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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.

Comments

Amei's picture

I do hope ... too Rudzi

You have so much hope even with all the challenges faced. I am so glad you are here with us.

All the best to your son, you and family and your people.

With love
Amei

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Hi Amei...

I miss you Amei, it's been so long since I heard from you but I think it's me. I am here and was very excited to know you are still here. Thank you so much my sister for the wishes. I have just realized that I have hope because I have support. Those two go hand in hand and I'm so grateful that I have an opportunity to share this with you and the rest of the World Pulse community. My son is better now and everyday I am learning to find courage and to understand.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Frances Faulkner's picture

Digesting Poison

Rudzanimbilu,

I love how your son's illness spurred you to dive down into the layers of complexity and corruption surrounding it. You continued your journey through the intricate web of information, out the other end to solution space and ideas for change. You are a problem solver! Your message of educating all people about the world around them is a simple and yet powerful one that the world needs to hear every single day. Thanks for doing your research and writing this piece. Your son will benefit from having such a strong mother, even if his breathing is labored.

Frances

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you so much Frances...

This is one of the most difficult things that I've ever had to do in my life. Deciding to tell this community about my son was not difficult either but it is the works that I found on the net that really made me angry. At some point I wanted to cover everything and I am so glad I had so much support, it made everything easier. Thank you so much for reading and for your encouraging words. I do hope I could do more in the future and right now only time can tell.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Usha RS's picture

Creating a healthy environment

Dear Rudzanimbilu,
It is inspiring to see how you are fiercely working to create a healthier environment for your son and for families of your community.

Let your light shine!

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you Usha

I am grateful that you find the frontline inspiring and I hope your words inspires me to do more for my community. There is still hope to create a better environment for our children I believe and as I go through this journey, I hope to find courage to do something about it.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

vivian's picture

Congratulation on your

Congratulation on your frontline story and thank you for educating us on the environment. I look forward to read ur op-ed story.

All the best sister

Vivian

''Every woman have a story at every stage of Life''

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you Viv!

Thank you, it was not an easy thing to do. I am looking forward to reading your journal today and knowing how amazing you are, I'm sure I am going to enjoy it.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Hello. I am responding from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. It is with sadness that I read about your experiences dealing with the poisons created by SOSOL. It is true that poverty hurts. It is also true that you will never find one of these polluting plants next door to the President of South Africa or the Chief Executive Officer of your major bank. It is always the poor who pay for the prosperity of those in power. Corporations get away with murder because most people don't have the resources to fight them. Good on you for fighting back by learning what tools you can use and working with others to create a movement for change. For your information, Greenpeace International reviews poor environmental practices for corporations and has a contest to choose the worst polluter. What about contacting them to tell them about the poor environmental practices of SOSOL. They may wish to include that corporation on their next list. I wish you and your township success in changing the poisonous environment around you.

Onni Milne

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Onni, Thank you

I totally agree with you there Onni and I will definately try sometime this week to do an internet search about Greenpeace. And thank you for all the wishes and I hope something will be done and as a community we will come together and combat this poison.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Onni Milne's picture

Energy Healing

Hello. It was lovely to hear from you. I want to share some other information you might be interested in about Reiki, a form of energy healing. This is not magic or witchcraft. It is energy exchange, sometimes through distances. I have been a Reiki practitioner since 1990 and know how helpful and healing it is. I share this information with you in regards to your son and his asthma. If you wish to try this alternative healing to help him, I offer the following website url to connect to:
http://www.threshold.ca/reiki/Intensive-Reiki.html
On it, you will find four photos of Reiki Masters from around the world sending distant healing. There are over 200 in total. That makes the healing 200 X 200 powerful. I sit in front of the computer screen for five minutes to receive healing. That is all you have to do, that is all your son has to do.

Onni Milne

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you

I will look at the link and will share as soon as I familiarize myself with the program.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Cindy Bishop's picture

Wonderful Work Rudzani!

Dear Rudzani,

Your frontline story is so powerful. Your passion just pours out of the piece! Really, congratulations on an excellent article. You told the story of a personal nightmare that bonds you with so many others in your community. The injustice in this is heartbreaking. You are truly a champion among young women to take on this powerful conglomerate that is polluting the water you drink and the air that you breathe. Fight the fight, but do be careful! All the best to you and your beautiful children. Keep up the amazing work!!

