South Durban: Toxic hub of South Africa leading to environmental degradation
South Durban is the industrial hub of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is home to one of the two biggest oil refineries in South Africa. South Durban has the largest concentration of petrochemical industries in the country, and it refines approximately 60 percent of South Africa’s petroleum. Apart from being overwhelmed with petrochemical companies, the South Durban industrial basin is also home to waste water treatment works, numerous toxic waste landfill sites, an airport, a paper manufacturing plant and a multitude of chemical process industries. In total, the South Durban area contains over 120 industries, including the two oil refineries. This petrochemical basin has been dubbed the Durban poison which disproportionately overburdens low-income communities with environmental stress (pollution) and public health costs.
The discussion of South Durban industrial basin must take into account the apartheid legacy, particularly spatial planning and its impact on black communities (people of colour). It was no coincidence that black communities (generic racial term for Indian, Coloured and African communities) reside close to toxic industries and inhale fumes of environmental injustice. The South Durban basin has a population of approximately 285 000 people, and the black communities comprise an overwhelming majority of this population. The low-income communities are located in the following residential townships, Wentworth, Mere bank, and Bluff.
However, apartheid urban planning ensured that these three racial groups lived apart (segregated) while maintaining separate residential development for white communities. The development of South Durban as an industrial hub, starting in the 1930s, involved collaboration between local industrialists (business people) and the white government (regime). Most of south Durban was deliberately zoned for industrial development, and black communities were forcibly removed to make way for industrial complexes (Desmond Ds, environmental justice activist with South Durban Community Environmental Alliance).
Apartheid spatial planning deliberately sited black residential areas near dirty industries in order to facilitate easy access to cheap labour, and generally these black townships were located within close proximity of toxic dumps, sewerage treatment plants, polluting industries, etc. (Mark Douglas Whitaker, 2001). In addition, black communities were forced to live downstream and downwind from industrial complexes. Coupled with overcrowding in black townships, black communities had to bear with extreme poverty, poor and inhumane working and socioeconomic conditions. The question that one might be asking at the moment is that what had apartheid spatial planning got to do with environmental justice? It is certainly a valid concern. In this case I seek to demonstrate that apartheid was a clear example of environmental injustice that was coupled with human rights abuses, socioeconomic, and public health violations. Its legacy presents post-apartheid South Africa with a mammoth task of redressing these injustices. According to Herten Kalan, Apartheid has left an indelible scar on the environment, which in turn has resulted in numerous hazards to public health and people’s daily lives.
It is analytical paralysis to ignore the impact of apartheid on contemporary problems and challenges facing the new South Africa. I advance that that racial analysis forms the core of an examination of South African problems, and its omission renders the discussion a half-baked cake.
In my opinion, whatever discussion about current problems experienced by post-apartheid South Africa has its roots on the environmental question; environment being broadly defined. Apartheid, even though premised on advancing white superiority in all spheres of society, tapped into the environment to secure resources for promoting separate development that would largely benefit the white community. It thus stimulated environmental scarcity for black communities and consequently creating conditions for conflict in society. Environmental scarcity and violent conflict: the case of South Africa. Thus the environmental (ecological) legacy of apartheid is grim, and will surely influence socio-political and economic conditions of post-apartheid South Africa for decades.
In the previous paragraphs, I present the grim picture of apartheid and its impact on socio-political and economic conditions in South Africa. The institutionalization of apartheid in 1948 gave way to social and political conflict around environmental resources. One could also argue that institutions and structures (social and political) of apartheid served to allocate environmental resources (thus dealing with issues of environmental scarcity) and the containment of conflict (certainly a function of the struggle between social groups competing for the environmental resources). Percival & Homer-Dixon (1995) clearly state that the social and ecological legacies of apartheid will continue to affect the ability of both state and society to meet the expectations, aspirations and needs of a democratic South African population. Such struggles around environmental resources still continue in post-apartheid South Africa, and thus the question of environmental scarcity is critical to our understanding of environmental justice.
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDEA) represents the growing commitment of local communities seeking environmental justice and redress of past injustices associated with apartheid. The case will demonstrate how the local communities in South Durban have galvanized their resources to shift the balance of power, patterns of socio-political interaction, accountability and social responsibility of corporate interests. I will show how the South Durban low-income communities perceive the social impact of environmental scarcities (in this case, lack of clean air and a healthy environment) and their attempt to correct environmental injustice. The ability of South Durban low-income communities to perceive environmental injustice and seek redress is a major achievement since it creates an impetus for challenging the status quo. In my opinion, grievance-generation, which is closely associated with a commonly identified problem, promotes community mobilization for action.
Engen Refinery in South Durban is a business unit of the Engen Petroleum Limited, a wholly subsidiary of Engen Limited, South Africa. Engen Limited is however a subsidiary of a Malaysian National Oil Company, Petroliam National Berthed (Petronas). In mid-1996, Petronas purchased a 30% stake and controlling interest in Engen. It was considered a major success story of foreign investment (worth approximately US$460 million) in that decade, and in 1999 Petronas became the sole owner of Engen.
