environmental conservation

According to the Bill of Rights, which is contained in Chapter 2 of the 1996 Constitution, everyone has the right to

  • an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being
  • have the environment protected, for the benefit of the present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that
  • prevent pollution and ecological degradation
  • promote conservation
  • secure ecological sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

Conservation in South Africa is the responsibility of various government institutions. At central government level, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is the central policy-formulating and coordinating body. Other organizations involved at this level are, for instance, the Departments of Agriculture; Water Affairs and Forestry; Minerals and Energy, and Health as well as local authorities. At regional level, the provincial conservation agencies are major role-players while independent statutory organizations such as the National Parks Board and the National Botanical Gardens are valuable partners in the total conservation effort.

Conservation is defined by the International Conservation Union (UCN) as management of the human use of the biosphere to yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present and future generations. Conservation thus embraces development, but only if development is undertaken in a responsible manner so that nature can be maintained for sustainable use.

Despite the devolution of many conservation functions to provincial government level, the conservation of large areas of state and privately-owned land is still coordinated by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and the Chief Directorate: Forestry of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. This implies overall coordination of nature conservation; management of conservation areas (including indigenous forests, drift sands and mountain catchment areas); administration of legislation; controlling veld fires; protection of rare plants; promotion of tree-planting and tree conservation; outdoor recreation in state forests; control of invader species; coastal conservation; conservation and utilization of marine life; and conservation measures in the environment created by human beings, including pollution and development control. South Africa is developing its national environmental policy through a consultative process known as the Consultative National Environmental Policy Process (CONNEPP).

A discussion document on the environment was released in April 1996. The document, entitled Towards a New Environmental Policy for South Africa, recommends a “proactive approach” in terms of which action will be taken on possible environmental threats even when there “was no clear supporting evidence”. The main proposal contained in the document is the establishment of a new independent Commission for the Environment or an Environmental Protection Agency to receive and review objections, initiative investigations and be responsible for reviewing state environmental audits. The document also identifies root causes of South Africa’s current environmental problems; the non-cooperation of environmental regulatory institutions; unsustainable levels of exploitation of natural resources unequal access to natural resources often forcing human migration and overcrowding; damaged social structures and poor “dispossessed people” and inappropriate and uncontrolled development in most sectors.

The Green Paper entitled Environmental Policy for South Africa was released in October 996. The Green Paper concerns itself with general policy based on economic development and sustainability of environmental resources. The Paper indicates that there are many area which the Government needs to address in its environmental policy. These include, among others, improved pollution and waste control; focusing on people and their participation in environmental decision-making employs an integrated and macroeconomic perspective.

The purpose of the Green Paper is to provide a basis for developing environmental policy which will lead South Africa along the path of sustainable development and ensure that all South Africans, both now and in the future, will have an environment which always caters for their well-being.

The Green Paper on the Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Biological Diversity was published in October 1996. A discussion document was circulated earlier the year and a national conference was held in May 1996. The policy approaches contained in the Green Paper spell out a vision for South Africa which reconciles the country’s sometimes conflicting goals of development and conservation, and which requires all people and organizations to take responsibility for ensuring that the country’s natural heritage is maintained for future generations.

An essential part of these approaches will require a commitment form each government department to develop a biodiversity plan, and for sectors outside of government to take up the challenge of making the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity a core element of their policies, programs and actions.

  • conserve the diversity of landscapes, ecosystems, habitats, populations, species and genes in South Africa
  • use biological resources sustainably and minimize adverse impacts on biological diversity
  • ensure the benefits derived from the use and development of South Africa’s genetic resources serve national interests
  • expand the human capacity to conserve biodiversity, to manage its use, and to address factors threatening it
  • create conditions and incentives that support the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity at the international level.

A draft White Paper on Fisheries in South Africa was presented to the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in December 1996.

