South African population and consumption issues

On 29 June 2013 Too Much Too Many featured in the Population Media Centre’s daily bulletin, introducing the project to their members. They used this article:

At a Soweto landfill site a "waste picker" uses his iPhone. His meagre livelihood is generated by salvaging food and other items from the dump. He found the working discarded iPhone amongst "trash". He's not alone; many of the waste pickers have smartphones discarded by far wealthier people believing only the most recent model will do. A few kilometres north, a black eagle soars above suburban Johannesburg's Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens. Rapid urbanisation around the gardens threatens the eagle's ability to hunt. The ridge system is suitable not only for the eagle's prey but also those wanting to live in the area's rapidly multiplying housing estates. These are the realities of population growth and increasing (and unequal) consumption. In South Africa these topics gain little media coverage and many issues remain taboo.

A black eagle above the suburbs. Copyright: Garth Heydenrych

I’m undertaking a six month South African road trip, writing about these and other population and consumption impacts. I'll write 100 articles from 100 different locations. I've partnered with women's rights organisations (such as Pathfinder) and wildlife NGOs (like the Endangered Wildlife Trust) to enable access to diverse stories. The articles will later be turned into a book. In the meantime I hope personal stories, rather than statistics, will increase awareness of these issues and be a better way to confront taboos. 

Women's rights issues have a long way to go in South Africa yet many issues are not openly discussed. Abortion is legal but there are barriers to access and adverts for "safe and pain free" back street abortions are common. The only man I know to have been arrested in Cape Town for any offence remotely connected to back street abortion is a pensioner who applies non-Council approved stickers on municipal property stating "abortion is evil". He uses them to cover up the backstreet abortion posters. This man thinks all abortion is evil, so whilst we disagree on that, it's crazy he's the only person to have been convicted of an offence. People will not address the real issue which is education, access and the need to clamp down on dangerous abortions by non-qualified staff in unhygienic conditions. It is a completely ignored problem.

On the other side of the country I've written about a unique project in a patriarchal traditional rural community where the village chiefs have become part of a project to combat sexual, gender-based and domestic violence. I won't forget my first interview with the man who openly told me that he raped his wife. His behaviour was not at all atypical in the village, it was the norm. He needed to attend a culturally aware workshop program to understand his behaviour was wrong.

The 2011 South African census showed that there were 51.7 million people living in South Africa, an increase of eleven million in fifteen years. Yet South Africa has neither a particularly high population growth rate nor, given its geographical size, a notably high total population. Compared with the UK for example, South Africa is five times the size but with 11 million fewer inhabitants. South Africa therefore has a remarkable opportunity to address consumption and population impacts, for the benefit of both the country's people and the natural environment upon which they depend. One such instance is the opportunity to save some of the country's remaining wilderness areas. 

KAT-7, part of the SKA. Copyright: Dr Nadeem

The loss of wilderness is an obvious side effect of population and consumption impacts, but wilderness is not only important for the preservation of landscapes, migration routes and biodiversity. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is a €1.5 billion global science project to build the world's largest and most sensitive radio telescope, the core region of which will be in South Africa. Radio telescopes need sites lacking man-made radio interference, such as that created by cell phones. Scottish Astronomer Russell Johnston explains "the unpopulated Northern Cape of South Africa is one of the few places left on earth where we can do this. There's no area left in Europe without man-made radio interference which is large enough to host something like the SKA". That's worth repeating. The SKA which seeks to establish the nature of dark-matter, investigate the validity of Einstein's theory of relativity and perhaps even detect life elsewhere in the universe could not be undertaken anywhere in Europe. The impact of increased cell phone coverage could have prevented South Africa (and the world) from being able to construct the planet's most important telescope.

South Africa's unique situation makes looking at its population and consumption impacts controversial. I intend to highlight how these impacts are threatening not only South Africa's wildlife and landscapes but also the health and well-being of South Africa's people, particularly the poor. Solutions to these problems must be systemic and for the benefit of the people as well as the landscapes and wildlife.