An Ecological Crises: The old is dying and the new cannot be born.


The world is faced with two immediate and imminent threats. One the one hand the rising levels of inequality has emerged as a grave threat to social stability and sustainable development, while a warming planet and a changing climate not only presents the possibility where the “planetary order upon which all societies are built starts breaking down” (Malm, 2017) , as temperatures sour and stressed populations become increasingly anxious about their survival and their future, but also presents the possibility of increasing climate catastrophe`s which will continue to place the lives of millions at risk.

According to some reports, we are speeding towards a four to five degree global temperature rise in the next few decades, “a prospect which could annihilate large sections of the world’s population, particularly those most vulnerable in Africa” (Hallowes, 2012).

As Vishwas Satgar notes, despite numerous warnings – scientific studies, United Nations (UN) declarations, books, movies, progressive media reporting – global leadership has failed humanity. After more than twenty years of multilateral negotiations, we have not developed the solutions to solve the climate crisis decisively. Instead, Satgar contends that we have continued emitting pollutants and intensively using fossil fuels and, as a result, have been recording the hottest years on the planet. “The last two decades in the fight against the climate crisis have merely confirmed, at a common-sense level, an Anthropocene-centred theory: as a geological force, we humans are heating the planet. A heating planet, induced by human action, unhinges all our certainties and places everything in jeopardy”. (Satgar, 2018)

The record of outcomes of 20 conferences held since the first COP in Berlin, Germany in 1995, with the most significant erosion of commitments and erosion of enfranchisement, taking place in Copenhagen in 2009, does not inspire confidence, and indeed, the lack of global action adds impetus to the calls for urgent action. The Copenhagen conference which evolved into an exercise of exclusion and which ultimately dispensed with binding emissions reductions in favour of non-binding ‘bottom-up’ pledges, has been roundly condemned as a failure. Beyond the Copenhagen conference, the multilateral negotiations process has failed to prevent dangerous climate change indicators from ticking upward and the recent COP 21 also proved to be ‘business as usual’. The failure has mainly been due to the rich countries that carry historical liability for a looming climate change catastrophe, refusing to take responsibility for leading the charge in reducing the dangerous levels of Green House Gases (GHG).

The Shape of the Crises:

According to radical feminist group WoMin, the fossil fuel industry and industrial corporations, financiers and related elite interests have captured UN institutions and processes over the last decades, and the (The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) UNFCCC negotiations are no exception (WoMin, 2018) . According to WoMin, COP 21, like its predecessors, failed to address the “disease of climate crisis at its roots”, which is, “fossil-based energy production, car-based private transport and ubiquitous air travel, sprawling urbanisation, the liberalised global trade regime, industrialised agriculture, and over-consumption in the Global North” (including parts of the geographical South). Instead, they argue that COP 21 affirmed false solutions, many of which present significant “social and technological dangers”, like the failing carbon markets and offsets, nuclear energy, ‘clean’ coal, big dams, natural gas, agro-fuels, weather modification, geo- engineering, and Carbon Capture and Storage.

With systemic threats becoming ever more critical, such as extinction of species through loss of biodiversity; acid rain; destruction of the ozone layer; desertification; pollution of oceans; 4 contamination of lakes, rivers and streams; dispossession of people’s land; overfishing; hazardous working conditions; incineration of waste; famines and breaching all planetary ecological limits, there is an increasing realisation that all this demonstrates how the climate crisis is not only driven by a capitalist political economy, but is also about a new resistance that is rising at the frontlines of preventing extraction of fossil fuels and also in the context of climate justice struggles. (Klein, 2014) .

According to Satgar the agency of the climate justice movement and a host of other anti-systemic forces that are rising to advance systemic alternatives have encapsulated the challenge facing the world in the slogan ‘System Change, Not Climate Change’ (Satgar, 2018) .

Echoing the sentiment of some of the more radical critiques of the environmental crises and the system that underpins it, Patrick Bond argues that the system produces a triple externalization of costs which ‘takes the form of an extraction of surpluses, both economic and thermodynamic: 1) a social debt to inadequately paid workers; 2) an embodied debt to women family caregivers; and 3) an ecological debt drawn on nature at large.’ (Bond, 2012)

At minimum, Bond argues, addressing these problems requires full-fledged re-accounting to toss out the fatally-flawed GDP indicator, and to internalize environment and society in the ways we assess costs and benefits. This exercise would logically both precede and catalyze a full-fledged transformation of financing, extraction, production, transport and distribution, consumption and disposal systems.(Ibid)

Attempts to separate out possible solutions to the climate crises from those activities which entrench and deepen the crises has led to a distinction between the Green Economy and transformative solutions which seek a Just Transition to renewable energy sources.

