Sustainability in South Africa

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As population levels and consumption patterns continue to increase the impact on natural resources also increases. Conservation of the natural environment and economic development are slowly being recognized as being on the same side of the coin, rather than representing opposing faces. Development is seen as a way of funding conservation efforts, or as the process through which technology or innovation can be applied responsibly in the interest of improving the environment. Development also supports social welfare, which in turn allows people to escape conditions that trap them in a cycle of poverty and environmentally degrading activities. It should be noted that the wealthy have a much greater environmental footprint than the poor and are on the whole guilty of far more environmentally destructive activities than the poor. At both ends of the scale, human needs and desires need to be sustainably satisfied and a cohesive social network developed to prevent a depletion of natural capital.

Sustainable development has a dimension of fair and equal allocation of natural resources and value. Just as future generations should not be unfairly burdened with a compromised environment, so also should coexisting nations and communities not be unfairly compromising each other. An equitable share of resources and responsibility towards environmental protection should be universally applied.

The interlocking dimensions’ model also fails to sufficiently highlight the interdependency and hierarchy of the three dimensions.

Nested Model of Sustainability

The nested model of sustainability also shows the role of a governance system that can provide leadership and systematic and strategic guidance, as well as sanction when required. This role is necessary in order to ensure fair allocations of responsibility and obligation when it comes to the environmental and developmental spheres.

The idea that individual human welfare (expressed as quality of life in the NDP) is the holy grail of sustainability is strongly premised on the principle that if society collapses, the welfare of the individual will be reduced, that if the economy collapses that society will be significantly weakened, and that if the environment collapses then the economy will be massively damaged. For individual welfare to be maximized, environment, economy and society must be in best possible state without compromising each other.

Environmental sustainability

As a subset of sustainable development, environmental sustainability refers to the ability of the biophysical environment to maintain its functioning within natural parameters and cycles over time, in order to supply environmental goods and services to the economic and social spheres. In the South African context, this is a key issue due to our strong reliance on renewable and non-renewable resources, as well as the goods and services that ecological systems provide. Environmental goods and services are often also referred to as ecosystem services, and include a wide range of benefits that people derive from the natural environment and natural processes. The services, materials and benefits that we derive from the natural environment range from those necessary for basic life, namely air, food and water, to those materials needed for livelihoods and well-being, as well as non-material benefits that enhances life through aesthetic, cultural and spiritual values. Material goods derived from nature provide the basic resources required for subsistence and economic activities. All human activity is dependent on material resources being extracted from the natural environment, whether in the form of raw materials for processing or as organic foodstuffs or for the air that we breathe. This link is most evident in South Africa in rural areas where subsistence livelihoods are derived directly from productive ecosystems. Rural South Africans depend on natural water supply from rivers and other sources, biofuels (such as trees, shrubs and cow dung) for cooking and heating, pollination services from insects and small animals, natural pest control, and marine and coastal resources and wild terrestrial plant and animal products for food and medicines. Natural resource materials are also critical for industry and manufacturing, as well as the successful functioning of our economic system. Our economy in particular is heavily reliant on the extraction and export of raw materials, whilst our primary energy generation is highly dependent on the mining of coal. The agricultural sector needs sufficient supplies of water, management of pests, nutrient cycles, pollination, and the like. Water, specifically, is necessary for most productive activities and the uninterrupted supply of food, water and energy is required to feed the high consumption oriented appetites of our urban areas. Non-material benefits are also essential to keep the wheels of the economy turning and to satisfy recreational, aesthetic and cultural needs. With our abundant wealth in biodiversity and attractive landscapes, nature based tourism forms an important part of our economy, and a vibrant industry has been built on wildlife ranching. All of these activities are absolutely dependent on a healthy and functional biophysical system that can maintain natural cycles, self-renew and repair, and maintain resilience during times of stresses. Ecosystem services therefore include the ability to purify and store water, renew the productivity of soils, clean the air, pollinate crops, prevent topographical instability.

