NATIONAL PLANNING COMMISSION: Coordination, intergration and controversy


Conventional wisdom has it that people who are pre-occupied with their material survival are much less concerned about the environment and view the environment as a resource to be utilised rather than protected. But data from the SASAS 2004 survey challenge this notion. Jaré Struwig explains how.

Environmental concerns are complex and are shaped by social and physical location and embedded in a socio-economic and political culture.

Indexing environmental care

In 2004, a module on the environment was included in the SASAS survey and the data were used to create an environmental care index. Responses to the statements were evaluated according to a score from 1-5, with a score of 5 indicating a pro-environment attitude, to a score of 1 indicating an anti-environment attitude.

Based on these computations an environmental care index was created for each respondent. The following statements were used to construct the environmental care index:

  • We worry too much about the future of the environment and not enough about jobs today.
  • Even if we do not protect the environment, people will always find ways to survive.
  • There are more important things to do in life than protect the environment.
  • Nature conservation parks only benefit wealthy people.
  • Land earmarked for conservation should rather be given to poorer communities.

Place of residence emerged as one of the highest predictors of environmental care. People living in urban informal areas scored lowest on the environmental care index, followed by rural formal, urban formal and tribal areas. Although confronted by poor environmental conditions, people in informal settlements seemed more concerned about sustaining a livelihood than caring for the environment.

This finding, which is common in informal areas globally, points at the notion of relative deprivation which suggests that people who live in polluted and degraded areas tend to get used to this situation and that outcries are usually limited to isolated incidents. However, constant exposure to pollution and environmentally hazardous circumstances eventually starts to take presidence over less concrete and tangible problems. Once this happens, and the issue of civil rights and human dignity is connected to environmental deprivation, it becomes a major issue, capable of influencing opinion and creating unrest and dissatisfaction.

Recent riots related to inadequate service delivery (including solid waste) in several areas in South Africa would appear to support this. Although environmental-related issues are thus considered a low priority for people in informal areas, it should not be neglected by local government since environmental neglect can ultimately lead to escalated outcries of dissatisfaction.

Place of residence emerged as one of the highest predictors of environmental care. People living in urban informal scored lowest on the environmental care index.

When the environmental care index was evaluated by province it was found that the people from Mpumalanga were the least committed and concerned about the environment whilst people from Limpopo were the most concerned.

In the case of Mpumalanga this finding was specifically surprising since this province is notorious for its pristine environmental features. The Kruger National Park, the Blyde River Canyon, Pilgrim's Rest and many private game parks are located within the province. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, people in Mpumalanga did not rate the environment as important.

The reason for this finding might lie in the history of conservation in South Africa and specifically in Mpumalanga.

Although functioning well, such conservation areas have alienated many South Africans, who now regard issues of conservation negatively.

During the apartheid era, strict environmental policies, fences and patrols characterised nature conservation. These protected areas were privy to the white communities only and often out of bounds for the majority of other race groups in South Africa.

Apart from not benefiting as tourists in these protected areas, the majority of the population was excluded from decision-making on the use and allocation of resources and services. Conservation areas were developed at the expense of local communities. Although functioning well, such conservation areas have alienated many South Africans, who now regard issues of conservation negatively.

In Mpumalanga, this finding might point to the fact that people in this province still experience limited tangible benefits from conservation and tourism-related activities.

Concern for the environment by language

When the environmental care index was analysed by language, further interesting and unexpected results were found. The group that scored highest on the environmental care index was the Venda-speaking people. The Venda traditionally reside in Limpopo, which is predominantly a rural and tribal area with prominent customs and traditions. This area is also one of the poorest in South Africa.

In contrast with the findings in Mpumalanga, this finding shows that environmental attitudes are part of a larger set of values and not simply determined by material wealth. Social values are embedded in a cultural context. The Venda belief system is reflected in practices that are clearly grounded in a respect for the environment, as reflected in the SASAS results. The Rain Queen, or Mudjadji, who is responsible for protecting the people of the northern areas from drought, is another of the more well-known examples of a nation with a strong relationship with the environment.

It's not about the money

The simple assumption that environmental concern is a function of income is not true. The variation in the perceived importance of environmental issues in the different geographic areas suggests that environmental attitudes and the importance of environmental protection are shaped by social and physical location and therefore embedded in a socio-economic and political culture. Perceptions of the environment differ by geographic location and other contextual variables not least because of past policies and legislation.

Jarè Struwig is a senior research manager in the Knowledge Systems research programme.