The green economy, according to Brian Ashley, is a process of “marketising, commercialising and commodifying nature” as a strategy to drive investment into fixing the damage capitalism, marketisation, commercialisation and commodification have done to the environment. This way of thinking, he suggests, was well captured by Janez Potočnik, former European Union Environment Commissioner, who on the eve of the Rio+20 Summit, argued that: ‘We need to move from protecting the environment from business to using business to protect the environment’ (Ashley, 2017)

Yet, Ashley argues, it is this approach of trying to develop a profit incentive strategy for dealing with the environmental and climate crisis that has been so detrimental to finding real solutions. A decade of potential action has been lost through false solutions such as carbon markets, the Clean Development Mechanism, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation and other mechanisms for the commodification of the biosphere. That decade, suggests Ashley, has seen no slowdown in the deepening of the climate crisis. It is precisely in this era of the green economy that GHG emissions have increased and that we have had the sharpest increases in temperature.

Climate Denial?

If fully implemented and all its assumptions turn out to be valid the “too little, too late” non-binding Paris agreement will result in a world at least 3.5 degree Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by 2100 than pre-industrial levels. That is, it is “recipe for climate disaster”, according to Kamran Nayeri of the University of California, Berkeley. (Nayeri, 2016) Nayeri argues that the Paris agreement by- and-large reflects an understanding reached between President Obama and President Xi Jinping in Beijing in November 2014. Currently, China and the United States are responsible for about 55% of GHG`s each year. They reached this agreement, Nayeri suggests, because of the increasing risk 5 climate crisis poses to both economies as well as domestic pressure in the U.S. by the climate justice movement.

However, on June 1, 2017, United States President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would cease all participation in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. Trump stated that "The Paris accord will undermine (the U.S.) economy," and "puts (the U.S.) at a permanent disadvantage." (Chakraborty, 2017) During the presidential campaign, Trump had pledged to withdraw from the pact, saying a withdrawal would help American businesses and workers. (Cama,T;Henry,D, 2017) Trump stated that the withdrawal would be in accordance with his America First policy. (Easley, 2017)

Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defence Council, condemned Trump's decision. (Thomson, 2017) (NRDC, 2017) American environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben, the founder of the climate change action group, called the move "a stupid and reckless decision—our nation's dumbest act since launching the war in Iraq." McKibben wrote that Trump's decision to withdraw amounted "to a thorough repudiation of two of the civilizing forces on our planet: diplomacy and science." He called upon U.S. states and cities to "double down" on commitments to renewable energy. (McKibben, 2017)

Revolt in a Warming World:

In a report, Climate Change and Labour: Impacts of Heat in the Workspace, several union federations and UN branches draw attention to what might be the most universal and the most widely ignored experience of global warming: “it is getting hotter at work” (Mckinnon,M; Buckle,E; Gueye,K; et al, 2016) .

Andreas Malm uses the report to build a case for the possibility that a rising global temperature places additional strain on social institutions and unpicks the threads of social cohesion that holds societies together and foreshadows the increasing possibility of a rise of what he calls “ecological fascism”. (Malm, 2017)

Every little rise in average temperature, helps to shift the dynamics undergirding existing social relations and is likely, according to the report, to increase the existing contradictions and may lead to uprisings, revolutions and counter revolutions. Malm argues that “if there is an overarching logic of the capitalistic mode of production through which rising temperatures will be articulated, it would probably be that of uneven and combined development.” While a small elite continues to accumulate vast amounts of wealth, people stuck in those “external-but-internalized” relations will enjoy few if any of the benefits and might not even come close to the threshold of wage labour.

Malm argues that if a catastrophe descends on such a society- deeply divided and deeply integrated– chances are that it starts breaking apart along some of the cracks. He uses various examples in history and contemporary society, such as the civil war in Syria sparked by water scarcity, The revolution in Egypt, fuelled and managed by what he calls the deep state, which managed the scarcity of oil, bread and electricity to fuel the uprising against the then ruler of Egypt, the Russian revolution sparked by the food shortages as a result of World War 1 and the climate rebellion in the Levant captured by Sam White in The Climate Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire.(Ibid)

It is this realisation of the potential of catastrophe and scarcity that prompts the Pentagon to refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier”. Even Vladimir Lenin spoke of the catastrophe of his time, the food shortages brought about by WWI, as a “mighty accelerator” bringing all contradictions to a 6 head. In the same way, Malm argues that climate change is likely to be the accelerator of the twenty first century, speeding up the contradictions of late capitalism. (Ibid)

If scarcity and catastrophe are the lynchpins of revolutions and rebellion, by the same token, they are also likely to spark counter-revolutions and heighten inclinations and support for greater law and order and stability.

