through providing legal support and guidance, you can donate to them here.

Groundwork is another non-profit that works towards environmental justice in South Africa through advocating for environmental health as well as climate and energy justice. Earthlife Africa was established in 1988 to create a better life for all without harming the environment. You can become a member of Earthlife or you can donate here.

Environmental racism has undeniably exacerbated many of the problems in South Africa. It can even be linked to the protests that took place recently. Unfortunately, the people who bear the brunt of environmental racism the most aren’t even aware that there’s a term for what they’re experiencing. For so many, the way they live, their lack of resources and access has become normalised to the point that it’s hard to imagine living any other way. Despite this, systemic change is possible but the first step to create change is awareness which is the aim of this blog post.





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