The Engen refinery in South Durban is the focus of environmental concern about industrial pollution. Apart from being the largest oil refinery in Durban as well as one of the two largest sources of sulphur dioxide pollution in South Durban, Engen Refinery is closely located to two residential low income black communities, Mere bank and Wentworth. Its immediate adjacent proximity to these two communities optimizes for many the problems of industry’s impact on public health and the problems of quality of Black communities. During the apartheid era, the refinery was considered a strategic infrastructure or National Key Point, and thus was able to avoid close scrutiny from the public regarding its environmental impact and public health costs. The refinery operated under the Official Secrets Act, which prevented us from dealing at any level with the public about the business a refinery manager’s view as quoted by Sven Peek. The refinery was also encircled in a razor wire, guard towers, and symbolically, this characterized the fortress mentality inherent in most supposedly strategic industries in the apartheid economy.
The environmental costs of the Engen refinery in South Durban could be traced back to the period it operated as Mobil Oil refinery. In the late 1980s the Mere bank local community (the Mere bank Ratepayers Association) complained about refinery management’s unresponsiveness to environmental pollution. A memorandum was forwarded to the refinery management in 1990, and it raised community concerns regarding the refinery’s pollution and problem areas.
The community identified the problem areas to include regular flaring, sulphur dioxide emissions, and oil spills, etc. However, the management responded by arguing that the pollution was wind-blown from other factories, flaring occurred for safety reasons, and that some oil spillage was beyond their control. However, with the ushering of a new democratic era in 1994, Engen had to revisit its relationship with the South Durban community. The wind of change driven by 1994 democratic elections required Engen doing business differently and being in alignment with the national discourse favouring consultation with locally affected communities. Essentially, we witness during this period an attempt by Engen to step out of its fortress mentality and to seek consultation with the local community.
A study by the University of Natal medical school found that children in the suburbs south of Durban are up to four times likely to suffer from chest complaints than children from other areas of the city of Durban. The school children in South Durban also bear the public health costs of the petrochemical industries, and have to content with bad smells generated by those industries. For example, attendance figures at Settlers Primary School are perceived to go down when the wind blows toxic emissions into the classrooms. This school is located between two colossal refineries, Engen and SAPREF. In November 2000, the school had to call in paramedics to deal with more than 100 children suffering temporary respiratory problems. However, the main challenge facing the community is that there is little medical empirical evidence to support community claims that petrochemical industries are responsible for the incidences of cancer, leukaemia, and respiratory problems in the community. In other words, the South Durban community recognizes the problematic nature of hard evidence connecting the polluters (petrochemical industries) to localized health problems.
They however understand that their families are exposed disproportionately to environmental stressors than other communities in Durban. Furthermore, the South Durban community is aware of the loops within South Africa’s environmental legislation, and has therefore taken initiative to step in to enforce environmental responsibility on the part of petrochemical industries. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance represents a concerted effort of community representatives in seeking environmental quality and industrial responsibility in environmental care.
The central problem with South African environment legislation is the lack of clearly defined legislation to control air pollution. There is essentially no legally binding air pollution regulation in South Africa, and pollution control is facilitated through non-binding guidelines. Thus, in the absence of a regulatory or enforcement government agency, polluting industries rely on their own good will or community pressure to ensure environmental responsibility.
Solutions for the Environmental Health of Communities
• Clean Power Plan Community Page
This website provides resources to help inform overburdened communities about the final Clean Power Plan and the proposed Federal Plan Requirements for Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electric Utility Generating Units Constructed on or Before January 8, 2014; Modelling Rules.
• Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in Low-Income Communities
Energy efficiency and renewable energy provide multiple benefits to low-income communities, including cost savings, job creation, improved air quality, and healthier homes. This webpage provides resources for state and local governments and other organizations implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy programs to help them overcome barriers that often prevent effective delivery of such programs to low-income communities.
• Environmental Justice
Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, colour, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation.
1. Defining the “urban” While there is no unequivocal definition of what comprises “urbanity” there are nonetheless some basic characteristics that are agreed. At its most basic, an urban setting is defined in relation to, or as forming a core characteristic of, a city or town. Furthermore, urban areas include demarcated geographic zones of dense human habitation and a degree of physical separation from rural areas. While intrinsic features of urban settings, demographers and urban planners generally concede that size and density alone are insufficient criteria of urbanity. 76 Notwithstanding these features – administrative demarcation, dense populations, separation from rural areas – definitions of what comprises urban vary significantly from country to country and city to city. Indeed, most states apply a core set of variables in their definition which often includes a demographic threshold and an index of urban functions which are typically linked to the absence of agricultural land and rural employment. Depending on all of these criteria, then, countries can be described as either majority urban or rural
2. . An urban setting is defined in relation to cities and towns. Cities are administrative areas of dense human habitation which are separated from rural settings and concentrate various forms of power in relation to outlying settlements. There is a longstanding debate on the influence of cities on social order and organization. The rapid growth of cities in lower- and middle-income settings is challenging conventional interpretations. There is a new lexicon emerging to describe cities ranging from “city regions” and “conurbations” to “mega cities” and “mega slums”. Slums are also expanding in number and size and are informal settlements located either in the center of cities or peri-urban areas and exhibiting limited access to services, extensive overcrowding, unhealthy conditions and hazardous locations, poor quality housing and founded on insecure, irregular and non-tenure