Environmental Governance, Hollow Environmentalism, and Adjudication in South Africa





environmental governance, hollow environmentalism, adjudication, sustainability, climate change, symbolic laws


In this paper my thought experiment leads me to posit that South Africa's environmental governance often results in what I term "hollow environmentalism". This term describes the inevitable long-term outcome of promulgating laws and policies that are idealistic and seem symbolic and that at times fail to achieve their intended objectives or environmental promise. On a narrower scale, hollow environmentalism can also manifest when such symbolic environmental laws and policies lead to judicial decisions that lack substantive ecological justifications, perhaps even resembling symbolic judgments. I substantiate this argument through four key considerations. I commence with a reality check on environmental governance, emphasising that the state is not a neutral actor, necessitating closer scrutiny of state decisions. This leads me to the conclusion that governance stands at a critical juncture. I argue that the symbolic nature of our environmental laws, broadly speaking, often makes it challenging for the state to fully meet the lofty ideals it presents, thereby also complicating court decisions in these matters. Next, I align my thoughts with recent literature on adjudication in the context of the climate crisis. This literature stresses the need for courts to be bold and innovative in their judicial roles, given the precarious nature of stabilising environmental disputes. In the penultimate section I bring the discussion to a close by suggesting two interconnected possibilities to address hollowness in the face of climate change: "sunsetting" and "substitution".


Download data is not yet available.


Metrics Loading ...

Author Biography

Caiphas Brewsters Soyapi, North-West University

LLB LLM LLD. Faculty of Law, North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus), South Africa




Bell J and Fisher E "The Heathrow Case in the Supreme Court: Climate Change Legislation and Administrative Adjudication" 2023 MLR 226-237 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2230.12736

Boyd DR The Environmental Rights Revolution: A Global Study of Constitutions, Human Rights, and the Environment (UBC Press Vancouver 2011 DOI: https://doi.org/10.59962/9780774821629

Butt D "Law, Governance, and the Ecological Ethos" in Gardiner S and Thompson A (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics (Oxford University Press New York 2017) 51-61

Collins L "Judging the Anthropocene: Transformative Adjudication in the Anthropocene Epoch" in Kotzé LJ (ed) Environmental Law and Governance for the Anthropocene (Hart Oxford 2017) 309-328

Du Plessis A "The Promise of 'Well-being' in Section 24 of the Constitution of South Africa" 2018 SAJHR 191-208 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02587203.2018.1475116

Du Plessis W "Energy Efficiency: The Progress of Policy, Legislation, and the Role of the Courts in South Africa" 2018 SAJELP 175-203

Finger M "Which Governance for Sustainable Development? An Organizational and Institutional Perspective" in Park J, Conca K and Finger M (eds) The Crisis of Global Environmental Governance: Towards a New Political Economy of Sustainability (Routledge Oxon 2008) 34-57

Fisher E, Scotford E and Barritt E "The Legally Disruptive Nature of Climate Change" 2017 MLR 173-201 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2230.12251

French D and Kotzé LJ Research Handbook on Law, Governance and Planetary Boundaries (Edward Elgar Cheltenham 2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781789902747

Glasbergen P "The Question of Environmental Governance" in Glasbergen P (ed) Co-operative Environmental Governance: Public-Private Agreements as a Policy Strategy (Springer Dordrecht 1998) 1-18 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-011-5143-6_1

Henry C, Rockström J and Stern N Standing Up for a Sustainable World: Voices of Change (Edward Elgar Cheltenham 2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781800371781

Kidd M "Reasonableness" in Quinot G (ed) Administrative Justice in South Africa: An Introduction 2nd ed (Oxford University Press Cape Town 2021) 190-213

Kotzé LJ and Soyapi CB "African Courts and Principles of International Environmental Law: A Kenyan and South African Case Study" 2021 JEL 257-282 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jel/eqab004

Lemos MC and Agrawal A "Environmental Governance" 2006 Annual Review of Environment and Resources 297-325 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.energy.31.042605.135621

Liebenberg S Socio-Economic Rights: Adjudication under a Transformative Constitution (Juta Cape Town 2010)

Newig 2007 Environmental Politics"Symbolic Environmental Legislation and Societal Self-Deception" 2007 Environmental Politics 276-296 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09644010701211783

Paterson M "Sustainable Consumption? Legitimation, Regulation, and Environmental Governance" in Park J, Conca K and Finger M (eds) The Crisis of Global Environmental Governance: Towards a New Political Economy of Sustainability (Routledge Oxon 2008) 110-131

Preston BJ "The End of Enlightened Environmental Law?" 2019 JEL 399-411 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jel/eqz029

Quinot G "Substantive Reasoning in Administrative-Law Adjudication" 2010 CCR 111-139 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2989/CCR/2010.0005

Rockström J and Stern N "Science, Society and a Sustainable Future" in Henry C, Rockström J and Stern N Standing Up for a Sustainable World: Voices of Change (Edward Elgar Cheltenham 2020) 3-9 DOI: https://doi.org/10.4337/9781800371781.00009

Scotford E and Minas S "Probing the Hidden Depths of Climate Law: Analysing National Climate Change Legislation" 2019 RECIEL 67-81 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/reel.12259

Spann GA "Expository Justice" 1982 U Pa L Rev 585-661 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/3311845

Tigre MA "Exploring the Bedrock for Earth Jurisprudence" 2021 Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 223-310

Twani N and Soyapi CB "The Legal Accountability of Local Government in South Africa for the Failure to Deliver Sanitation Services" 2022 SAJHR 92-111 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02587203.2022.2115397

Wang A "Symbolic Legitimacy and Chinese Environmental Reform" 2018 Environmental Law 699-760

