On Saturday, 12 March 2022, the University of Cape Town (UCT) Council decided to divest its endowment from the leading cause of the climate crisis, fossil fuels, becoming the first university in South Africa to do so.
More specifically, the Council voted to “immediately divest from fossil fuels internationally with immediate investment in renewable energy and/or green economy instead of new investments in fossil fuels”. South African investments will be shifted to renewables and “green” companies with the goal of being “net-positive by 2030”.
This announcement is a historic moment for the divestment movement in South Africa and in the Global South. It arrives in the context of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which notes that “the rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt”.
The report amplified the need to radically address climate change across all sectors of society. Although positive, time will tell if UCT can match the moment and truly support climate justice in a country that desperately needs it.
The decision comes after UCT’s panel on responsible investment recommended in August 2021 that the university divest from fossil fuels by 2029. Divestment is based on the premise that investments in fossil fuels are not only funding a climate catastrophe but are also no longer economically smart due to the decrease in price of renewable energy and global commitments to reduce emissions.
The benefits from divesting are not only economic – at this early stage of the movement in South Africa, the ethical and social movement impacts are absolutely primary. Divestment by UCT does not threaten anyone’s job, but sends a very strong new signal that the government and business need to facilitate a just transition from fossil fuels and must create an economy that is no longer self-cannibalising.
The announcement of UCT’s divestment reinvigorates the conversation about what it means to imagine a world beyond fossil fuels and illustrates that any institution that claims to care for social justice cannot ignore the injustices caused by the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry.
As many as 5,000 people die a year from air pollution in South Africa’s coal belt, while millions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi were displaced and affected by Cyclone Idai in 2019. In the Eastern Cape, many lost their lives due to devastating floods in January 2022.
Meanwhile, the violence of fossil fuels is currently playing out on our TV screens: the horrific war in Ukraine is financed by Russian oil and gas money. It is hard to imagine a stronger reminder of the need to rapidly reduce our dependence on corrupt fossil fuels and their interests. Ukraine’s leading climate scientist recently spoke to the parallels between the climate crisis and the war, drawing the conclusion that “this is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilisation.”
UCT joins many other organisations which have already divested, with collective assets now in excess of $40-trillion. Most notably, Harvard University announced its divestment in September 2021, despite years of rhetoric dismissing any notion that the university would divest.
A key factor in Harvard’s divestment decision was that investments in fossil fuels are not only morally dubious but are also legally challenging to defend, especially when those investing are supposedly socially responsible institutions.
Divestment sends a clear message to asset managers that fossil-free funds are not only wanted but desperately needed. Fossil-free funds are a necessity in an era in which the International Energy Agency has stated that no new oil and gas fields can be exploited or coal power stations built if we are to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
Although this is a historic moment for climate action and divestment in South Africa, we must not become complacent. UCT still has much to prove and has so far done the bare minimum on its path towards truly advocating for climate justice. The pressure is on management to put action to their promises.
As seen at COP26, held in Glasgow last November, many promises are made, but when it comes to disrupting business-as-usual, almost everyone falls short, with scientists saying we are still on a path to warming well above 2°C. We cannot allow UCT to use its divestment decision alone as a PR move to wash itself of responsibility and accountability. We will truly believe in this decision only when we see the money actually being moved out of fossils.
UCT has the opportunity to be a leader on this issue, advocating for divestment and climate justice across South African institutions and on the continent. It is time for UCT to declare a climate emergency and involve students in all its sustainability decisions. Young people need a direct seat at the table due to the intergenerational effects of the climate crisis. Decisions made now will impact our lives indefinitely.
I am encouraged by the years of campaigning by student activists, civil society and NPO Fossil Free SA. UCT is learning to recognise the urgency of action required to safeguard life on Earth in a time of climate and ecological breakdown.
The announcement of divestment cannot mark the end of their journey but must represent a shift from long bureaucratic delays and years of campaigning, to decisions made in the interests of human rights based on a deep empathy and concern for all life on Earth.
I find it fitting to close with Kenyan Activist Elizabeth Wathuti’s remarks from COP26: “I can urge you to act at the pace and skill necessary, but in the end your will to act must come from within.”