Apartheid Continues In Access to Clean Air

By Anna Majavu · 24 Nov 2014

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Picture: Surrey Travel
Picture: Surrey Travel

More platitudes can be expected this coming week when Parliament's portfolio committee on environmental affairs goes on a mission to find the facts about air quality in the highly polluted unfortunate Black, working class communities in the Vaal.

Communities in the Vaal seem to be caught up in a ridiculous and perpetual charade whereby the ANC government fails to electrify their homes, then with that in mind, the coalmines dump their “below quality” coal next to the communities knowing that local people will have no choice but to use it as fuel. After the residents burn the coal, the coalmines then accuse them of being largely responsible for emissions in the area, citing this as grounds to refuse to lower their own emissions. Then the ANC government refuses to prosecute the coal company for releasing hazardous levels of pollution into the air or for dumping coal, citing a lack of capacity in enforcement. The losers are, of course, the very same residents of the poor communities who end up with various chronic chest and lung diseases caused by inhaling coal dust from the illegal dump.

The Environmental Affairs portfolio committee was briefed on this three weeks ago with only the UDM calling for action against polluters. The pro-business DA said that government should balance people, the environment and the economy very carefully. It seems doubtful that this committee will show any teeth on its fact finding mission, despite having been briefed by grassroots activists whose communities are bearing the brunt of the poisonous combination of government inaction and corporate malice.

According to Nomcebo Makhubelo of the Highveld Environmental Justice Alliance, the transportation of coal on the roads in her area causes the release of toxic coal dust. Abandoned mines were also a massive danger to the communities.

Samson Mokoena, the project co-ordinator of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), said the Vaal Triangle has been designated by government as an Airshed Priority Area but air quality in the Vaal had not improved in the past eight years. In that time, there had been public hearings into air quality, discussions about what tools to use for air quality monitoring, yet more parliamentary committee briefings, and the adoption of the Air Quality Act in 2004.

"You find kids playing on this coal that is of poor quality, that is being dumped next to the community and it also has a negative effect in terms of the dust that blows into the community”, Mokoena told SACSIS.

Mokoena said government had also hired consultants to do a health study – the results of which would supposedly be used to get industry to reduce their emissions. However, the results had not yet been released. In the meantime, the health of residents “continues to be compromised”.

"We want to make sure that the industries in the region follow the laws and that there is enforcement from government, especially against those who commit illegal dumping of hazardous waste and coal. We want the government to make sure they punish the perpetrators,” Mokoena added.

An audio recording of the recent portfolio committee meeting indicates that Mokoena could be waiting a long time.

Environmental Affairs minister, Edna Molewa, did not seem to take the Vaal communities seriously. She suggested that some industries had spent a lot of money on cleaning up their acts. She then said that compelling people and corporations to comply with the air quality law was more of a gradual process than a matter of handing out steep fines. She added that there was a slight challenge in that government did not have enough money to monitor air pollution, but then backtracked, claiming that government was making progress in improving air quality. The proof of this was that previously, people in South Durban could not even breathe and now they were able to, Molewa said. Yet a new report by the NGO Groundwork produced at the same portfolio committee meeting concluded that 52% of young school pupils at the Settlers Primary School in South Durban have asthma from air pollution.

"That is what happens when you live and go to school between two oil refineries that constantly spew toxins into the air you breathe. So the fight for clean air, free from pollution, is a fight for health” says the Groundwork report, “Slow Poison: Air pollution, public health and failing governance".

The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance says in the Groundwork report that government is “hesitant” to even hold polluters to the minimum emission standards they have set.

Caroline Ntaopane of VEJA wrote last year that government was “wasting money and that it doesn’t want to look at the bigger picture”.

"Most companies enjoy making profit without having to account to anyone. We say the same things over and over in the meetings and our voices are not being heard. We cannot have a situation where the Weather Service comes to this meeting with the monitoring stations report that shows that in the Vaal there is no progress, and we turn a blind eye on that and move on and accept that the Vaal is polluted, but maybe most of the pollution is coming from Johannesburg, as it has been said,” wrote Ntaopane.

"We are tired of listening to industries telling us how much they have spent on various technologies while the reduction is not visible in the air,” she added.

Coalmines are not the only problem. ‘Petrochemical polluters’, Sasol and Natref, have even been so bold as to take government to court to set aside the minimum emission standards they are supposed to abide by. Meanwhile, they say they will only comply with the emission standards they have set for themselves.

Because the ANC government, heavily backed by the DA, has no intention of taking a strong stand against big capital for any reason, these corporations are confident that they can continue to maintain Black communities in the heavily polluted style to which residents of London were accustomed almost two hundred years ago.

Government simply does not seem to have any interest in finding a way to make sure that Black, working class communities have clean air to breathe. The air in the mainly white suburbs is always pristine, with not even a whiff of sewage to be smelt, let alone the perpetual stench of harsh chemicals or constant presence of coal dust clouds. But many Black communities continue to live a miserable existence in the shadow of industry, inhaling tainted and befouled air, seemingly with no hope of ever breathing in the normal air that suburban South Africans take for granted.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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Barry Saayman
24 Nov

Balanced Reporting

>>"Environmental Affairs minister, Edna Molewa, did not seem to take the Vaal communities seriously."

I suggest that, in the interest of balanced reporting, the SACSIS gives Environmental Affairs Minister, Edna Molewa, the opportunity to respond.

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