Warnock C and Preston BJ "Climate Change, Fundamental Rights, and Statutory Interpretation" 2023 JEL 47-64 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jel/eqad002

Weaver RH and Kysar DA "Courting Disaster: Climate Change and the Adjudication of Catastrophe" 2017 Notre Dame L Rev 295-356 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2965084

Wood MC "Advancing the Sovereign Trust of Government to Safeguard the Environment for Present and Future Generations (Part 1): Ecological Realism and the Need for a Paradigm Shift" 2009 Environmental Law 43-89 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1946078

Woolley O Ecological Governance: Reappraising Law's Role in Protecting Ecosystem Functionality (Cambridge University Press Cambridge 2014) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107447080

Case law

Bangtoo Bros v National Transport Commission 1973 4 SA 667 (N)

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg v Minister of Environmental Affairs 2017 2 All SA 519 (GP)

R (on the Application of Friends of the Earth Ltd) v Heathrow Airport Ltd [2020] UKSC 52

R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, ex parte Daly [2001] UKHL 26

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance v Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (17554/2021) [2022] ZAGPPHC 741 (6 October 2022)

Sustaining the Wild Coast NPC v Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy 2022 6 SA 589 (ECMk)

Trustees for the Time Being of the Groundwork Trust v Minister of Environmental Affairs (39724/2019) [2022] ZAGPPHC 208 (18 March 2022)

WWF South Africa v Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 2019 2 SA 403 (WCC)


Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act 28 of 2002

National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998

National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act 39 of 2004

National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act 10 of 2004

National Water Act 36 of 1998

Government publications

GN 1359 in GG 42778 of 18 October 2019 DOI: https://doi.org/10.32964/TJ18.10

International instruments

Human Rights Council Resolution 48/13 UN Doc A/HRC/RES/48/13 (2021)

UN General Assembly Resolution on the Human Right to A Clean, Healthy and Sustainable Environment UN Doc A/RES/76/300 (2022)

Internet sources

Al Jazeera Staff 2022 Mapping Africa's Natural Resources https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/2/20/mapping-africas-natural-resources accessed 20 September 2023

Bega S 2021 Mantashe Comments on Objections to Shell Seismic Survey "Astounding" https://mg.co.za/environment/2021-12-14-mantashe-comments-on-objections-to-shell-seismic-survey-astounding/ accessed 20 September 2023

Harding A 2023 South Africa Load-Shedding: The Roots of Eskom's Power Problem https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-65671718# accessed 19 September 2023

Hunter Q 2023 Ramaphosa Calls Urgent Cabinet Meeting to Discuss New Plan for Old Coal Power Stations https://www.news24.com /fin24/economy/breaking-ramaphosa-calls-urgent-cabinet-meeting-to-discuss-new-plan-for-old-coal-power-stations-20230419 accessed 22 April 2023

Ireland G and Burton J 2018 An Assessment of New Coal Plants in South Africa's Electricity Future: The Cost, Emissions and Supply Security Implications of the Coal IPP Programme https://www.africaportal.org/ documents/18385/Microsoft_Word_-_ERC_Coal_IPP_Study_Report_ Final_290518.docx.pdf accessed 12 April 2023

Lund H 2019 Why BP Supports a Fast Shift to Low Carbon https://www.ft.com/content/5fb061d4-7a1d-11e9-8b5c-33d0560f039c accessed 2 April 2023

Minister of Environmental Affairs 2018 Appeal Decision. Reference: LSA 142346 https://cer.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Thabametsi-Appeal-Decision-30-January-2018-2.pdf accessed 12 April 2023

Nyathi M 2023 If It's not Coal, then Go for Nuclear, Says Energy Department https://mg.co.za/environment/2023-04-20-if-its-not-coal-then-go-for-nuclear-says-energy-department/ accessed 22 April 2023 OUTA 2017 https://static.pmg.org.za/171018OUTA_report.pdf

Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse 2017 Unplugging Corruption at Eskom https://static.pmg.org.za/171018OUTA_report.pdf accessed 19 September 2023

Presidential Climate Commission date unknown About the Presidential Climate Commission https://www.climatecommission.org.za/about accessed 11 April 2023

Presidential Climate Commission 2021 South Africa's NDC Targets for 2025 and 2030 https://www.climatecommission.org.za/publications/south-africas-ndc-targets-for-2025-and-2030 accessed 20 September 2023

Presidential Climate Commission 2022 A Framework for a Just Transition in South Africa https://pccommissionflow.imgix.net/uploads/images/A-Just-Transition-Framework-for-South-Africa-2022.pdf accessed 20 September 2023

South African Government 2012 National Development Plan 2030: Our Future – Make It Work. Executive Summary https://www.gov.za/sites/default/files/Executive%20Summary-NDP%202030%20-%20Our%20future%20-%20make%20it%20work.pdf accessed 20 September 2023 UN 2015 https://sdgs.un.org/goals United Nations 2015 17 Goals https://sdgs.un.org/goals accessed 12 March 2023

World Population Review 2023 Wealth Inequality by Country 2023 https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/wealth-inequality-by-country accessed 20 September 2023 World Resources Institute 2022

World Resources Institute 2022 5 Lessons from South Africa's Just Transition Journey https://www.wri.org/technical-perspectives/5-lessons-south-africas-just-transition-journey accessed 20 September 2023



How to Cite

Soyapi, C. B. (2023). Environmental Governance, Hollow Environmentalism, and Adjudication in South Africa. Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal, 26, (Published on 23 November 2023) pp 1 – 28. https://doi.org/10.17159/1727-3781/2023/v26i0a16884



Special Edition: Environmental & Energy Law

Similar Articles

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 > >> 

You may also start an advanced similarity search for this article.