Grassroots Pressure Rises From South Durban

by Oct 1, 2010All Articles

Durban, capital city of the KwaZulu- Natal province, is home to South Africa’s largest petroleum refinery and to 180 smokestack operations. It is an area where working-class communities live in close proximity to chemical and other “dirty” industries. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) is an alliance of civil society organisations fighting the polluting companies in their area. Vanessa Black, Patrick Bond, Rehana Dada and Desmond D’Sa, environmental activists working in the area, reflect on organising for environmental action.

Let’s be frank: we South Africans have been slackers on the most important trend to affect our lives over the coming decades, climate change. The issue is being ignored by our own people, by our municipal representatives, and by the companies doing business in our neighbourhoods.

But we also think that mitigation of the problem is a responsibility of civil society organizations. After all, our neighbourhoods are full of climate tsotsis (gangsters), especially in the petro-chemical, transport and pulp/ paper industries. The impact of climate change will especially be felt in several of South Durban’s vulnerable areas.

South Durban is known as the armpit of South Africa, because sulphur pollution – that rotten egg smell – hangs in the air constantly making fresh air a luxury. Lethal fires break out regularly at badly maintained facilities in the petro-chemical complex, especially the Engen refinery. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are being emitted by major industries at a rate that makes South Durban one of South Africa’s worst climate hot spots.

The oil and chemical companies operating in the South Durban area must transform their production systems if they are to be less destructive. We believe many should vacate our community because of the persistent damage they have caused.

Unfortunately when it comes to climate change, it is not only the corporations who are the enemies of residents and their communities. Service delivery failure also characterises the Durban municipality’s climate policy. Officials have failed to incorporate climate change in economic development planning, leaving all residents and their families far more vulnerable. The lack of proper planning by city officials and political parties has seen them gamble that our city’s future will be based on tourism, major sports events and transport.

This is short-sighted given what we now know about the need for national and global carbon taxes. The municipality’s attempt to profit from climate change through ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ (CDM) carbon trading gimmicks at several landfill sites is not only unworkable, it is also immoral because it allows northern countries and companies  to maintain greenhouse gas emissions while neglecting green alternatives to waste disposal at home. The city’s failure to fund green jobs and the just transition away from fossil fuel addiction is another example of short-sightedness.

City manager Michael Sutcliffe has already littered Durban with failed gambles which skew development in favour of white elephant style development. Examples of this are public subsidies to the Durban International Convention Centre site while public transport bus privatisation, and water and electricity disconnections continue amid a growing housing crisis in the city. In a draconian show of force, police services clamp down hard on communities who protest the lack of services through non-violent marches. The city treats shack dwellers, market traders, organised labour and residents’ organisations with contempt.

In August, SDCEA held a day-long poverty/climate hearing at the Clairwood Tamil Institute Hall. What was evident was that the municipality and national government were continuing on the old, failing path of development. Instead of thinking ahead and responding to the challenge of climate change, government continues to plan around, invest in and prioritise an economy reliant on fossil fuels. An example of this is how the Durban job creation strategy is based on pollutant industries and tourism, generated through international sporting events and conferences. For this the city is being ‘sanitised’ as people’s facilities are cleared.

While South Durban bears the brunt of oil industry pollution most of the area’s residents can’t access adequate public transport to seek jobs, buy food or even get medical treatment for the poor health they suffer as a result of this industry. Nor are essential needs such as clean water and healthy food ensured. Rather than treating South Durban farmers as the treasures they are, and facilitating the passing on of these skills and increasing urban food production, the city continues to relegate farming to marginal land on the municipal outskirts. Increasingly, poor people seeking an honest livelihood centred on local production and consumption – such as the farmers, fisher folk, small traders and barrow boys – are harassed and find themselves competing in an unequal battle with big business for access to resources and our environmental commons.

At the rate the elites in both Copenhagen and Durban are going, it is only through grassroots pressure that they will change their ways. It is up to all of us to save our species from self-destruction, by reversing the corporate and state policies and practices that wreck the planet.

Read more articles from Amandla! Issue#11-12, December 2009/January 2010

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