Environmental racism

2013-05-15 00:00

FOR the government, Transnet and the eThekwini Municipality, the proposed expansion of the Durban harbour is a no-brainer. It’s an integral part of the national development strategy and it will promote trade, create jobs and bolster economic growth.

The fact that people living in the area stand to be negatively impacted by the development is a minor inconvenience. They’re collateral damage in the path of progress.

This being South Africa, of course, any opposition to national priorities is sure to descend into an argument over race in a few easy steps. When Transnet’s CEO Brian Molefe asked the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance’s (SDCEA) Desmond D’Sa: “Do you want to take us back? Do you want to deny black people jobs and development, just to save some frogs?”, the chairperson of the veteran environmental right’s group must have been rather perplexed.

After all, the constituency D’Sa represents consists largely of low-income Indian and African families, who, in the past, were routinely exposed to severe environmental hazards on top of standard-issue apartheid racial discrimination. The message seems clear: they and the state of the neighbourhood they live in didn’t matter then and they still don’t matter today.

But the inhabitants of the South Durban Basin have had enough and are leading the charge against the R250 billion mega-project, which involves an expansion of the existing port, a brand-new dig-out harbour on the site of the city’s old airport, as well as associated infrastructural changes and road extensions.

It’s not hard to understand why. For decades, they have been surrounded by some of the most toxic industrial installations imaginable. They’ve regularly been exposed to oil leaks, explosions, chemical spills, noxious smells and poisonous emissions from the two crude oil refineries, the several landfills, the country’s two largest paper mills and busiest container port, as well as the numerous chemical plants and factories located in their backyard.

Studies have documented elevated levels of dangerous chemicals in the sea water and air here, and investigations have found rates of asthma and leukaemia that are substantially higher than in most other parts of South Africa. Kids in the area are up to four times more likely to be suffering from chest complaints than children living elsewhere in Durban.

Naturally, the locals are concerned about the impacts the new and expanded port will have on their environment and their lives. These include, among others:

• the displacement of thousands of households;

• increased truck traffic in an area already plagued by high rates of road accidents;

• even more polluting industries;

• increased carbon emissions and vulnerability to the effects of climate change;

• loss of biodiversity and unique ecosystems — the area of the old Durban airport happens to be one of the largest remaining home ranges of Pickersgill’s reed frog (Hyperolius pickersgilli), one of the world’s rarest frogs and presumably the amphibian that so incenses the Transnet CEO; and

• a further threat to the few remaining and fragile estuarine habitats in the region, including mangrove forests, tidal flats and sandbanks, all of which are important to a number of endemic and migratory marine and bird species.

What’s more, anti-port activists like D’Sa aren’t against development per se. They just don’t like it when it’s guaranteed to be harmful to people and the environment. They are interested in integrated “high-employment, community-strengthening development”, but complain about a supposedly holistic public participation and consultation process that appears to be intended as little more than a rubber-stamping exercise.

So is this really a case of environmental racism then? Sure, but not in the twisted logic with which Molefe seems to approach the subject. What are the chances that the project would even have been proposed if the area was predominantly inhabited by white people?

But it’s time to move the analysis forward just a little. More than being an example of environmental racism, this is a case of environmental elitism and of environmental classism.

The people in the South Durban Basin, regardless of their skin colour, simply don’t matter a whole lot in the calculations and machinations of those who are supposedly leading all of us towards progress and prosperity. And that’s the main reason they deserve the support of the rest of us.

— News 24.

• Andreas Späth is a

freelance writer with a

PhD in geochemistry.

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