Zanele Hartmann & Jessica Thornton

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), founded on Section 24 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) within the National Environmental Management Act No 107 of 1998 (NEMA) legislation in South Africa, mandates the state to ensure that everyone has a right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. A crucial aspect of maintaining a sustainable environment involves comprehending how human actions affect both the environment and the health and prosperity of those reliant on it. Environmental Impact Assessments serve as a method for evaluating and documenting the effects of specific activities, aiding decision-makers in determining which activities are suitable, what actions are necessary to alleviate adverse effects, and how to manage the project’s impacts effectively.

Engaging the public is crucial within the EIA procedure, as it enables interested and affected parties (I&APs) to actively take part in decision-making processes to accomplish social and environmental justice and to promote informed decision making. Within the South African EIA process, public participation is a cornerstone in ensuring that communities have a voice in decisions that affect their environment and livelihoods (Sisilana, 2019). Yet, despite the importance of the EIA process, public participation faces numerous challenges. One of the main concerns is the lack of meaningful engagement and consultation with affected communities and individuals (Mahomedy, 2019). In most cases, communities are not adequately informed about proposed projects or the possible proposed impacts on their environments and livelihoods. This lack of information impedes their ability to provide informed input and feedback, undermining the effectiveness of public participation. Furthermore, language and literacy barriers in South Africa can further marginalise certain communities (Chebanne & Dlali, 2019). Limited access to culturally and linguistically appropriate information and communication channels can exclude these communities from participating fully in the EIA process, perpetuating inequalities and injustices. Another significant challenge is the timing and sequencing of public participation activities within the EIA process (Maphanga,  Shale, Gqomfa & Mduduzi, 2023). Often, public consultation occurs late in the EIA process without stakeholder engagement and workshopping, and after key decisions have already been made. This can leave communities feeling that their input is merely tokenistic and does not influence project outcomes (Nkulanga, 2010).

Addressing these challenges and ensuring that that community concerns and perspectives are considered in decision-making requires a concerted effort to foster transparency, inclusivity, and accountability in the EIA process (Gerber, 2009). Meaningful engagement with connected communities from the outset, providing accessible information in a variety of languages, and ensuring that public participation activities are conducted in a timely and transparent manner are crucial steps towards promoting genuine public participation and ensuring that the EIA process serves the interests of all stakeholders involved. It is only at this point that the possibilities of effective public participation in the EIA process can be reached, such as participatory mapping exercises to identify sensitive environmental areas, cultural heritage sites, and community resources that may be impacted by the proposed project; and to provide capacity-building workshops and training sessions to empower local communities (Cochrane, Corbett, & Keller, 2014).  Thus, effective public participation in the EIA process may enhance transparency, accountability, and legitimacy, leading to better-informed decision-making and sustainable development outcomes


Chebanne, A. & Dlali, M. (2019). The curse of poverty and marginalisation in language development: The case of Khoisan languages of Botswana. Stellenbosch Papers in Linguistics Plus, 58 (1), 219-233. Available from: [Accessed: 19/02/2024].

Cochrane, L., Corbett, J. & Keller, C. (2014). Impact of Community-based and Participatory Mapping. Institute for Studies and Innovation in Community-University Engagement, University of Victoria. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4522.5360.

Gerber, G. (2009). Environmental Impact Assessment, Integrated Development Planning and the Pursuit of Sustainable Development in South Africa: A Critical Reflections on the Consideration of Alternatives. [Online], Available from: [Accessed 19/02/2024].

Mahomedy, S. (2019). The potential of meaningful engagement in realising socioeconomic rights: Addressing quality concerns. Unpublished thesis for the degree of Master of Laws in the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University.

Maphanga, T., Shale, K., Gqomfa, B., & Mduduzi, Z. (2023). The state of public participation in the EIA process and its role in South Africa: a case of Xolobeni, South African Geographical Journal, 105 (3), 277-305. Available from:  [Accessed: 19/02/2024].

Nkulanga, G. B. (2010). An Investigation of the Effectiveness of Public Participation in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Implementation Process: Rwandan Case Studies. Unpublished Master of Environment and Development in the Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development (CEAD) in the School of Environmental Sciences Faculty of Science and Agriculture University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg.

Sisilana, M. (2019). Public Participation and Environmental Law: A South African Perspective. Unpublished  thesis for a masters of law degree (LLM) in environmental law at the University of the Western Cape.

Posted on 20 March 2024 09:00:22

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