South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the southernmost country in Africa. With over 60 million people, it is the world’s 23rd-most populous nation. South Africa is a multi-ethnic society encompassing a wide variety of cultures, languages, and religions. Its pluralistic makeup is reflected in the constitution’s recognition of 11 official languages, the fourth-highest number in the world
South Africans now enjoy equal citizenship rights by virtue of living in a democracy. The rights include basic civil liberties, democratic participation and representation. The South African Constitution recognises the rights of the citizen, including to a healthy environment and well-being. It also states pollution should be prevented and conservation encouraged.
However, this poses a lot of questions of the right and responsibility of the citizens and the state. Who is to guarantee there is no pollution, the citizen or the state? Who should be monitoring and enforcing this? Are multinational companies bound by this constitution?
These issues came to surface in the city of Durban, which is an industrial hub. The south of Durban industrial basin has the country’s 2nd largest concentration of industrial activity, including oil, pulp and chemical factories. It also suffers with the worst pollution in the nation, both on the land, water and air. For many, the residents suffer with a range of health issues like cancer, asthma and more, and they need to address companies whose headquarters are on the other side of the world.
What was causing the pollution?
There are many factors that contribute to pollution, the most prominent being urbanisation and industrialisation, in part due to population increases. The river systems of the Durban Harbour catchments are no exception, and the three prominent rivers are surrounded by industrial output. Around Durban are several hazardous waste dumps, fibre plants, the Mondi paper mill, hazardous chemical storage facilities, a major airport and more than 150 industries which are dependent on crude oil (Jaggernath, 2011). Durban includes two oil refineries SAPREF (Shall and BP South African Refineries) and a Malaysian owned oil company called Petronas, which controls the Engen refinery. There refineries are the primary cause of air pollution such as soot and sulphur dioxide.
The lack of effective practices to properly contain and dispose of waste is causing unnecessary suffering of citizens and the environment. The government and multinational corporations need to take greater responsibility in listening to affected peoples, but also, instil better practices.
Who is responsible for the pollution?
The responsibility of pollution is under scrutiny and whether the multinational companies should adhere to the constitution or whether the South African government should do more to enforce the constitution. More legislation is needed to enforce policies and preserve the constitution on protecting citizens.
According to Peek (2002), conflict between industries and local communities arose when Mondi purchased land from the Durban Council during the apartheid era, and began its operations without consulting surrounding communities. Wiley et al. (2002) indicates that there are inadequate measures in place to mitigate poor operational practices in industries that have resulted and continue to result in oil spills and industrial accidents.
In 2021, GroundWork reported that Thor Chemicals, a United Kingdom owned company that had operated in the country from the 1970s, had finally begun cleaning up toxic mercury-rich waste at Cato Ridge, in accordance with the instructions of the Davis Commission in 1995. Dolphin Coast Air Pollution also reported that 5,000 tons of waste from the UPL warehouse, containing toxic chemicals such as arsenic, atrazine and bromoxynil, had been dumped at a landfill near Kwadukuza. On two separate occasions, readings had shown that the levels of benzene in the air were 12 times the limit set by the national ambient air quality standard. This report highlighted how important licensing and location of dumps was paramount to safety, as high rainfall in the region increases the risk of leachate, while there was a need to create air quality monitoring stations in the area.
What role did transnational organisations have?
The citizens used their transnational links to approach scientific expertise to support their case. One example was the ‘Bucket Brigade’ which collected air samples in buckets and sent it to research centres in the USA to be analysed. With the results, activists could confront local and national bodies about pollution. Activists also used links to Denmark, and the ‘Society for the Protection of Nature in Denmark’, to compare the air quality of Durban with the levels produced in Denmark. Results showed the levels of Sulphur Dioxide was far greater in Durban, and it is a cause of respiratory problems. This example illustrates the proximity between two distant nations brought together through globalisation.
The transnational corporations were seen as the cause of the pollution, and activists targeted them in order to produce change. The activists extended their reach to influence the corporations, including Shell and BP. Partnering with Friends of the Earth, activists sought to make the transnational corporations more accountable for their business practises. Producing ‘The Other Shell Report’ which coincided with Shells annual shareholders meeting, it campaigned directly to Shell to lobby against their operations in the world.
What is being done about pollution?
From 1994, there have been prominent political campaigns to mobilise the people and to address pollution in the area. With their new political power, local activists made use of their voting ability in the 1994 elections. They mobilised local people to support their anti-pollution campaign as a means to improve living standards. The media became an important mechanism to raise awareness of the issues and create a response from the government. In response to the activism, the government set up research into the effects of the pollution and put monitoring in place to counter it. This is an example of collective action and mobilising support from local and national citizens.
Research revealed that the distribution of environmental risks and hazards were disproportionate towards low-income groups, racial minorities, and other marginalised groups (Grineski et al. 2007). During and even after apartheid, zoning policies exposed Black South Africans to overcrowded areas, often located downwind or downstream from industrial complexes (Durning, 1990).
Nevertheless, pollution still occurs at the detriment of residents and the local environment. Research has found that many are not informed of meetings to address pollution or have their voices heard, while many are keen to migrate away from the area if compensated adequately (Jaggernath, 2011). Some respondents as well have noted that the legal framework to tackle pollution and the polluters is not robust enough as corporations would prefer to pay a fine than invest in better practices.
The Western Cape Air Quality Management Plan (2021 – 2025) was released as an extension of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act 39 (2004). It places an emphasis on the management of air quality and the link between air pollution and climate change. The plan provides actions to reduce greenhouse gases emission and its associated carbon footprint, in line with national and international requirements on climate change.
There is still ongoing work to address the issues in Durban pertaining to pollution, including research papers to be submitted to government, compensating victims of pollution and holding the corporations accountable for their operations.
Research the most prominent polluters in South Durban and see if they have committed to tackling pollution arising from their operations. Has the government enforced any new policies or legislation to tackle pollution or compensate victims?