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Key findings
  • Seven in 10 South Africans (70%) say pollution is a serious problem in their community. o Citizens say trash disposal (cited by 41% of respondents) is the most important environmental issue in their community, followed by sanitation (16%), pollution of water sources (12%), and air pollution (10%). o Seven in 10 citizens (70%) say plastic bags are a major source of pollution in South Africa.
  • Nearly half (48%) of South Africans say the primary responsibility for reducing pollution and keeping communities clean rests with ordinary citizens, while about four in 10 would assign that responsibility to local (20%) or national government (17%).
  • Seven in 10 citizens (70%) say the government should do more to reduce pollution and protect the environment, including 57% who say it should do “much more.”
  • But if environmental-protection policies threaten jobs and incomes, 49% of citizens want the government to prioritise jobs and incomes, compared to 32% who would prioritise environmental protection.
  • South Africans hold mixed views on the benefits of natural resource extraction to local communities. o A majority (61%) want the government to regulate the industry more tightly in order to reduce its negative impact on the environment.

South Africa has one of the most developed economies in Africa, fuelled in part by rich  deposits of coal, diamonds, gold, and platinum group metals (Statista, 2024; CEIC Data,  2023). The country’s natural beauty draws tourists to Table Mountain, the Cape Winelands,  the Drakensberg Mountains, Kruger National Park, and the Blyde River Canyon, among many  other attractions. 

Despite its wealth of natural resources, South Africa faces enormous challenges, including  high inequality (Hamilton, 2022), depletion of resources, and pollution. A recent analysis  reported that most South Africans breathe air that does not meet World Health Organization  standards due to vehicle emissions, mining, waste burning, and the use of wood and coal for  cooking and heating (Paul, 2022). Studies have estimated that air pollution in Johannesburg  has reduced life expectancy by 3.2 years, with particularly severe effects on children  (Africanews, 2022). In Durban, residents and environmental activists have been calling for  action on the polluted Umbilo River for more than a decade (Majola, 2020).  

Section 24 of the South African Constitution provides for the people’s right to an environment  that is not harmful to health or well-being, and it obligates the government to take measures  to prevent pollution and ecological degradation (Republic of South Africa, 1996). The Air  Quality Act of 2004 and Waste Act of 2008, among others, operationalise these  commitments. In 2022, South African courts upheld the right of residents in the highly polluted  Highveld Priority Area to live in an environment that is safe for their health (Garland, 2022;  Reuters, 2019). 

The supreme law of the land also states that mineral resources are the “common heritage of  all the country’s people and the state is the custodian of these resources for the benefit of all  citizens” (Field, 2020). The Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act seeks to  promote equitable access to South Africa’s mineral resources and to ensure that those who  hold mining rights plough back into the communities in which they operate, though critics  say the law does not fully protect communities from the environmental effects of mining  (Field, 2020).  

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9  questionnaire to explore Africans’ experiences and perceptions of pollution, environmental  governance, and natural resource extraction. 

In South Africa, findings show that a majority of citizens consider pollution a serious problem in  their community, rating trash disposal as their most important environmental issue. Many say  the government is not doing enough to protect the environment and call for tighter  regulation of natural resource extraction activities. But only a minority of citizens would  prioritise environmental protection over jobs and incomes.

Stephen Ndoma

Stephen is the assistant project manager for Southern Africa