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Reviewed by:
  • Unsustainable South Africa: environment, Development and Social Protest
  • Catherine Oelofse (bio) and Victoria Lubke (bio)
Patrick Bond (2002) Unsustainable South Africa: environment, development and social protest. Scottsville: University of Natal Press, London: Merlin Press.


Patrick Bond's hard-hitting book on environment and development in post-apartheid South Africa is both personal and provocative. The author develops a strong and convincing argument based on his own radical perspective, presenting the factors that he believes underpin environmental decision making in South Africa. Second, he identifies and links particular individuals to projects and decisions made in planning and development post-1994, thereby making individuals responsible and accountable for the 'unsustainability' of South Africa. He is highly critical of the ruling party's approach to development, which acts in imperial not local interests. However, Bond also highlights that 'the core of the problem we must never forget is systemic: global capitalism, augmented by patriarchy, racism/ ethnicism, anthropocentrism, religious bigotry, and many other easy vices' (2002:xvi).

Bond supports an alternative approach to the sustainable development debate since he criticises weak sustainability or ecological modernisation and calls for a new approach based on social, ecological and environmental justice. He states that a weak sustainability approach is maintained within a neoliberal strategy that has been adopted in the country during the first eight years of transition. The rhetoric of sustainable development is present in legislation, policies and programmes but the environmental destruction on the ground is intensifying. Bond critically explores why this is so. [End Page 81]

Broad approaches and key arguments

With the memory of the much-publicised World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), still fresh in our minds, Bond's new book comes at an opportune time. Hosted by South Africa in Johannesburg in August 2002, the WSSD disappointed those expecting stronger commitments to the original intentions of the United Nations Declaration on Environment and Development drawn up at the Rio summit in 1992.

Within this context, Bond explores South Africa's progress towards achieving sustainability. The central argument of his book is that during the first period of democratic rule in South Africa, from 1994 until now, 'government's attempts to improve environment and development failed miserably' (2002:18). He argues that in the transition from apartheid to democracy, government has succumbed to a World Bank-inspired neoliberalism. In the process, much of the ANC's original intentions outlined in its Reconstruction and Development Programme have been sidelined or watered down. Socio-ecological progress has been set back partly by conditions inherited from the apartheid government but also from unaltered power relations, and the current government's economic priorities geared towards globalisation and trade liberalisation. Bond concludes that 'although on the surface, the ruling party's practices appear grounded in stakeholder ideology, in reality they cement apartheid-capitalism's social, economic, geographic and ecological legacy' (2002:20).

Bond implicitly uses concepts and methods (discourse analysis) developed by Hajer (1995) and Dryzek (1997) among others, which criticise ecological modernisation and propose alternative approaches to sustainability. He identifies three distinctive environmental-developmental discourses that have emerged internationally and in the South African context - neoliberalism, sustainable development/ecological modernisation, and environmental/socio-ecological justice. He argues that the 'overarching rhetoric associated with the post-apartheid state's environmental policy' (2002:19) is sustainable development. This discourse works positively with the neoliberalisation discourse but excludes environmental justice's core issues, and hence remains as weak sustainability. By exploring five specific aspects of development in South Africa (water and sanitation, energy, waste, land use, and pollution), the book considers the role of these different discourses in determining government policy and action.

Part One of the book explores the legacy of apartheid-capitalism, as well as the common discourses associated with the environment-development [End Page 82] debate in South Africa. This section also introduces the five aspects of development mentioned above. Part Two focuses on two unsustainable development projects - the planned Coega Port and Industrial Development Zone (IDZ), and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The book then moves onto unsustainable policies in Part Three, focusing on the government's infrastructure policy, in particular water and electricity delivery. Lastly, Part Four is devoted to a...


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