The Role of Environmental Justice in Socio-Economic Rights Litigation

Authors Melanie Murcott

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Lecturer, Department of Public Law, University of Pretoria
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 132 Issue 4, 2015, p. 875 – 908


This article explores the role of environmental justice as a transformative tool in litigation to enforce socio-economic rights in South Africa. Because environmental justice recognises the intrinsic links between the distribution of basic resources, and the environments in which poor people continue to find themselves in post-1994 South Africa, it has the ability to enhance and strengthen the enforcement of socio-economic rights. To demonstrate the transformative potential of environmental justice, I discuss its origins and its incorporation into South African law. I then demonstrate that, despite having been incorporated into our law, environmental justice has failed to capture the imagination of lawyers engaged in socio-economic rights litigation. Sustainable development and human rights discourses have been the dominant voices, at the expense of environmental justice, and its transformative potential. Through an analysis of Mazibuko v City of Johannesburg I point tohow linking environmental justice to the right to access to basic water could have encouraged the court to adopt a more redistributive and transformative approach. To conclude, I consider the potential of environmental justice in socio-economic rights litigation to challenge poverty and effect transformation in the lives of poor people in South Africa.