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Monday, 04 Dec 2023 | NGO exodus from Standard Bank over its complicity in human rights violations and climate collapse.

Authors: Khulekani Magwaza, David Le Page, Princess Majola, Jacqui Tooke, Monique Atouguia and Grace Alter

In the past two months, Standard Bank has violently expelled climate protesters, manhandled a journalist and has come in last place in a comparative study of the “big five” South African retail banks when measured on climate-related disclosures, policies, and practices as per Just Share’s new report released last week, How Cool is Your Bank.

 Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil in the UK and Climate Defiance in the USA are getting eyes and lenses on the urgent need for climate action. Indeed, it has been ordinary people taking extraordinary action that has forcefully driven recognition of climate change as a global crisis. Some academics suggest that Extinction Rebellion’s actions have done more in the last five years to shift the Overton window – broadly socially accepted discourse – on climate change than the past 30 years of traditional campaigning. 

Africa has faced a climate disaster almost every month for the last year. The climate and ecological emergency have exacerbated extreme weather events and continue to break heat, flood, wildfire, drought records.  An attribution study has found that the devastating storm that dumped torrential rains along the Libyan coast in September was up to 50 times more likely to occur and 50% more intense because of human-caused climate change. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the number of fatalities in Derna was 4 333 and that more than 8 500 people remain missing. The unravelling of our climate and ecological systems is devastating vulnerable communities, snuffing out any hope of attaining the sustainable development goals, and may end up bringing about civilisational collapse.

Twenty-eight years of United Nations climate negotiations mandated to manage intergovernmental responses to the climate emergency have so far failed to stop emissions, despite the alarm call from the UN Secretary-General and climate scientists that “fossil fuels are incompatible with human survival”. Fossil fuel companies are breaking and reversing their all-too-paltry promises to cut emissions. 

It is time for all those working in the climate justice space to endorse civil resistance – ordinary people engaging in non-violent disruptive actions to urge governments and corporations to act on the climate emergency. This was the impetus for Extinction Rebellion Gauteng taking action at Standard Bank’s offices in Rosebank on the 19th to 21st September. They called on Standard Bank to stop all new coal investments by 2024 and urged Standard Bank to instead fund community-owned renewables in poor communities.

Experts have concluded that there is no room for new coal in South Africa. It will not improve the energy crisis. The emissions from coal have resulted in Johannesburg being one of the most polluted cities in the world, violating our constitutional right to a healthy environment. In fact, we have overburdened Earth’s living systems to a point where the indirect costs of using fossil fuels now always exceed their benefits. On the other hand, South Africa has vast renewable energy resources, now recognised as the most effective solution to our energy crisis. Access to clean and affordable energy is a basic right as enshrined in the principle of energy justice.

Another powerful step is for us as NGOs and individuals to align our finances with our beliefs. We propose a collective shift in civil society away from using Standard Bank, a financial institution that ignores the principles of social and climate justice. 

Extinction Rebellion South Africa (XR SA), United Front (UF), The South African Youth Council on Climate Change (SAYCCC) along with Fossil Free South Africa (FFSA) will be closing our bank accounts with Standard Bank. Our move comes after the release of shareholder activist organisation Just Share’s briefings on four of SA’s five biggest banks assessing their climate-related disclosures. The Standard Bank briefing revealed that the bank continues to be the largest investor in fossil fuels, its exposure to fossil fuels being approximately 4.5 times higher than its exposure to renewable energy. Standard Bank has R119 billion in loans to fossil fuels on its books. That amount could finance the entire country’s transition to renewable energy in four years (R475 billion). Just Share’s most recent report comparing the country’s biggest banks found Standard Bank to be lagging far behind its peers in its understanding, disclosure and integration of climate risks and opportunities into its financial decision making.

Far from using its position as the biggest bank in South Africa to advance social and climate justice, Standard Bank has repeatedly declared its intention to continue to finance highly destructive oil and gas projects on the continent, relying on a dangerous and patently false dichotomy between ‘development’ and a just transition. But this can change with just a few people like Sim Tshabalala (CEO) and Kenny Fihla (Senior Executive) making the right choices. 

Standard Bank’s financial practices have far-reaching negative consequences for the communities and ecosystems we strive to protect. We as NGOs that champion the cause of social justice will no longer overlook the impact of our financial choices on the very values we stand for. We understand that transitioning banks can seem daunting, especially for NGOs already stretched thin by their commitments. Therefore, we are committed to helping organisations make a shift to a different bank with minimal effort.

By closing our bank accounts we, XR SA, UF, SAYCCC and FFS,  are kicking off what we intend to be the start of a collective shift away from this bank. We encourage fellow NGOs and justice movements as well as individuals of conscience to follow suit, withdrawing their accounts from Standard Bank in the name of social justice. We hope this will prompt its leaders to align their consciences with what much of the world – outside of their insulated executive suites – is screaming for.  

– Magwaza represents the SA Youth Climate Coalition. Le Page is coordinator of Fossil Free SA.  Majola represents the United Front. Tooke is a member of XR Cape Town. Alter and Atouguia are members of XR Gauteng.