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international cooperation

As a responsible member of the world community, South Africa has become a signatory to a variety of international agreements dealing with, among other things, marine pollution; the atmosphere; conservation of fauna and flora; whaling; the Antarctic; the testing of nuclear weapons; and the conservation of wetlands.

South Africa became a signatory to the Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa, on 9 January 1995. Desertification implies the processes whereby ecosystems lose their capacity to revive or repair themselves. The objective of the Convention is to combat desertification by way of effective national action, supported by organized international cooperation and partnership arrangements based on mutual interest.

On 8 March 1995, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry and the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism approved the Ramsar and World Heritage Conventions. The Ramsar Convention entails the conservation of international important wetlands, while the World Heritage Convention enables South Africa to proclaim National World Heritage sites.

South Africa is signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The main objective of the Convention is to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases at levels that will prevent human activities from interfering dangerously with the global climate system. South Africa is ranked eighteenth highest polluter in the world and will have to take several measures to reduce its greenhouse emissions. Wide-ranging consultation and discussions between all stakeholders in South Africa will have to take place before this Convention can be ratified.

South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in November 1995. The objectives of the Convention are the conservation of biological resources, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of the genetic resources. This Convention is the first of the three “Rio Conventions” to be ratified by South Africa in February 1996. It commits South Africa to drawing up a series of protected areas, representing all the biomes in the country.

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Nature Conservation

Formal protected areas occupy 5.5 per cent of the surface of South Africa with a total of 422 terrains. This network areas totals 6.73 million ha which falls mainly within the Savannah biome. Protected areas are managed to conserve living resources that are essential for sustaining development by:

  • maintaining the essential ecological process and life-supporting systems
  • preserving genetic diversity
  • controlling erosion of soil and soil depletion
  • providing opportunities for research education and monitoring
  • ensuring that utilization of species and ecosystems is sustainable (World Conservation Strategy, IUCN, 1980)

In these protected areas, endangered and rare fauna and flora are conserved; ecologically degraded habitats are restored; cultural and historical treasures such as rock art and historic buildings are preserved, and water catchment areas are protected.

Nature conservation, is according to the Constitution, mainly a provincial function. Each of the nine provinces may promulgate its own ordinances dealing with hunting, fishing, and the protection of fauna and flora.

There are eight management categories of protected areas in South Africa which conform to the accepted categories of the IUCN. These categories are:

Scientific Reserves

Scientific reserves and undisturbed areas managed for research and monitoring and maintenance of genetic resources. Access is limited to researchers and staff. Examples of such areas are Prince Edward Island and Kogelberg Nature Reserve in the Hottentots Holland Mountain Range in the Western Cape.

Wilderness Areas

These areas are extensive in size, uninhabited and undeveloped, and access is strictly controlled since no vehicles are allowed. The highest management priority is the maintenance of the intrinsic wilderness character.

National Parks and Equivalent Reserves

These areas include national parks claimed in terms of the National Parks Act, 1976 (Act 57 of 1976), provincial parks and nature reserves, and indigenous state forests. Some of these natural and scenic areas are extensive in size and include large representative areas of at least one of the country’s biomes. Tourism plays an important role in management objectives.

National and Cultural Monuments

These are natural features or features of cultural significance, or both, and may include botanical gardens, zoological gardens, natural heritage sites and sites of conservation significance.

Habitat and Wildlife Management Areas

There areas are subject to human intervention, based on research into the requirements of specific species for survival. They include conservancies, provincial, regional or private reserves created for the conservation of species habitats or biotic communities. They also include marshes, lakes, and nesting and feeding areas.

Protected Land and Seascapes

These areas are products of the harmonious interaction of people and nature and include protected natural environments in terms of the Environment Conservation Act, 1989 (Act 73 of 1989), scenic landscapes or historical urban landscapes.

Sustainable Use Areas

These areas emphasis the utilization of products on a sustainable base from a protected area such as the Kosi Bay lake system in KwaZulu-Natal.