With love and compassion, Cindy

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you...Cindy

I wouldn't have done it without your support with the rest of the team. You all came through for me, supported me from the beginning to the end and gave me time to breath when I was suffocating from anger. I am really grateful that you are my mentor and you are taking this journey with me. You are an amazing women and it might take a while to see the result but I am sure that I will plug the courage to do something pretty soon. Thank you so much for the words of encouragement Cindy.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Farona's picture

This is a wonderful piece

This is a wonderful piece sister, children are vulnerable, they can't change the environment they live in - but we as adults.
These kids do not need to have asthma ! they do not need to suffer from respiratory problem. For some people it's just asthma but mothers of kids with asthama knows how unpredictable and unstable sometimes situation gets.

I am glad you turned your anger and frustration into productive mission

Cheers

Insha Allah's picture

Great frontline story!

Dear sister Rudzanimbilu,

Since I had read your draft, I was inspired by the points you present based on your personal, family and community research and findings and your solution-oriented support at the end.

You are really an amazing woman as well as a mother. Out of struggling situations, you could have done a great job. Congratulations! Environmental justice is a really necessary issue we have to address today.

With Love,
Insha Allah

Shwe Wutt Hmon

Onni Milne's picture

Will You Support 5WCW

Hello. I received an email from Jean Shinoda Bolen about organizing for the 5th UN World Conference for Women. I am sending you information about it in case you (and your friends) wish to participate. The more the merrier, the more the stronger we will be.

http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/support-a-un-5th-world-conference-on...
http://www.5wwc.org/organizations/org_listing_form.html

Onni Milne

Onni Milne

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thanks for this Onni

I have just signed the petition....

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

lydia's picture

So moving!

My heart cried for you when you told me about your son's illness and now reading about it has brought all those feelings back! You wrote a wonderful article--with such heart and courage. Your research is amazing and I love how you didn't just say"education" is the answer, but dug deeper to say specifically what people in your community need to be educated about--pointing people to laws that they can act on is a great way to get a movement started. Everyday I am thinking about you and your family--and Auntie too!
With much love and hope,
Lydia

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you so much Lydia....

Thank you so much for the prayers and for being there. There is nothing as painful as not knowing who you can talk to and everyday I thank God for I know I have someone to talk to. I have someone who can listen and who cares. We miss you so much and each time I speak to Auntie, she never forgets to mention your name. You are God's greatest gift Lydia, a great human being with so much to offer in the world. I'm happy that I have an opportunity here to share my story and this I feel, its taking action and I also know that it may take a while for things to change but I live with the hope that one day things will change and our communities will be informed.

Take care of yourself,

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

Rachael Maddock-Hughes's picture

Fabulous!

What a fabulous job Rudzanimbilu! I hope that Patrick, you and all the other concerned citizens are able to learn more about your rights. It is just amazing to me that they actually pave the roads with chemical waste. How was this ever allowed to happen? Is there any current government investigations into SASOL and pollution? What has come of the meeting with SASOL and the community now?

Great work, keep it up!

Rachael

"In every human heart there are a few passions that last a lifetime. They're with us from the moment we're born, and nothing can dilute their intensity." Rob Brezny

Rudzanimbilu's picture

Thank you Rachael

One day our community members are going to rise and say enough is enough and I hope to see the day in my lifetime. The municipality bends all the rules for SASOL because it contributes a hefty amount here. Each year environmentalist conduct studies but a few of those studies ever see the light of day because "money speaks all the languages" even the language of suppression, humiliation and depression. The meeting with SASOL always ends up with fore runners in our community getting shaddy deals to stop them from informing the community. The information discourse is needed to stop this mess before its too late and I believe it will happen. Thank you so much Rachael for guiding me through this journey and for your patience, I know it is hard sometimes to be dealing with individuals from different cultural backgrounds and worse still, in an online environment but every day you have made me dig deep inside my soul and sometimes I can't believe how much I have grown as an individual and I look forward to more.

Rudzanimbilu Muthambi

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