Civil Society at the UN Climate Change Conference: African Activism at COP17

by Katherine Austin-Evelyn

In early December 2011, Durban, South Africa hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17), otherwise known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference was well attended by formal delegates negotiating the future of global climate change policies and programmes, something which was highly publicised. Less publicised in the mainstream media was the attendance and demonstrations of a large contingent of civil society groups and concerned citizens from all over the globe. The officially organised ‘Global Day of Action’ saw thousands of civil society organisations represented. In addition, there were informal demonstrations, which focused on a range of climate change issues, from the autonomy of small-scale farmers to the inequity of emissions between the global north and south.

While civil society had a place at COP17, there was also friction, conflict and tension between authorities and protesters. This reinforced the gap between delegates and civil society organisations. This CAI brief explores the role of the African civil society in the conference.

Background: The African Group at COP17

Africa as a region is the most affected by climate change, yet it is also the least responsible given the impact that major industrialised and developed countries have had on global emissions levels and therefore, the environment. The African Group, a coalition of 54 African countries, acted as a single voice for the continent during the COP17 proceedings. They concentrated on two key areas during the conference. The first priority area was a push for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol (even though the group is not a signatory), with a specific focus on BRIC countries’ culpability in climate change. The second was to encourage nations to follow through with the 2010 commitment made in Cancun for a Green Climate Fund, to help offset costs that developing nations would incur for financing climate change initiatives.(2)

There was a general feeling in Durban, similar to other COP conferences, that developing nations, including many of the African nations involved, had little clout in negotiations. This frustration can be illustrated by a comment from the President of Ethiopia, a spokesperson for the African Group, in the final hours of the conference: “I will even go further and say that the priority that we have is only one: to keep one billion Africans safe as regards the adverse effects of a climate change phenomenon to which they did not contribute.”(3) This provides an important backdrop to the ways in which African civil society felt neglected, unrepresented or unheard during the conference and also frames the main issues that African non-governmental organisations (NGOs) strived to highlight.

Challenges for the continent

The African continent is vulnerable to floods, droughts and other extreme weather conditions, especially because its people rely heavily on precipitation and other natural cycles, as evidenced by the devastating Somalian drought this year. In addition to this vulnerability, most of the continent lacks the technological ability and industrial capacity to cope with these unruly weather patterns. Therefore, although the biggest challenges for Africa are to fight climate change and global warming, a related challenge is to capacity building in many of the poor countries where these problems will become more severe over time. Some point out that the current systems and methods of production need to transform from privileging the comfort of a few elite above the needs of the vast majority.(4) According to many African civil society groups, governments must take decisive action to keep temperatures at safe levels as dictated by the scientific community; to provide resource support for sustainable developments of all countries; and to ensure effective compliance with commitments.(5)

Civil society responses – ‘Climate Justice Now!’ and ‘Occupy COP17’
Just as formal delegates from Africa experienced frustration, so too did the civil society groups from all over the continent who travelled to Durban to be heard and seen during the negotiations. These movements, NGOs and organisations convened both at a ‘speakers’ corner’, a small patch of land opposite the ICC, as well as at other locations outside of the ICC area, such as Howard College at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Rehana Dada, a representative of the South African Civil Society Committee for COP17, explains that the primary demand coming from civil society is the removal of restrictions from access to proceedings and negotiations and ‘petty’ limitations on protest space.(6)

A multitude of organisations represented civil society space during the conference. Two civil society movements of note are Climate Justice Now! and Occupy COP17. The former is “a network of organisations and movements from across the globe committed to the fight for social, ecological and gender justice.”(7) Their aims are based on taking action by applying pressure on those who have historically caused the lion’s share of environmental degradation: developed industrialised countries.(8) Similarly, Occupy COP17, a movement of NGOs, concerned citizens and students focussed on emulating the global ‘occupy’ trend aimed to put pressure on delegates to make meaningful change by ‘occupying’ space both outside and inside the ICC. Their formal ‘headquarters’ were located at the ‘speakers corner’ opposite the ICC, but participants were actively moving from one protest space to another all over the city.