Nature areas in private ownership are proclaimed and managed to curtail any undesirable development in areas with high aesthetic or conservation potential.

Conservancies are formed in order to involve the ordinary landowner in conservation. One or more landowners can establish a conservancy where they practice conservation principles integrated with their normal farming activities.


Wetlands include a wide range of inland and coastal habitats – from mountain sponges and midland marshes to swamp forests and estuaries, linked by green corridors of streambank wetlands. In the past, wetlands were regarded as unproductive and even unhealthy wastelands. Today it is realized that, if well managed, they are essential in meeting the needs of a growing population.

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Conservation Challenges

South Africa faces many of the problems experienced in developing countries in which rapid industrialization, population growth and urbanization pose a threat to the quality of the environment.

Population Growth

The need to protect the environment while permitting a degree of development and urbanization which will satisfy the requirements of a growing population is an extremely complicated issue.

One of the main conservation problems is South Africa’s excessively high population growth. On 30 June 1995, the estimated population was 41,244,000.

According to the National Report on Population, which was drawn up for the International Conference on Population and Development in September 1994 in Cairo, South Africa’s population will increase to at least 80 million in less than 30 years.

Erosion and Desertification

Most of South Africa’s soils are particularly unstable. The country loses an estimated 500 million of topsoil annually through erosion caused by water and wind.

Water Quality Management

According to the Discussion Document towards a White Paper on Integrated Pollution Control and Waste Management, released in May 1997, water quality is determined by chemical and microbiological constituents, and the physical attributes (e.g. temperature) of the water. With increased development of South Africa, the country’s water resources are becoming increasingly polluted.

The water quality management goal of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is the maintenance of the fitness for use of South Africa’s water resources on a sustainable basis for recognized water uses. To reach this goal and to counter the deterioration of the quality of water resources, the Department has developed a national policy and strategy based on an integrated water quality management approach. This approach entails establishing clearly defined functional management entities (such as dams, river or catchments) and setting water quality management objectives for water resources within the management entities.

A series of water quality guidelines for South Africa, ranging from domestic use to the marine environment, has been developed and was published in February 1997.

In cooperation with the Water Research Commission, universities, consultants, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), mining companies and other organizations in the water industry, the Department promotes research in the water field in aspects such as water quality management and water treatment technology. This is done to ensure that the management of South Africa’s water resources is based on the best possible technology and scientific information. The regulations for water quality management in the mining industry are currently under revision.

Pollution presents a problem of national proportions, as the bulk of the major coal and gold-mining areas is situated in the upper reaches of the country’s major rivers. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is busy with the construction of water pollution control works at abandoned coalmines in the Witbank (Mpumalanga) and Northern KwaZulu-Natal areas. The newly constructed treatment plant for acid mine drainage water near Witbank (Brugspruit) was opened by the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry in 1997.

During 1997, revised mining regulations were published in the Government Gazette for comment. The main aim of these regulations is to prevent, as far as possible, and further to minimize water pollution from mining and related industries. The Groundwater Quality Strategy developed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has also been finalized, while the document Towards a National Waste Management Strategy for South Africa is almost complete.

Marine Pollution

According to the Discussion Document towards a White Paper on Integrated Pollution and Waste Management, off-shore exploitation of marine resources – particularly oil and gas exploration and exploitation and the mining of diamonds both in the coastal and deep sea regions – results in marine pollution. Off-shore, the air-lifting operations result in underwater sediment plumes which allegedly have a detrimental effect on marine organisms. In the near shore are there is increasing concern due to the extensive relocation of dune sands. These possible negative effects are being investigated but have never been categorically proven to date.

The document states that oil and gas installations and operations require particular caution due to the devastating environmental damage which could result should an oil spill occur. Oil-tankers continue to navigate around South Africa’s coastline with fairly frequent oil-spills requiring the contingency plan developed by the Sea Fisheries Research Institute to be invoked. Oil tankers (bunker oil) in harbors periodically result in spills. South Africa is required under the marine pollution conventions to which it is a party to provide reception facilities for used oil as well as for garbage from vessels.

