Social impact assessment : the status of practice in the North West Province of South Africa
There is no doubt that the assessment of social impacts is as important, in some cases even more important, than the assessment of biophysical and economic impacts of development projects. Nonetheless, social impact assessment (SIA) has remained an "orphan" in the broader environmental impact assessment (EIA) context, both internationally and in South Africa, and is often neglected or treated as a less important aspect of an EIA. It was the aim of this study to measure perceptions of relative neglect of SIA in South Africa against the theory and practice of SIA as reflected in the literature. The basic hypothesis was that, whereas the theory and practice of SIA has reached a sophisticated level in the developed world, the practice of SIA in South Africa is not yet on a sound footing and that it does not receive the professional attention it deserves in a country beset by enormous social challenges. Thus the research problem was whether SIA is practiced at a satisfactory level of proficiency in South Africa. Social aspects of impact assessment in the North West Province of South Africa were investigated, with the aim to identify shortcomings and their possible causes and to make recommendations for improvement. The article format was used, and the main section of the study comprises two articles. The first article, a theoretical perspective based on a literature study, is a critical evaluation of SIA as part of the EIA process in South Africa against the background of international guidelines and best practices. The article includes sections on the historical background of the development of SIA in South Africa, the legal status and requirements of SIA in the country, and a critical evaluation of SIA regulation in South Africa. It was found that the persistent problems of SIA practice, experienced in other parts of the world, are also evident in South Africa. Apart from institutional, financial and professional constraints, there are also serious problems associated with approach and methods. The second article is an evaluation of and recommendations for the improvement of the practice of SIA in the North West Province. An empirical study of 26 EIAs, performed in the province between 1999 and 2002, was done. It was established that in terms of social baseline data, the identification of significant social impacts, specialist studies, public participation, recommended mitigation measures, and the attention paid to social impacts in records of decision (RODS) SIA practice in the North West Province is far from satisfactory. Apathy towards social impacts is associated with a general lack of SIA expertise. The following recommendations are made in the study to improve the level of SIA practice: a system of mandatory registration of SIA practitioners should be introduced; specialized SIA training programmes for SIA practitioners and officials should be developed and accredited; SIA specialists should be used to assess significant social impacts identified in EIAs; a policy framework and code of ethics for SIA practice should be developed; methodological guidelines for SIA should be supplied in or as a supplement to the new EIA guidelines; and the public participation process should be redesigned.