Using a study by Lars T.Lih entitled, Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914 -1921, Malm highlights how Lih shows that the lack of food not only propelled the Bolsheviks to power but also prompted them to develop the authoritarian tendencies that would later devour them. Malm suggests that Lih argues that the choice by the Bolsheviks to subjugate the experiment in direct democracy, that they had promoted as part of the Bolshevik revolution, to the rule of the Party, was forced upon them by the situation of severe food shortages and economic anarchy.

In part, the soviets (communes and factory committees), who were promised “all power to the soviets” had the interests of their own constituencies at heart, held back grain from the cities, forcing the Party to implement bureaucratic means to control the supply of grain and food into the cities. It is here that paradoxically the seeds of counter revolution were sown. Lih suggests that it was precisely the ruthless and consistent centralisation of the food system that prevented a total breakdown of the system, that laid the foundation for a Stalinist counter revolution. (Ibid)

“Rough beasts and bloated bureaucracies” are the outcomes of counter revolution according to Malm, which are triggered by rebellions, revolutions and dissent. The broader danger lurking here might be labelled “ecological fascism” according to Malm. He points to a growing rise of fascistic logic in the public discourse as proof of this imminent possibility. (Ibid)

Referring to “Climate Challenge and the Failure of Democracy”, Malm points to the work of Australian scholars, David Sherman and Joseph Wayne Smith who argue that: “freedom is not the most fundamental value and is merely one value among others”. Survival, they argue, “strikes us as a much more basic value”. Rigid hierarchy is the true nature of the human species they argue, especially as climate change puts survival of the human species in question. The Human brain, according to Sherman and Smith, is hard wired for authoritarianism based on dominance and submission. (Ibid)

It is thus that as the climate heats up, and as societal fault lines are put under pressure by the rising temperatures, disasters, shortages, famines and catastrophe’s, that the rise of an increasing threat to democracy becomes a reality.

In short, climate change is set to impact more than just the temperature and environment, indeed it threatens to upend the very foundations of a democratic society.

What are the Alternatives?

Feminist. Greta Gaard of the University of Wisconsin argues that to date, the climate change discourse has not accurately presented the gendered character of first-world planetary overconsumption. She cites as an example of this position, using a prominent symbol from the Copenhagen Climate Conference of the Parties (COP 15) in December 2009 which depicts an obese “Justitia, Western Goddess of Justice” riding on the back of an emaciated black man. She also points to other artworks for the conference, where a group of starving African male bodies was installed in a wide river. The image of Justitia was captioned, “I'm sitting on the back of a man—he is sinking under the burden—I will do everything to help him—except to step down from his back”

2010, 8). Allegedly an artwork referencing the heavy climate change burden carried by the global South, and the climate debt owed by the overconsuming global North. From a feminist perspective, she argues that the missing critique is that the genders are reversed: “women produce the majority of the world's food, yet the majority of the world's hungry are women and children, not men. And the overconsumption of earth's other inhabitants—plants, animals, ecosystems—is not even visibly depicted”. (Gaard, 2015)

Gaard argues that climate change and first world overconsumption are produced by masculinist ideology and will not be solved by masculinist techno-science approaches. Instead, she proposes, queer feminist post humanist climate justice perspectives at the local, national, and global levels are needed to intervene and transform both our analyses and our solutions to climate change.

Others, like (Bond, 2012) (Klein, 2014) (Ashley, 2017) (Hallowes, 2012) (Malm, 2017) (Satgar, 2018) (WoMin, 2018) (Cock, 2018) , go even further to suggest that the entire system and the social relations of overconsumption, exploitation and accumulation of surplus value needs to changed.

Bond argues for a rethink of the entire basis upon which the value of commodities extracted from the earth, the environment and from human labour are calculated. At minimum, he suggests that addressing these problems requires a new articulation of the way we calculate and account for the value of the eco system. In short, he calls for the complete rejection of the “fatally-flawed GDP indicator”, and to “internalize environment and society in the ways we assess costs and benefits”. In order to transform the financing, extraction, production, transport and distribution, consumption and disposal systems. But, he cautions, it is only in the struggle for transformation that we learn how institutions of power hold fast to their privileges, and why genuine change won’t happen through mere tampering with national income accounts. (Bond, 2012)

