EATING POISON EVERYDAY...
I remember sitting in a taxi to Johannesburg at 3 in the afternoon. I had left my kids with my mother when I left for Limpopo to do the interview for our first Voices of Our Future assignment. Around me swirled the sound of petty arguments that passengers engage in on our way, juxtaposed with the driver’s loud music. Despite all these activities happening around me inside that taxi, the only sound I heard was my mother’s voice on the phone. “Rudzi, you must come back right away, your son is not well.” Her voice is always comforting but not this time. “Please take a taxi today.” Then she hung up never to switch her phone on until later in the evening.
The taxi seemed to be taking longer than expected, I was terrified and too tired however we finally arrived in Johannesburg in the morning and I took the first taxi to Mpumalanga and went straight to the hospital to see my son. My doctor was already there and I could see he wanted to make this experience as painless for me as possible. “Your son is asthmatic Rudzani; right now he is not breathing properly. The machines are helping him to breathe, I have prescribed some medication too and you should buy a nebuliser machine before you take him home”. Inside the ward, there were now 12 of us. Each mother with her son or daughter and like me, I’m sure they wished it was all just a dream. When the whole scenario replays in my mind I experience minutes of blank moments. My son was discharged the following day.
A week later I found myself back at the hospital spending Christmas and New Year alongside my ailing son. After he was discharged I became angry, confused and frustrated. As I searched the internet looking for answers, I began to understand the environmental injustices we face each day without taking notice in my community. Our neighbourhood sits in the shadow of SASOL, the world’s largest petrochemical maker. The Carbon Disclosure Project report which was launched in 2000 on behalf of institutional investors said SASOL emitted 70.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2009 in South Africa alone, making it second after ESKOM. Our emissions are around 440 million tonnes thus making us rank the 12th top polluter globally.
I remember at the hospital ward on New Year's day one of the other mothers of asthmatic children said to me,” It’s the environment that’s not good for these children.” and she further explained that she suffers from sinuses. As I looked at my son sleeping that evening while searching the net, I went outside to take a break and to recall some of the memories I have about my community and I also asked myself, “How did I end up here in the first place?”
SASOL was formed by the Apartheid government in 1950 to help the regime stand against international isolation. Their first plant was established in Sasolburg (SASOL One), a town named after the company. According to their report, SASOL is represented in 33 countries and employs about 34 000 people; it is one of the biggest corporations in South Africa and one of the biggest polluting industries.
I live right next door to it in a black township that was formed when SASOL developed its Secunda plant in 1974 - SASOL Two (1980) and SASOL Three (1982). Through the apartheid’s laws of separation, black people were relocated to a township called eMbalenhle – meaning “a pretty flower”. It is in eMbalenhle where I witnessed the demise of Apartheid in 1994 through the eyes of my family members going to vote for the first time in the land of their birth. I was too young to vote then.
In eMbalenhle, every day my eyes are involuntarily forced to see SASOL’s gigantic cooling towers protruding fire and strange clouds a few kilometres from my house. Sometimes during the day we experience salty and acidic rains any time of the season and it has been like that since my grandfathers and uncles were given the “pass” by the apartheid regime to come and work here in 1980.
A few days later, a friend of mine introduced me to Patrick Duma who is the founder of the Voices of the Voiceless, an environmental justice movement formed in 2004 in eMbalenhle. As I walked towards his place in a narrow dusty road with corrugated iron shacks on both sides, children with torn clothes and bare feet were playing and seemed to be enjoying the sport. The Voices of the Voiceless lead the community’s fight against pollution. They have participated in workshops on air quality organized by groundwork - a national environmental Non Governmental Organisation based in Kwazulu Natal province.
Patrick Duma has been threatened so many times he doesn’t feel threatened anymore. He received threatening calls and was told he will never work for the municipality and SASOL in his life ever again. "My father died from an incurable disease and in our street at least one family member suffers from the respiratory disease," said Patrick Duma as he placed the chair outside his shack signalling me to take a seat.
After the training from groundworks, Voices of the Voiceless started implementing their own monitoring programme. They started taking samples called “grab samples” to find out what chemicals have been used. They discovered that sulphur which is the major cause of climate change was a major chemical in the air and when they approached SASOL at first it denied their claim. Seeing that they were still pressing for more answers, SASOL initiated a project called eMbalenhle Air Quality Project also known as Basa nje ngo Magogo. The communities were taught to use coal by starting with coal then papers and wood – top down instead of bottom up. This reduces gases but it also makes these gases to take a long time to burn. “The national government has adopted and spread the project to all townships in South Africa as if it was a success in eMbalenhle even though we sent out a monitoring and evaluation report showing the opposite,” said Patrick. Their air sample analysis also discovered that SASOL releases over 300 000 pounds annually of hydrogen disulfide, a poison that affects the eyes, respiratory, and nervous systems. To this day SASOL officials dismiss this health threat as nothing more than an "odour nuisance." As an eMbalenhle resident I know how painful it is to smell the odour.
