A right to safety and security comes in more forms than you might think. Did you know, that in terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which is the highest law of our country, you are afforded with certain fundamental environmental rights. These rights are specifically set out in Section 24 of the Constitution. However, before we delve into your environmental rights, right away, are you aware of what the term “environment” actually means and consist out of?

The term environment means, the surroundings within which humans exist and that are made up of the following: the land, water and atmosphere of the earth, micro-organisms, plant and animal life as well as the physical, chemical, aesthetic and cultural properties and conditions of the foregoing that influence human health and well-being. Your environment is described to such a large degree to specifically give more opportunity for protection for aspects which are part of and inseparable from your person.

You as a South African citizen have some very important environmental rights set out in terms of Section 24 of the Constitution, and these rights include the following:

  1. you have the right to an environment that is not harmful to your health or well-being,
  2. you also have the right to an environment that is protected, for the benefit of present and future generations.

It is inspiring to have these rights, but let’s be honest, the real question that comes to mind is, how are these rights of yours actually being looked after and protected?

Well, the Constitution places an obligation on the Government to take action in protecting these rights of ours by enacting certain legislative and other measures that will in essence, prevent pollution and ecological degradation, promote conservation and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

In order to achieve the abovementioned ideals, the National Environmental Management Act No. 107 of 1998 (“NEMA”) was enacted, and can be seen as one of the front-runners when it comes to achieving these ideals. NEMA is striving towards protecting these ideals by providing for co-operative environmental governance by establishing certain principles for the decision making on matters that have a direct effect on the environment.

NEMA also further created the term of what is known as a “Environmental Management Inspectorate” or “EMI”. This environmental “division” works closely with the South African Police Service in the investigation of any form of environmental crimes. The environmental management inspectorate also have the following powers at their disposal:

  1. The power to inspect, by entering premises in order to establish whether or not the required legislation is being followed.
  2. The power to seize any evidence of a criminal nature, and
  3. Lastly the power to investigate, and question witnesses.

As we have a Constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to our health and well-being, mechanisms are put in place in order to give effect to and protect this crucial right of ours, so that we can continue to live in an environment that is healthy and safe.