We are all aware of the fragility of our local and global public health systems, as the coronavirus moves across the world with terrifying speed. But we must not forget the slow killers that continue to do enormous damage in South Africa’s most vulnerable communities, as toxic pollution kills hundreds, and leave the rest of our immune systems compromised. And we also remember with acute misery the death and destruction in our area that occurred Easter Monday, 2018: more than 70 Durban and South Coast residents were killed by the Rain Bomb that dumped 168 mm in 24 hours, thanks to climate chaos caused mainly by petrochemical and fossil fuel corporations. These include BP, Shell, Engen and hundreds of high-carbon industrial polluters based here in South Durban.

But the crises are not just these explosive incidents. On a daily basis, our South Durban communities bear the brunt of fossil fuel and petrochemical industries adjacent to their homes. Over the past sixty-five years, residing in South Durban has been a nightmare for residents who coexist with corporations which act with impunity in search of higher profits, and, worse still, which are not held accountable for their actions by those government officials responsible for the protection of health.

For decades, people have breathed in toxic fumes released from fossil fuel and petrochemical industries in South Durban. This has resulted in extremely high levels of asthma, cancer and other respiratory problems. The attack on our health is worse because of the relatively low height of smokestacks and chimneys (just 50-100 meters) due to long-standing restrictions attributable to airplane flight paths. Yet in 2010, the old Durban International Airport was relocated to the far north of Durban so the state should have forced the huge oil and chemical firms to raise their smokestacks. Government’s failure to protect us is no surprise.

The South Durban basin topography and local climatic conditions have not helped, as the toxins released stay in the valley and affect a wide area. The Bluff dams up the air that drains downward off the Berea ridge through the river valleys and into the basin trapping the pollution. Off-shore winds also blow pollutants back onto land, especially at Umbogintwini and Amanzimtoti. In winter, the evening temperature inversions compound this problem by keeping pollution close to the ground and preventing it from dispersing upward.

The costs of ill health are particularly burdensome for the poor and – because we still lack a National Health Insurance – can drive households from poverty to destitution. But it has been difficult for communities to tackle the persistent air pollution problems they have experienced over the years. The two biggest petrochemical polluters are Engen and Sapref (BP/Shell) oil refineries. They were historically protected from any public scrutiny by the Apartheid Key Points Act, giving them free reign to pollute. Many other factories and companies in South Durban also contribute enormously to air pollution, e.g. paper and pulp industries Mondi and SAPPI.

SDCEA together with residents have been at the forefront of human rights and environmental justice for over two decades, with special attention paid to watchdogging air quality in the South Durban area. SDCEA conducts air monitoring on a regular basis and we find that refineries and industries are constantly emitting harmful pollutants. This is experienced most severely by the fence-line communities: Umlazi, Lamontville, Merebank, Wentworth, Clairwood and the Bluff. The South Durban crisis in which toxins soak our air is known locally, nationally and internationally, and is regularly brought to the attention of local health, provincial and national environmental officials, including the Green Scorpions. But the state is captured by polluters, and they simply fail to deal with our problems.

Since the mid-1990s when SDCEA began organising, numerous engagements with eThekwini city health department, the national and provincial environment officials, and the Green Scorpions have achieved no outcome, resulting in communities perpetually frustrated by the lack of action and the feeble excuses. On only one occasion were we surprised by a positive action by a politician: in October 2011 when Engen’s massive explosion – hospitalising more than 100 children at the Settlers Primary school who were burned by flying oil drops – the provincial environment MEC (Lydia Johnson) told Engen that they were now under threat of closure due to negligence. The next day she was fired.

In the last meeting SDCEA held with the city health department, on the 23rd of May 2019, city officials agreed to preparing a terms of reference and holding quarterly meetings specifically to discuss the air quality in South Durban, industry non-compliance and the lack of action in response to pollution complaints amongst other grievances. To date, nothing has materialised from those deliberations.

Last November 27, SDCEA accepted an invitation to testify at Parliament’s Air Quality briefing in Cape Town. Five stakeholders were supposed to present: eThekwini health department, groundWork, SDCEA, Engen and Sapref.Engen attended but Sapref didn’t. Two representatives from government presented on the status of air pollution in South Durban. The two civil society groups presented on air monitoring and the health crisis.

The one oil company that attended presented on the company’s business. Engen claimed that the company is doing well in reducing and monitoring air pollution. But Engen failed to present certain facts about the regular fires, explosions, continuous flaring, and the gas and chemical leaks. In their presentation they failed to explain why there is a constant release of benzene on the fence line of the Merebank and Austerville communities. This corridor has for over 25 years constantly smelled of benzene, a noxious, life-threatening chemical. Engen is well aware of the recommendations of health studies that call for a reduction plan for all the chemicals been emitted by the company over the fence line into the lungs of residents of Merebank and Wentworth.

The eThekwini Municipality officials painted for the Parliamentarians a glorious picture, pretending that all is right and there is nothing to be worried about. In their presentation they also failed to acknowledge the hundreds of dangerous industrial accidents that have occurred these past decades, nor did they inform Parliament that there is no emergency evacuation plan. Their presentation lacked a clear plan of how they are dealing with toxic emissions affecting people’s health and wellbeing.

Years of letters, emails, media articles, complaints and protests have fallen on deaf ears. The communities of Umlazi, Lamontville, Merebank, Wentworth, Bluff, Clairwood, Isipingo, Magabeni and uMkomaas continue to suffer at the hands of poisonous industries that pollute with impunity?

All tiers of government are fully aware of the problem and yet they lack the political will to hold corporations accountable. To our politicians and bureaucrats, Section 24 of the Constitution – protecting our“right to a clean and healthy environment” – can simply be ignored, as the polluters continue their state capture.

We are furious, and just as our vulnerable economy, health system, climate and elites are under unprecedented pressure, we will ramp it up even higher in coming days and moths.