The people’s watchdog

2013-10-31 00:00

“AWATCHDOG snapping at the heels of errant companies,” that’s how the first sentence of the citation of the 2013 Diakonia Human Rights Award given to Desmond D’Sa describes him.

D’Sa, one of the main drivers in the creation of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), has built up a reputation as a tenacious environmental activist, but his view of the environment is an inclusive one; the word “community” comes up a lot in conversation and a sense of community has been a constant in his life.

D’Sa was born into the tight-knit multiracial community of Cato Manor in 1956. “I was the 11th of 13 children. All girls above me and two brothers below me.

“Being born in Cato Manor influenced my life. We lived in tin houses but we mixed with everyone. I learnt to speak Zulu at an early age. I grew up liking Zulu food — pap and herbs. We swam in the river. If there was a celebration at the mosque, we chowed at the mosque; we would go to the Hindu fire-walking — there was always something happening.

“But I also saw the brutality of the apartheid police, the ‘blackjacks’”.

They came with the implementation of the Group Areas Act in the sixties, when D’Sa’s family found itself broken up and scattered.

“They decided where we went according to our hair and our skin colour. Some went to Chatsworth, Umlazi, Newlands East, Wentworth. I said ‘no’ to Wentworth — I saw the red sand and said ‘how we can leave the black soil where we could grow things and where there was a running river, for this’.”

D’Sa eventually moved to a small council flat in Austerville. “I stayed there with my mother. I still live in the same flat today, with my wife Beatrice. Our three children are spread all over.”

D’Sa first became involved in community work when gangs became a problem in Wentworth. “This was in the seventies and early eighties,” he recalls. “The critical reason for gangs was the overcrowding — we needed to redevelop the area.”

It was an area without parks, open spaces, or any other facilities for the community. D’Sa embarked on community work to bring about peace and this resulted in the formation of the Wentworth Development Forum. “We built six parks and a community hall,” says D’Sa. “There were all sorts of things happening. There were soccer clubs, rugby clubs, hockey clubs, youth groups and vibrant NGOs, such as the Trauma Unit and Wings of Love.

“Those early years were spent on the gangs, nothing to do with the environment.” The foundation for D’Sa’s environmental activism came via working in the textile and petrochemical industries of south Durban, first with the Frame group, then Durban Fibres and Sasol. He was also active as a shop steward. D’Sa dates the beginnings of his environmental activism to 1994, when a company called Chemico closed down. “They just upped and went. They took out the machinery and left. Gates were left unlocked. There were chemicals all over the place. Children went in and started eating the chemicals.”

Concerns such as this, together with air quality and the high rates of asthma and cancer in the area, led to the formation of SDCEA in 1996, an alliance of 16 community organisations from the Bluff, Isipingo, Umlazi, Wentworth and Merebank areas.

Some battles were won. “In 1998, in a good neighbourly agreement with Engen, we saw sulphur output reduced by 60 tons from 80 tons per annum,” says D’Sa.

South Durban now boasts the best air-quality monitoring stations in the country. But health studies undertaken in the area give little cause for comfort. One in 2002 found that south Durban had the highest asthma rates in the world.

“The rate of cancer is 500 times the norm and there is also an increase in mental illness attributable to the heavy metals in the air. The findings justified what I had been saying all along, despite Engen and Mondi trying to gag me.”

Today, D’Sa says things have improved. “But people are still dying from the aftereffects. Cancer here is worse than HIV.”

D’Sa has travelled the world investigating how the petrochemical giants work. “I’ve been to the U.S. to see how they operate in their own back yard,” he says. “”When I visited refineries in Denmark, it was clear Shell has double standards in Africa.”

D’Sa has also challenged the boards of Anglo-American (Mondi, which has a paper mill in south Durban, is a subsidiary) and Shell, at their annual meetings in London, thanks to having a single share in each company.

In visits to Britain and Amsterdam, D’Sa combined with the Friends of the Earth to protest outside Shell’s London offices and its headquarters in The Hague. “Through this campaign, Shell was forced to change its rotten pipelines in south Durban.”

D’Sa is also a founding member of the Right2Know campaign, a coalition of organisations and individuals opposing the Protection of State Information Bill. “We are worried about National Key Points and state infrastructure projects. When Nelson Mandela was in government, access to information was fine but as soon as he left there was a corporate capture of our government.”

Currently high on the agenda is the proposed Durban dig-out port. “All the beaches on the Amanzimtoti side and along the Bluff will be affected by soil erosion,” says D’Sa. “This will negatively impact on tourism.”

D’Sa is critical of the economic feasibility of the project, as well as the removal of people who will be affected. “It will result in thousands of people having to leave their homes. Some of those affected are farmers who were forced out of Springfield Flats for Macro 25 years ago. They have a history of farming going back 90 years.

“We don’t need to create a new port, we need to create small industry in places such as south Durban. Vibrant industries get rid of crime.”

Vibrant industries provide employment and sustain communities. D’Sa comes full circle, drawing on a memory of his childhood to illustrate a point concerning Durban harbour.

“When I grew up, as a child, we would catch the train at Bellair station and pay 10 cents to go to Congella and then walk to the harbour, where we would fish and swim. All that’s been destroyed. How many children today know about the harbour? The birds, the mangroves, the seaweed — all this will be gone. It deserves to be protected for our children.

“We must do all we can to create a better world. A better world is possible if we all play our role — we can’t leave it up to industries and governments.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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