Charlize Tomaselli reflects on her time at a conference in Australia.

In June 2023 I attended the XX International Sociological Association Conference, Resurgent Authoritarianism: Sociology of New Entanglements of Religions, Politics, and Economics. The conference was held in Melbourne, Australia. My attendance was sponsored in part by the SARChI Bio-economy Chair. Every four years thousands of sociologists from around the world converge in order to share sociological research on a wide diversity of interests, from ethics of care to the sociology of sport and industrial practices.

I presented in the theme Democratic Participation and Self-Management Vs Authoritarianism: Theoretical Reflections and Propositions. My presentation was based on my MPhil Development Studies research titled, Policy, Participation and Empowerment: A Case Study of Community Resistance to Neoliberal Policy. The research examined the conflict in South African government policy between a people-centred participatory rhetoric on the one hand, and neoliberal growth-centred rhetoric on the other; and how this has played out in the recent series of related court cases (2021 – 2022). The methodology employed was a case study design based on court judgments between local fisher communities of the Eastern Cape, South Africa; versus Shell Corporation and two South African Government ministers (Minerals, Petroleum and Energy, and Environment and Tourism).

Utilising Jürgen Habermas’ instrumental reasoning as a high-level framework and operationalising levels of public participation through the heuristic modules of Sherry Arnstein and Jules Pretty, the research makes the case that issues of public participation in this instance were a result of the different understandings and expectations of the required level of public participation between the opposing parties based on conflicting requirements in various SA legislation (Constitution, NEMA and MPRDA) . The findings underscored the central importance of appropriate levels of public participation, as protected by the South African Constitution, in the process of Exploration Right Applications in order emancipate marginalised communities. The presentation was well received. Comments and questions from attendees highlighted the applicability of the findings to global contexts where neoliberal governments and powerful multinationals exclude indigenous, rural and marginalised communities from active participation in imposed development.

Attending the conference in person was an opportunity to meet academics and researchers from all over the world working in similar fields, and to gain valuable insights. I attended multiple presentations by researchers working on political ecology, alternatives to extractivism, community mobilisation, indigenous knowledge, and issues of biodiversity loss and protection, among many other interesting themes. Central themes were the need for greater incorporation of indigenous, rural and marginalised communities in academic and research spaces, and the promotion of alternative ways of being that directly destabilise the capitalist, colonialist status quo. Having robust discussions with these researchers inspired and influenced my PhD research titled, Public Participation and Community Agreements in South Africa’s Just Transition. The PhD research notes that the global move from fossil fuel to renewable green energy has marked effects on local communities. These include opening up new economic opportunities while simultaneously precipitating job loss, environmental damage and population displacement. Community agreements are designed in part to mitigate some of the negative consequences of the energy transition and to ensure that affected communities share in profits and benefits. Against the rubric of a just transition, this thesis aims to understand and evaluate the role of public participation in community agreements between energy mineral-affected communities and the mining industry in South Africa.