Radical organisations such as WoMin have argued that we should uphold the lived alternatives in agro-ecology and food sovereignty of peasants; of natural resource stewardship by fisher folk, forest dwellers and indigenous peoples; and the labour of care by women in all of their diversity across the globe. Yet they caution that women are also concerned about a corporate-led, profit oriented renewable energy system (solar, agro-fuel and large hydro) which does not present a real alternative to traditional fossil-based energy. Like fossil fuels themselves, this for-profit model of renewable energy is already causing large-scale land dispossession, the transfer of vast tracts of land from food to energy production, and the reproduction of deep inequalities in energy access. It is Africa’s more than 500-million peasant and working-class women, they argue, that carry the burden of immediate and long-term impacts of both fossil fuels extraction and energy production, and the false solutions to the climate crisis, including corporatized renewable energy. This they claim is because of the 8 patriarchal-capitalist division of labour, where greater responsibility for agricultural production and social reproduction of families and communities are placed on women, and where women`s structural exclusion from decision-making in families, communities, national governments and multilateral institutions are systemic. (WoMin, 2018)

These sentiments are echoed by Jacklyn Cock of Wits University who argues that “there is no blueprint for a democratic eco-feminist-socialism”. Such an alternative, she claims, has to be built from the bottom up in a process of extensive, democratic participation where, several core values which contrast with the values of neoliberalism, such as materialism and an intense individualism, could provide a kind of compass for a vision of an alternative social order. (Cock, 2018)

Brian Ashley presents a raft of practical proposals to advance the move towards a fossil free renewable energy regime. He argues that technically we already have all the technology we need to overcome the crises. The problem, he suggests, is that “action on climate change is political, not technological”. (Ashley, 2017)

The governments of the world, he argues, say they cannot act because it would ‘cost too much’. But “the cost would be the wages paid to workers to construct new renewable energy systems, public transport routes, buildings, etc”. In this instance, he suggests that ‘cost’ means jobs, yet jobs mean so much more than people just working. “They mean dignity and giving expression to our creativity, and they establish the basis for our society’s overall welfare”. Ashley argues “that just as there are unpaid externalities in the form of pollution from industrial processes, so there are unpaid externalities from the unemployment crisis in the form of crime, gangsterism, substance abuse, violence against women and children, and depression, which society has to bear”. (Ibid)

Ashley refers extensively to Jeff Rudin, a research associate with the Alternative Information and Development Centre, who argues that it is important to bear in mind that the Green Economy is neither separate nor new. Rather, according to Rudin, it is simply an extension of the same economic system that is responsible for climate change. One in which the competition for profit leads to unending and limitless compound growth. The Green Economy, suggests Rudin, simply extends this competition for profit into activities associated with clearing up and containing ecological destruction. It does not challenge or supplant the fossil fuel economy. Instead “it provides ideological cover for the reproduction and continuation of that economy”. It does this “by creating the illusion that something is being done about climate change”. But the impact the green economy has on reducing and mitigating climate change is totally insignificant compared to what is needed to prevent a terrible global crisis affecting both the whole of humanity and the planet. “The green economy distracts us from the radical changes that are needed to prevent this from happening. In that way, it is part of the problem, not the solution”. (Ashley, 2017)

According to Ashley, climate jobs, as opposed to green economy jobs which merely mitigate existing bad practises and which in the long run is unsustainable, involve building renewable solar, wind, wave, tidal current and other power-generation options. Climate jobs also include work related to the building of a safe and efficient public transport network that would help reduce the number of cars and trucks on the road. Other areas include renovating and insulating buildings, transforming industrial agriculture, reforming production and consumption, and increasing energy efficiency. Additionally, water and sanitation have many climate change links, many but not all of which would create jobs. According to Ashley, significant jobs would be created in the related areas of research, education and training to ensure the country has the skills to undertake the transition to a low- carbon, labour absorbing and socially developed sustainable future economy. Ashley, who heads up a campaign for climate jobs, claims that The Million Climate Jobs Campaign study” found that, given the political will, over three million jobs of varying quality could be created in combating the emission of GHGs and building the resilience of communities to withstand climate change (Ibid)

Ashley`s contention that alternative approaches to climate justice and climate jobs is affirmed to some extent by a soon to be published research study undertaken by Pontsho Ledwaba of Wits University, to which this writer has contributed. The study which is due to be published in 2020 focuses on the livelihood strategies of artisanal miners in South Africa and points to the potential for artisanal mining to be developed as a practical and immediate alternative to the current fossil fuel intensive and environmentally destructive industrialised mining model (Ledwaba, 2019) . Artisanal mining, also offers new models for distributing resources in more equalitarian ways that not only promotes and enhances social equality, provides dignity and work to the unemployed and marginalised, but also mitigates the worst effects of the industrialised large-scale mining processes which have destroyed much of the environment in South Africa and across the world.

