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‘Ecological despair is beginning to fuel society’s anger’

Several beaches along the KZN north coast remained closed following the chemical spill after the July 2021 unrest. Picture: Supplied

Several beaches along the KZN north coast remained closed following the chemical spill after the July 2021 unrest. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 15, 2022

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By Desmond D’Sa and Patrick Bond

The eThekwini Municipality has performed very poorly in recent months and years when it comes to addressing environmental problems, and as with irresponsible polluting corporations, the citizenry is fed up. The most spectacular failure of policy, regulation and business practice was the UPL chemical inferno in Cornubia last July, a catastrophe that poisoned the surrounding area for months and probably decades, given how long the toxic stew will take to be absorbed.

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The shocking damage to human health – in ways we may not know for years to come – and wildlife could not be disguised during the last half of 2021, so finally Environment Minister Barbara Creecy showed initiative in having UPL criminally charged.

We are still bothered by ongoing UPL waste removal controversies including potential dumping in the ocean and/or landfills, the slowness of state prosecutors apparently tackling UPL, the extent of reparations for both clean-up and health liabilities owed by UPL, the lack of transparency about the dangerous materials stored so close to residences and the main highway, and the lack of appropriate security and fire-fighting equipment on site.

The original “fast-track” approval in the Cornubia presidential infrastructure project meant the notorious Mumbai firm set up a dangerous warehouse in Durban, neglecting to respect even our weak national, provincial and municipal non-enforcement of environmental regulations. The full set of fast-track investment-incentive offerings to filthy firms needs review so that state capture for the sake of Foreign Direct Investment ends once and for all.

But Durban residents are sick of an economic mal-development model which made us so vulnerable to last July’s chaotic looting and arson. This model features far too many transport logistics import operations that have taken the place of our once powerful labour-intensive industries.

What were once vibrant factories are now just warehouses, either in the strip reaching from Clairwood to Jacobs to Mobeni, or new ones built along the N2 and N3 since the 1990s when transport was deregulated. They easily fall prey to attack, as we saw in July.

Since an ecologically sound freight-transport shift – i.e., moving shipping containers from current road haulage to rail – is supposedly a Transnet objective, it is disheartening to see the “build back the same” philosophy applied to scores of looted facilities, by the government, insurers and wholesale firms. Another burst of unrest involving mass looting could well occur along the same lines. Indeed, without major new state employment-generation and social welfare programmes, more social strife appears inevitable.

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And we will end up cursing those state officials and corporate leaders who simply repeat business as usual. The same inability to learn was reflected in the farcical way the municipality just dealt with the contamination of Umgeni River water, seen in the plume that shut down many beaches.

Placing blame for unacceptably poor quality bathing conditions on water hyacinths last week was tomfoolery, because we all know that high Ecoli levels continue to threaten our rivers – whether next to the sewage pumping stations our municipal security forgets to guard properly, or from the streams that flow into Durban’s rivers, traversing unserviced low-income residential areas.

Even after nearly 28 years of racial liberation and democracy, ethekwini Water and Sanitation refuses to provide decent toilets in shack settlements, where the vast majority of inhabitants are black African.

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For our residents to resort to paraffin, coal and wood to meet energy needs is just as shameful as the many clashes between security guards and shack dwellers who need to hook up to wires illegally because the city and Eskom haven’t rolled out services. The energy Durban residents are forced to consume is from coal-fired power plants, so climate chaos will be with us for the foreseeable future, with Durban one of the worst municipalities in Africa in per capita emissions.

Our government officials, corporations and high-polluting individuals – the top 1% does more harm than the bottom 50% – cannot put aside crony-capitalist influence, profits and overconsumption, and reverse their untenable greenhouse gas emissions. The offshore gas explorations that Shell Oil and Johnny Copelyn’s Impact Africa began south of Durban, on the Wild Coast, were at least paused after about a month’s seismic blasting, thanks to a Makhanda High Court’s ruling. But even more worrying is the West Coast blasting on blocks licensed by Impact Africa, Shell, Total and Petrosa scheduled to have begun on January 15. On top of that is the plan of Transnet and the World Bank to establish a Liquefied Natural Gas (methane) terminal at Richards Bay, which would take the gas directly through new pipelines to Eskom’s Mpumalanga power plants for conversion of coal-to-methane fired electricity generation.

Andre de Ruyter’s leadership of Eskom worsens South Africa’s official climate denialism, because in the next 20 years, that methane has an adverse impact on global heating 80 times worse than carbon dioxide. And as De Ruyter attempts to import more LNG from Mozambique for these generators, that will take him further up the coast to Cabo Delgado, where the SA army is defending Total, Exxonmobil, ENI and China National Petroleum Corporation against Islamic insurgents.

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With 3 000 dead since the conflict began in 2017, the future import of this blood methane (from the world’s fourth largest gas field) will mean our export industries remain among the most climate-destructive due to the embedded Eskom electricity.

That in turn will catalyse the “Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism” climate sanctions against South Africa that are due to start in 2023 and become financially crippling by 2026, according to the latest EU plans.

While it is great news that the long five-year Eastern Cape drought has now broken, it was Day Zero for many areas, just as the same threat was nearly realised in Cape Town four years ago. Mega-storms like Cyclone Eloise that a year ago tore through Limpopo and Mpumalanga after beginning in the fast-heating Mozambique current, were felt here in the two Rain Bombs of October 2017 and April 2019. The latter’s enormous damage included 71 deaths in Durban and the South Coast, mostly low-income black Africans.

All this ecological despair is finally beginning to fuel society’s anger, and so in 2022, we anticipate even more citizens will come out to protest the current high-polluting nexus of big business, the Durban municipality, KZN province and government.

* D’SA co-ordinated the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance; Bond teaches sociology at the University of Johannesburg and is co-author of the forthcoming City of Rascals: The Uneven Development of Durban.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media and IOL.

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