An increasing source of concern is non-point source pollution through the seepage of sewage into coastal waters partly as a result of increasing urbanization in many coastal cities. Pint source pollution is also an increasing problem. There are 63 pipelines along the coast, discharging some 800 million liters of partially treated sewage and industrial effluents daily.

Preventive measures are largely the responsibility of the Department of Transport while the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism deals with the cleaning up of oil pollution once it has occurred.

Draft legislation to bring South Africa’s pollution control jurisdiction at sea in line with international standards was tabled in 1997. The Shipping General Amendment Act, 1997 (Act 23 of 1997) proposes an extension of pollution prevention and combating powers at sea by redefining the so-called “prohibited zone” to include South Africa’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As a result, South Africa’s pollution control jurisdiction will be extended from 50 nautical miles to 200 nautical miles. Prevention and combating powers will be extended to include all harmful substances. The Navy and Air Force will be responsible for monitoring the enhance pollution control measures. The penalty for contravention has been increased from a maximum R200,000 fine to R500,000, or imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both.

Coastal Zone Management

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism’s Subdirectorate: Coastal Zone Management acts as the national coordinating coastal zone management agency. The Subdirectorate aims to enpower coastal users, decision-makers and the people to sustainably and wisely manage the coastal zone and its resources. To achieve this, the Subdirectorate needs to

  • formulate a new national policy for coastal zone management through an inclusive, participatory process
  • monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of management functions undertaken by coastal authorities
  • develop environmentally-friendly decision support systems and management guidelines to inform and support coastal decision-makers
  • maintain existing coordinating and advisory service to promote sound coastal management
  • facilitate joint responsibility between resource users and relevant authorities in the management of coastal resources
  • draft legislation required for effective coastal zone management
  • enable effective information exchange to ensure sustainable use of the coast
  • fulfill international obligations and conventions, concerning coastal zone management

Hazardous Materials and Waste Control

Hazardous waster includes a wide spectrum of materials with dangerous, explosive, flammable, reactive and toxic characteristics.

South Africa generates less than half a percentage point of the world’s total hazardous waste production of 539 mt a year, 2 mt of which is defined as toxic – 1 mt industrial and 1 mt from the mining sector. About half of this hazardous waste is disposed of on permitted sites. There are eight hazardous waste -disposal sites in South Africa. Because of public pressure, no such sites have been successfully established since 1992.

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has established environmental monitoring committees at hazardous waste management sites which include the relevant authorities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives of local communities. These committees assist the Department with the monitoring of the sites and in ensuring their acceptable operation.

Hazardous substances, which are extensively used in agriculture and industry, are controlled mainly by the departments of Agriculture and Health.

Pesticides are controlled in terms of the Fertilizers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act, 1947 (Act 36 of 1947). There are regulations for the sale and compulsory registration of veterinary remedies as well as for agricultural remedies, while certain standards are set for pesticide residues on export fruit.

Pollution Control

Noise Control

The noise control regulations published for comment in 1994 were to have been promulgated in April 1997. However, according to the Constitution, noise control is the exclusive legislative function of provincial authorities. The promulgation of the amended regulations will therefore be done by each provincial authority for their respective legislative areas. When these regulations are promulgated, they will be applicable to all local authorities.

These regulations provide for noise control over a wide area and contain preventive as well as remedial mechanisms. One of the most important planning measures is the concept of a controlled area, that is an area in which noise levels are above a certain level and certain control measures apply. Examples are noise contours surrounding airports, roads and industries.


Almost every type of paper produced in South Africa has a recycled content. The recovery of paper and board had grown to 37 per cent in 1996. Twelve years earlier, the recovery rate was 29 per cent. Each ton of waster paper recycled saves about 17 pine trees and a ton of recycled paper saves three cubic meters of landfill space, making South Africa save 10 million trees annually.