Planetary boundaries and the social foundations

The concern that we as human beings are living beyond the capacity of the natural environment is becoming increasingly pervasive. We are living in a time where anthropogenic climate change is threatening the ability of planetary scale biophysical systems to maintain a natural equilibrium that has been evident for the past 10,000 years. This period of equilibrium in the natural system is known as the Holocene, and marks an interglacial period during which climatic conditions were stable enough at a continental and global level to allow modern humans to invest in the large scale modifications of their natural environment that were necessary for agriculture and complex societies to develop (Rockström et al. 2009). Our ability to alter our environment has, however, now developed to the extent that our activities have become the dominant force determining change in the Earth System (the integrated biophysical and socio-economic processes and interactions taking place on land, in water and in the atmosphere). This period of human dominance is termed the Anthropocene. The risk that we now face is that our ability to modify the environment, through processes such as industrialization and urbanization could outstrip the ability of critical biophysical systems to absorb the changes and remain within the boundaries of what is considered ‘stable’. One particular concern is that the planet’s biophysical systems have finite boundaries or thresholds within which they currently function. Should the systems be forced beyond these thresholds, equilibrium will be lost, and the systems will self-adjust to new levels of equilibrium. Such self-adjustment will necessarily involve drastic and abrupt changes to climatic conditions or productive capacities. It therefore follows that a ‘safe operating space’ can be defined for human activities – a level or form of human activity that does not transgress Earth System parameters (Rockström et al. 2009). The parameters within which the Earth System can remain in balance are termed planetary boundaries as they operate on a planetary scale, and bind all humans to a common fate due to their interconnectedness.

National Framework for Sustainable Development

In response to the sustainable development agenda, South Africa has adopted the National Framework for Sustainable Development (NFSD) (DEA 2008). The purpose is to express the national vision for sustainable development and indicate strategic interventions to re-orientate South Africa’s development path in a more sustainable manner. The growing stress on environmental systems and natural resources from economic growth and development strategies were explicitly acknowledged. The NFSD commits South Africa to a long-term programme of resource and impact decoupling. The vision for a sustainable society is: “South Africa aspires to be a sustainable, economically prosperous and selfreliant nation that safeguards its democracy by meeting the fundamental human needs of its people, by managing its limited ecological resources responsibly for current and future generations, and by advancing efficient and effective integrated planning and governance through national, regional and global collaboration” (DEA 2008). The framework also outlines principles and trends regarding sustainability in the country, as well as a set of implementation measures. Key to the framework is how this can be achieved through partnerships with civil society and entrenching cooperative governance practices.

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National Strategy for Sustainable Development

The NSSD identifies five strategic interventions required to achieve the nation’s vision for sustainable development (DEA 2011), as redefined versions of the strategic pathways identified in the 2008 NFSD, namely:

  • Enhancing systems for integrated planning and implementation;
  • Sustaining our ecosystems and using natural resources efficiently;
  • Towards a green economy;
  • Building sustainable communities; and,
  • Responding effectively to climate change.


Being in a position to know how sustainable our human activities and environmental management practices are, is a key step towards identifying and addressing aspects that reduce overall sustainability. Sustainability reporting is thus featuring increasingly on the world leaders’ agenda, especially since by definition sustainability ranks environment, society and economy equally. Sustainability reporting therefore attempts to monitor the success in each sphere of human endeavours and report on their relative performance in a manner that can highlight the tensions between them as well as the trade-offs to be negotiated. In addition, sustainability reporting needs to provide guidance as to which dimensions or relationships need to be addressed in order to improve overall sustainability. Because sustainable development and environmental sustainability are such wide ranging concepts, many different systems for reporting on sustainability exist, each with a slightly different focus area or reporting format.

Some examples include corporate reporting schemes such as the Global Reporting Initiative, popular social well-being indices such as the Happy Planet Index of the New Economics Foundation, and the Ecological Footprint concept promoted by the WWF. In the context of a SoE report, such as the SAEO, it can be expected that the balance of information being collected and reported on will lean towards a description of the biophysical rather than social and economic. The information on its own is therefore intended as a means to provide the reader with an indication of the health of the natural environment. To add further value to the report’s findings though, the environmental report card needs to be interpreted in terms of the relationships between the natural, social and economic spheres. Social and economic information generally tend to function more as informants on the pressures and impacts affecting the natural environment. Such sustainability reporting will thus point out reasons for poor environmental performance, impacts that can be ascribed to the good or bad performance, as well as key aspects of society that can be targeted in order to redress shortcomings.

Ecological footprints

Ecological footprints are a tool that reflects the renewable resources that people consume against bio-capacity (ability for renewable resources to regenerate) (Global Footprint Network 2011). They aggregate calculations for a cropland footprint, grazing footprint, forest footprint, fishing ground footprint, carbon footprint and built-up land. The measurement unit for ecological footprints is the amount of global hectares (g/ha) affected by humans per capita of a country. The world’s average bio-capacity is 1.8 g/ha per person (Global Footprint Network 2011). This means that globally, there is an ecological deficit of 0.9 g/ha per person (6,000 million people on earth in total). If a country has insufficient ecological resources to match the demand of people, then it is an ecological debtor country (high over-consumption).