The Environmental Protection Agency in America has specific targets in Volatile Organic Compounds. In 2004, air samples taken by Voices of the Voiceless in and around eMbalenhle, identified elevated levels of many toxic pollutants. SASOL has itself acknowledged that ambient levels of benzene in eMbalenhle have exceeded US guidelines on at least eight occasions during 2002. In 2006, SASOL released more than 400 thousands tons of Volatile Organic Compounds and they have added more plants, one of the plants includes Project Turbo which removes lead (particles found in petrol). Benzene is known to cause leukaemia and cancer of blood-forming organs.
According to the local municipality a large percentage of the young people in eMbalenhle suffer from respiratory illnesses like sinus problems, asthma, TB, burning sensations in the throat and chest, as well as from skin irritations and burning eyes. After the interview, Patrick and I saw the chemical waste on the street where children were still playing. “The municipality collects this chemical waste to make these dusty roads less dusty, but the concrete coal-like sand is dangerous to the children because of the toxics it has,” said Patrick.
In March 2008, eMbalenhle residents marched to SASOL demanding that it clean up it alleged pollution and must employ local people. This resulted in a conference held in December 2009 with SASOL Nigeria in attendance. “The outcome was that SASOL will provide an enabling environment for the activist and a centre of operation,” said Patrick. The protestors also wanted SASOL to release its own pollution records, claiming the group is concealing information. SASOL has one monitoring station in eMbalenhle; the station measures the level and concentration of pollutants in the air. By contrast, the government has none and in other areas had only implemented emissions standards for monitoring and reporting in September 2009.
SASOL assists in building clinics that have incinerators and when I asked the clinic officials why they have incinerators I was told that they were shut down which made me wonder why they are still there. Dumping sites of hazardous waste are expensive so if they say they have shut them down it means they are using the general waste dumping site. The nearest hazardous waste is in another province 70 kilometres from Mpumalanga. This has placed our communities at risk. But as I continue my research into this mess, I realize that there is still reason for hope.
Most of the residents of our community are unaware of the fact that South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world with national and provincial environmental laws and regulations second to none. The Constitution also places an obligation on the state to assist stakeholders in their quest to obtain information. The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (No. 107 of 1998) requires that any activities that require authorisation or permission by law and that may significantly affect the environment, socio-economic conditions or cultural heritage, must be considered, investigated and assessed prior to implementation. And the Environment Conservation Act makes it mandatory that an Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted for transportation structures or the handling facilities for any substance which is dangerous or hazardous and that is controlled by national legislation. The Environmental Impact Assessment is used to approve, wholly or in part, or reject development proposals. In addition to that we have more than 18 Acts governing the Environment and all these acts are in our constitution.
Despite all of these legal tools at our disposal, most people in our community don’t know these rights exist. I believe our communities need to be informed so that they can learn about the laws governing the industrial polluters like SASOL. Access to information is considered a constitutional right, as noted in Section 16 (1) (b) of the 1996 Constitution. The right to information was further cemented in the promulgation of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (3 of 2000) and with particular reference to mining, in Section 30 of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (28 of 2002). Access to participation is ensured in the EIA Regulations, the Environment Conservation Act and the National Environmental Management Act (No. 107 of 1998). Ordinary citizens can use these laws to compel such companies to reduce their pollution, stick to the emission targets and deadlines and to operate according to the guidelines. Education is also very important but again, a lack of information means these communities are not even aware of the opportunities available to them like studying Environmental Law and ultimately owning independent monitoring stations. Education gives us a sense of responsibility and I’m positive it could make our communities function as a team, not against each other. It could reduce peoples’ fear instigated because they are not aware of their rights as enshrined in the constitution. Most of all it could allow NGO’s to network with other organisations nationally and internationally seeking to find solutions.
My son has Asthma, a fact I need to live with for the rest of my life. It would be a grave injustice to let other parents suffer like I did. I still have hope that SASOL will clean up its act one day and our government will take the necessary steps, I saw it during the 2010 FIFA World Cup where the whole country was united to host one of the biggest events in the world, we can still unite and create a safer environment for our children.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.