Global Day of Action

On 3 December 2011, a ‘Global Day of Action’ was held. Reports estimate that anywhere between 7,000-10,0000 people attended a half-day march from central Durban to the ICC to raise awareness of pressing global climate change issues. The march drew from an international and national group of activists from community, labour, women, youth, academic, religious and environmental organisations. While these global days of action against climate change (and at times, against ‘COP’ itself) are traditional during the conference, it was the first time that activists from sub-Saharan Africa had the opportunity to demonstrate their importance in addressing climate change in southern Africa. Notable African activist groups in the march included ‘The Caravan of Hope’ convened by the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), which began in Burundi and gained publicity as it travelled to Durban. The march also included participants from the ‘climate train’, which made its way across South Africa in the days running up to COP17 raising awareness of climate justice issues. These African groups marched alongside international climate organisations such as Greenpeace and ‘350’ to demand action from governments around the world. The march culminated in the handing over of memoranda of understanding to the UNFCCC COP17 President and the UNFCCC Executive Secretary.(9)

‘One Million Climate Jobs’ – A South African movement

South Africa, the host country of COP17, demonstrated its strong traditions of trade unions fighting for social issues through its main civil society movement, ‘One Million Climate Jobs’, at the conference. The movement aimed to highlight the intersections between climate ‘justice’ with other pressing social issues in the country. Their primary focus was the need to address the overwhelming unemployment rate through jobs that support the environment, while simultaneously underpinning issues of extreme poverty, hunger, crime, substance abuse and domestic violence. By addressing these issues, the group says that in turn the health and education systems will be impacted and those who are vulnerable, such as women and children, will see results.(10) The organisation presents five steps to securing ‘one million climate jobs’. These are to: 1) produce electricity from wind and solar power; 2) invest in social infrastructure such as public transport, housing and publicly available waterworks; 3) utilise agro-ecology which is labour intensive, low in carbon emissions and respectful of traditional African practices by protecting biodiversity; 4) protect South Africa’s natural resources from outside influence and corruption to meet the basic needs of all people; and 5) provide basic services such as water, electricity and sanitation to redress the legacies of apartheid and build on the resilience of South Africans to withstand the effects of climate change.(11)

Conflict and controversy

COP17 was not without conflict and controversy, especially from a civil society perspective. Notably, there were alarming interventions by state-sponsored participants in the civil society proceedings. Citizens and climate action groups heavily documented these incidents. During the demonstration on the Global Day of Action, a group of approximately 300 protesters, dressed in green official COP17 volunteer uniforms (allegedly sponsored by the South African ANC government) tore up placards and allegedly physically threatened and attacked activists participating in the march. Shockingly, despite a large police presence there was a dearth of action taken by officials at the march. The disruption did not end there. Volunteers dressed in the same official COP17 tracksuits later tore up placards and physically confronted civil society members attending a seminar for civil society groups at Durban City Hall.(12)

Concluding remarks

At COP17 civil society faced an uphill battle for representation in a UN environment of official accreditation and strict security guidelines. The small space provided by the City of Durban, as well as the relatively remote location of Howard College signifies the separation between ‘official’ delegates and those working on the frontlines of climate change and environmental issues. It was promising to see a strong South African civil society representation that was uniquely tailored to South Africa’s needs through the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. While there was some undemocratic behaviour, for the most part civil society groups peacefully protested and demonstrated their dedication and commitment to climate change issues. As Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society at the University of Kwazulu-Natal pointed out about the conference, “because the structure is so much more global and adverse, we have to do a lot more locally and nationally to change that.” With South Africa’s history of social justice movements and the global consensus about climate change, it is possible that the fights against climate change are only beginning.


(1) Contact Katherine Austin-Evelyn through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Rights in Focus Unit (
(2) Joselow, G., ‘African Group narrows climate focus in Durban’, Voice of America News, 8 December 2011,
(3) Ibid.
(4) Hormeku, T., ‘Durban must deliver equity’, Pambazuka News 555: Durban climate change conference: Africa demands equity and justice’, 2 December, 2011,
(5) Ibid.
(6) Kachingwe, N., ‘African civil society engagement with COP 17: One step closer to an African climate change and development agenda’, Heinrich Boell Foundation, 11 November 2011,
(7) Climate Justice Now website,
(8) Ibid.
(9) Civil Society Committee for COP17 Website.
(10) One Million Climate Jobs Now! Website,
(11) Ibid.
(12) Loewe, M., ‘COP17 volunteers beat Zuma protestors in rowdy face off’, RDNA, 8 December 2011,