The Environmental Sustainability Index was designed to track 76 different elements of environmental sustainability, including natural resource endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental management efforts, contributions to the protection of the global commons and the capacity of a society to improve its environmental performance. South Africa’s Environmental Sustainability Index rank in 2005 was 93rd out of 146 countries (Esty et al. 2005). The score of 46.2 ranks it lower than many of its SADC neighbours. Compared to member countries of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), South Africa ranked 20th out of 40, with Gabon, the Central African Republic, Namibia, and Botswana in the first four places.

Since 2006, however, the Environmental Sustainability Index was transformed into the Environmental Performance Index that focused even more on the environmental issues for which governments can be held accountable. It aims to measure policy efficacy (i.e. performance) by comparing a country’s actual environmental management status to universal policy targets. The lower the Performance Index score, the further away from policy goals a country would find itself. In total, 22 performance indicators are tracked, which then measure performance in terms of two broad policy outcomes – Environmental Health and Ecosystem Vitality. Environmental Health relates to environmental stresses on human health, and Ecosystem Vitality to natural resource management. This Environmental Performance Index is not comparable to the Environmental Sustainability Index due to differences in data sources, imputations, methodology, framework, target setting, weighting, and aggregation, but both remain equally valid in their own rights.

When considered in terms of the two main categories of policy outcomes, South Africa’s Ecosystem Vitality (environmental management) is classified as poor and declining, whilst the Environmental Health (environmental impacts on human health) is regarded as poor but improving. The poor Environmental Performance score is attributed to practices used to manage the country’s water scarcity, contribution to climate change, air pollution, agricultural practices and poor public health. This echoes the findings of the 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index that highlighted air and water quality, contribution to climate change and human vulnerability as particular problems. South Africa’s relative water scarcity has resulted in many watercourse modifications, which impact on aquatic ecosystems, water security, wetlands and ecological reserves. This leaves the country with a poor overall score for ecosystem-related effects of water use, whilst worryingly the trend analysis of the Environmental Performance Index shows that the trend is still strongly negative. Urgent intervention is therefore necessary to improve the efficiency of water use and overall water resource management, including the management of freshwater ecosystems. In the related field of agricultural practices, the two indicators of agricultural subsidies and pesticide regulation both leave room for improvement, since the absolute score is low, and the trend still downwards. Climate change and air quality are measured in terms of effects on human health and indoor air quality), effects on ecosystems (i.e. sodium dioxide), contributions to greenhouse gases (i.e. carbon dioxide) and renewable energy. South Africa scores low in all of these, indicating that despite there being policy commitment towards climate change mitigation and a reduction in air .The remaining poor performance area is public health, as measured by childhood mortality. Mortality in children below the age of five is greatly influenced by environmental factors, and therefore it can be assumed that most people in South Africa actually live in environments of low quality that place severe stress on living conditions. Ideally, the decline in the environmental index should be addressed in a manner that can support the improving trend in human health albeit of a low base. The Ecological Footprint and Environmental Performance Index represent relative and indicative rather than absolute gauges of environmental performance. Global scale indices are difficult to maintain due to the large amount of uncertainty associated with data collection, reporting, data standards and socio-political challenges. It is therefore necessary to regard such rankings with the necessary circumspection that will compensate for inaccuracies and uncertainties. Nevertheless, broad trends and relative scores do hold value, and should be used as high level warning signs for aspects of environmental management that are deviating from an optimal course. The tools also offer a better understanding of our role in the global system and provide information on which to base our participation in the global debate on the environmentdevelopment interface. In the South African context, there have been initiatives to introduce sustainability indicators through the StatsSA census as this provides a systematic process of acquiring information. These include aspects relating to renewable energy, access to public transport, urbanization patterns and use of natural resources. It is anticipated that the ongoing inclusion of sustainability indicators will provide a more comprehensive picture of key sustainability issues, as well as the performance of South Africa in terms of sustainable development. Government performance of these strategic interventions is intended to be tracked through means of monitoring and reporting on 113 interventions and 20 headline indicators that respond to MDGs and Government Outcome processes.


South Africa has done well in defining sustainability and sustainable development and the adoption of the NFSD commits the country to a long-term programme of resource and impact decoupling. The Framework however, acknowledges that there is growing stress on environmental systems and natural resources from economic growth and development strategies. The country has continued to build on the Framework and several initiatives launched by key role players have adopted the NSSD which redefined strategic pathways and means of implementation. The Strategy is seen to be making a worthy contribution towards the understanding and achievement of sustainable development in the South African context. Furthermore, its five strategic priorities set a high standard for future development and contains numerous indicators which are well formulated and measurable. There is however still significant work to be done to reverse the many prevalent negative trends identified in the measurement of environmental performance. In response, government in partnership with community organizations, business and academia are putting in place structures and strategies to turn the situation around.

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Sustainability in South Africa. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from
“Sustainability in South Africa.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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