Significantly, the research points toward several possibilities and conclusions which not only debunks some of the more unfounded claims made by corporate mining interests, but which brings into stark relief the wholly ineffective contribution of the corporate mining sector to resolving the most urgent environmental and social needs of the South African Economy.

If we use the Minerals Council estimate that informal mining accounts for about R8billion per year (0.2% of Total revenue in the mining sector) in revenue, and assume that the sector employs over 100 000 people, then an extrapolation of those numbers presents us with an economic reality that demands the full attention of government and society.

Currently the formal mining sector employs just over 400 000 people and generated a revenue of approximately R380 billion in 2017. This implies that informal mining accounts for 0,2% of the mining sector but employs 100 000 people. If this were then extrapolated and we were to assume that the informal sector was encouraged to grow to 10% of the mining sector then all things being equal, the informal sector has the potential to not only create 5 million jobs, but also introduce mechanisms to share the wealth of the country more equitably to overcome inequality and reduce GHG`s.

According to former Energy Minister Jeff Radebe, the mining industry is a major consumer of energy and is responsible for more than 38% of the total industrial energy use, which translates into the consumption of 19% of coal and coal products, 5% of all gas products, and 2% of the global oil supply. “In Southern Africa, the energy intensive users group alone consumes over 40% of electricity produced in South Africa. About 48% of the energy intensive users in South Africa are from the mining sector…with over 75% of energy used in South Africa generated from coal”. (Radebe, 2019)

At the very least, growing the Artisanal Mining sector through proper regulation could add at least a million jobs to the economy, reduce GHG emissions while ensuring employment and social inclusion. How such a significant contribution to Climate Justice, overcoming unemployment, poverty and advancing social, economic and environmental transformation can be overlooked, is deeply connected to the elite bias of our society and the way that marginalised people are systemically excluded from the mainstream economy and public discourse.

These are a few of the many different but inherently consistent climate change proposals which have been lingering along the side-lines of the political institutions tasked with managing our society out of the anthropogenic induced catastrophe, but which have been largely ignored under pressure from entrenched interests in the mineral’s energy complex.


Whatever the technological tools and mechanisms utilised to drag our society back from the brink of a catastrophic series of disasters, one thing seems to be particularly clear to a growing portion of civil society; “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels”, as Einstein once implored (Einstein, 1946) The issue of energy and climate change is integrally linked to democracy according to Michelle Williams. According to Williams, the link between nature and democracy occurs through the way in which mega corporations, most importantly in the energy sector, shaped (and continue to shape) politics and economics in the twentieth century. The sourcing, processing, distributing, subsidising and consuming of energy governs the way in which we live, the way in which we are governed and the way in which we organise our economy, including the way we produce and consume. (Williams, 2018)

Williams contends that the energy mix (dominated by fossil fuels) has had devastating effects on the environment and has induced an anthropogenic climate change. Nonetheless she argues that “alternatives are available that are not only better for the environment (e.g. renewables) but are also more democratic (e.g. collective ownership and democratic planning)”. When we speak of alternatives today, she proposes, we are looking beyond the twentieth-century experiments of narrow liberal democracy. “Democracy and democratic planning are central to any vision of an alternative rooted in local conditions, the aspirational values of ordinary people and the ecological limits of our times”, she contends. (Ibid)

Williams nonetheless acknowledges that “the relation between energy and democracy is complex”, with the nature of the energy source (e.g. coal versus oil versus renewables), the organisation of its extraction and production (e.g. labour requirements versus mechanisation), and the linkages across sectors (e.g. mining, manufacturing, transport) and between production and consumption shaping the possibilities for democratic claims making. Renewable energy, she argues, not only operates on a totally different paradigm, it also provides immense possibilities for democratic claims in the political and economic spheres. A socially owned renewable energy sector could, according to Williams, deepen the just transition towards a more democratic and equal society.

In closing, we should turn to Gramsci who outlined the ways in which hegemony – (“adhesion of an elite to a particular view of governance, considered as a type of collective society to which the entire mass must be educated”) – is obtained and the ways in which it wanes. “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born” (Gramsci, 1999) and it is the interregnum, where a “great variety of morbid symptoms appear”, that we have to be most guarded. As Gramsci warns, “the death of the old ideologies takes the form of scepticism with regard to all theories and general formulae”. Yet it is precisely this turn to scepticisms that should alert us to the historical “possibility and necessity of creating a new culture”. (Ibid)


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