Some 17 per cent of all new plastics are recycled. It is five times higher than 1993 figures in the United States and Europe.

South Africa follows the US and Japan as the best collectors of used metal beverage cans in the world. In 1996, 1.4 billion cans were recovered.

In comparison with other countries, South Africa has a high returnable glass-container market: 33 per cent of all glass containers produced are returnable or reusable and there are also recycled.

Urban Conservation

Rapid urbanization and its concomitant environmental impact are posing serious challenges to South African planners and environmentalists. Up to 16,000 ha of farmland are lost to urban development each year. Low-density urban sprawl as well as the rapid growth of informal settlements, contribute to increasing competition between urban land-users for diminishing space and resources. As a result, informal settlements frequently develop on marginal and environmentally sensitive land, posing serious threats to human well-being and to ecosystems.

More than eight million South Africans live in informal settlements at present. Despite the provision of basic services and upgrading incentives, many of these communities live in unhygienic conditions. The country’s high levels of pollution and related diseases result from the reliance of such communities on untreated water and wood or coal as source of domestic fuel, and from inadequate sanitation. The provision of adequate and appropriate services is currently receiving high priority.

Modern town and cities in South Africa benefit most from the recent phenomenal growth in environmental awareness and the resultant community initiatives. The current enthusiasm for the creation and protection of interlinked open-space systems in urban areas throughout the country followed upon earlier initiatives by people and organizations such as the Wildlife Society. Some of the local authorities have adopted their own environment policies.

Environmentally friendly use and development of land can be promoted through official planning processes such as Integrated Development and Land Development Objectives. New planning and environmental legislation make better provision for the proper consideration of environmental concerns in urban planning and development.

Regulations making environmental impact assessments compulsory for a wide range of planned developments were promulgated early in September 1997, with immediate effect. The developments included commercial power generation, nuclear installations, roads, railways, airports, marinas, harbors and private and public resorts.

As from January 5, 1998, the regulations cover structures associated with communications networks, structures for storing and testing explosives, concentration of livestock for commercial production, genetic manipulation and release of organisms for biological pest control.

As from March 2, 1998, the regulations apply to activities including the manufacture or storage of hazardous substances, water-related developments such as canals and diversion of rivers, and sewage treatment plants.

On April 1, 1998, changes in land use, such as a change from residential to industrial, were included in the regulations.

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Private Sector Involvement

In addition to the Government’s role in environmental conservation, numerous private bodies have added their weight.

There are more than 400 organizations concentrating on conservation, wildlife and the general environment, and more than 30 botanical and horticultural organizations in the country.

  • Wildlife and Environmental Society
  • WWF South Africa
  • The Green Trust
  • Earthlife Africa
  • Endangered Wildlife Trust
  • Wilderness Trust of Southern Africa
  • Natural Heritage Programme
  • Sites of Conservation Significance Programme
  • Keep South Africa Beautiful
  • Trees for Africa
  • Ecolink
  • Fairest Cape Association
  • Rhino and Elephant Foundation

Wildlife and Environment Society

This is the oldest NGO in South Africa. The Wildlife and Environment Society, a member of the IUCN, focuses on environmental education – it established the first environmental education center in South Africa – as well as a variety of conservation projects.

WWF South Africa

WWF South Africa, which represents the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in southern Africa, was established in 1968. Since then, the WWF has collected more than R260 million for more than 600 conservation projects in South Africa and nine other countries, including Malawi, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Some of the WWF’s most important projects have been rendering assistance with the expansion of 10 national parks; playing a catalytic role in the creation or enlargement of more than 23 protected areas’ establishing six research chairs and various research programs for nature conservation and environmental management at South African universities; co-operating in programs to protect the full range of South Africa’s unique biodiversity of species in this region through research, conservation and public involvements. The EWT supports a variety of working groups:

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