South Durban’s battle royal

2013-04-28 14:00

Community refuses to be railroaded by Transnet and the government, writes Lloyd Gedye

‘Isee your shirt says you are against the port expansion. Why?” asked Transnet CEO Brian Molefe as he confronted south Durban community leader Desmond D’sa on the steps of the Wentworth Community Hall.

After D’sa told him he’d lodged, in writing, the objections of his organisation, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, to Transnet and the eThekwini Municipality, and did not want to argue, Molefe told him: “You are a liar. You don’t understand democracy. You are irresponsible and you are lying to the community.

“Do you want to take us back?” Molefe continued. “Do you want to deny black people jobs and development, just to save some frogs?”

D’sa did not respond to this oversimplification of his neighbourhood’s concerns, nor did he react to Molefe’s playing of the race card.

But this confrontation speaks volumes about the state of engagement around Durban’s port expansion and the new dig-out port planned for the city.

Molefe, with Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba and Transport Minister Ben Martins, hosted a community meeting two weeks ago to sell the port plans to Wentworth residents.

D’sa attended as chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, a coalition of 14 environmental, community and church groups, formed in 1995.

“We are not against development,” he later told City Press, but he insists that if government and Transnet think they can bulldoze over community concerns, they have another think coming.

So why has it come to this?

According to Transnet and eThekwini documents released for public comment, the Durban port can accommodate 2.9 million containers and Transnet predicts an 8% annual increase in their number.

If they are correct, this means they will run out of capacity by 2019.

The planned expansion to the existing port – and the new dig-out port to be built on land in the suburb of Reunion occupied by the old Durban airport – will increase capacity to 20 million containers.

In terms of the South African economy, the port expansion and new dig-out port are “not a nice-to-have”, as one eThekwini official explained.

In fact, the port plans are integral to the second strategic infrastructure project of the presidential infrastructure coordinating commission. It also forms part of the National Planning Commission’s development plan.

But the ramifications for the Durban suburbs of Athlone Park, Isipingo Beach, Merewent, Austerville, Merebank, Treasure Beach, Wentworth, Jacobs, the Bluff, Umbilo and Clairwood, and those who live there are very real.

Some, such as Clairwood, are already feeling the impact of being situated close to the existing port.

A drive through Clairwood is depressing.

Rubbish is piled on street corners, sometimes containing bags of faeces because of the lack of proper sewerage.

Sex workers and drug dealers populate the streets, while illegal trucking businesses have set up next to residential homes, with up to 10 trucks parked in yards. The roads, not built for this sort of traffic, are riddled with potholes.

The city says there were 7 379 truck-related accidents on municipal land in 2011, in which 72 people died and 210 were injured.

The south Durban community is not prepared to accept this status quo.

Last April, they occupied Solomon Mahlangu Drive, which joins Umbilo to the Bluff, to protest against the truck deaths.

Government and Transnet plan to increase rail freight from the port by between 25% and 73% of total freight by 2041, reducing road freight from 75% to 27%.

But this does not mean a decrease in the number of trucks on the roads because of the extra capacity the port expansion plans will bring.

The actual number of trucks is expected to increase by 123% over the next 30 years.

“The city has purposefully allowed Clairwood to degenerate into this hellhole,” said environmentalist Bobby Peek from groundWork, who works with the community to fight heavy polluters.

“Historically, south of Umbilo River has been a free-for-all,” he said, adding that south Durban has become an industrial hub with hazardous petrochemical and paper companies moving in next to working class residents.

A submission on the port-expansion plans by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and Earthlife Africa says the residents have health concerns.

“Studies in the area have shown the severe health crisis that has resulted,” says the document. “Children living in Merebank have higher rates of persistent asthma (32%) than children from Umlazi (17%), further away from the industry.”

Some schools in the area have reported asthma occurring among more than half of their pupils (52%). A recent study confirmed that cancer rates in Merebank are 24 times higher than in most other parts of the country.

When City Press attended a community meeting on the port plans in Umbilo late last year, the 100 residents there were asked to raise their hands if a friend or family member had cancer or a breathing complaint. More than a third raised their hands.

But pollution, trucks, prostitution and drugs are not south Durban’s only concerns.

KwaZulu-Natal subsistence fishermen are fighting Transnet for access to traditional fishing grounds, and a number of environmental NGOs have raised concerns over the destruction of endangered species and ecosystems at the dig-out port site, as well as the current harbour.

Added to this are 16 farmers, who employ hundreds of workers to farm 187 hectares of the old Durban airport land.

They had leased the land from Airports Company SA since the 1980s, but their future is now uncertain.

It’s not just their livelihood that is of concern. They also are a major source of affordable fruit, vegetables and flowers for the south Durban area.

In addition, environmentalists say the dig-out port will wipe out a large chunk of the habitat of one of the world’s rarest frogs.

The Pickersgill’s reed frog is confined to scattered pieces of land totalling 9km2, of which the old airport forms more than 2.3km2.

It is clear that the community has real concerns, regardless of whether Molefe wants to make light of their concerns and reduce them to “saving frogs”.

The community has even reached out to Transnet and the government, inviting them to address their members.

One such proposed meeting was meant to take place a week ago, but Transnet and Gigaba refused the invitation, hosting their own gathering the previous weekend in Wentworth instead.

The SA National Civic Organisation was there and, when City Press asked the members where they were from, they replied: “KwaMashu”.

Asked why they came, they said they were promised jobs.

It remains to be seen whether or not this was a case of bussing in a less confrontational crowd for public engagement.

What they said:

Transnet spokesperson Mboniso Sigonyela:

» On the Wentworth community engagement: “This was an engagement session for affected communities in the area. We are not aware of people who were promised jobs for attendance.”

» On the altercation between Brian Molefe and Desmond D’sa: “We disagree that the conversation was nasty, nor was it an attack. It was, however, a robust discussion on a matter of fact. So we stand by our words.

“Mr D’sa has been telling people that Transnet is planning forced removals in order to develop the proposed dig-out port. Neither Transnet nor the city has indicated an intention for forced removals to accommodate the port. When queried over these statements, Mr D’sa declined to answer. He was further queried about a message on the T-shirt he was wearing. He declined to engage, saying he was entitled to wear the misleading T-shirt. It was at that point that Mr Molefe pointed out that Mr D’sa does not understand democracy and that it is not about misleading people about nonexistent problems.

“That is the context in which the conversation took place.

“With regards to the statement about black people, it is our view that lack of investment, which Mr D’sa is advocating, hurts African people the most.

“Therefore, the proposed infrastructure programme for Durban will be of great benefit to them.”

» On the consultation process: “Transnet is aware of the request for a single forum, which provides feedback and information on all related infrastructure projects that affect the area.

“This was made by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and its affiliates. We have elevated the matter to the Strategic Integrated Project 2 steering committee.

“We believe that the committee is in the process of establishing a common platform for stakeholder engagement, as requested.”

» On the Isipingo farmers: “Farmers operating on the properties already acquired by Transnet are on month-on-month contracts. We are currently in talks with a view to agreeing on longer-term contracts, as there is no immediate need to relocate farmers at this stage.”

» On the KwaZulu-Natal subsistence fishermen: “Our management at the Port of Durban is engaging with the fishermen and other users with regards to access to facilities under Transnet’s control.”

At the time of going to print, the department of transport and eThekwini Municipality had not responded to questions. The department of public enterprises referred questions to Transnet.

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