Peter's Blog

South Durban

Written by Peter Johnston on .

I made it to Durban, finally, on Tuesday night. It will come as no shock to anyone that, while I made it, my suitcase did not. At the moment, a day later, the airline is still trying to trace it. I am assuming it is lost somewhere in Heathrow. After trying to get the baggage claim done while watching the clock at Jo'burg, I had to make great haste to catch the flight to Durban, just boarding as they closed the door of the plane. Honestly, it is a good thing I don't get stressed easily.

On arriving at Durban, my driver pointed me to the Woolworths in the airport where I managed to get some basics and a clean pair of shorts and a top. Over 50 hours in the same clothes and I was done with them and they with me! The driver was great on the trip out to Pietermaritzburg, filling me in with lots of local information.

I met some of the team that evening and then slept very well. Actually, my first room kept tripping the circuit breaker so no electricity... but the second room was fine. It was so good to lie down.

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance

We left early this morning to head back to Durban. The morning was spent in the company of a large gathering of people with whom South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) is involved, building bridges of solidarity between different communities and stakeholders who have been affected by the growing environmental problems.

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It is difficult to describe the content of the morning in a way that does justice to the outpouring of sorrow, anger and frustration from people whose lives have been so badly affected by enviornmental issues. From many people we heard about the devastating impact of floods which destroy homes and the subsequent breakdown within municipal and national governments to provide the support that people and families who are made homeless require. One lady told us how she was still living in temporary accommodation after her house was destroyed in 2009. Others told us of having to live for months on end in community halls and then getting moved to tents. One grandmother tried to express through her tears her heartbreak and frustration at all that life had thrown at her. Another younger mother vividly portrayed the aftermath of a flood and how no support came from the municipality to assist the community in trying to dig out their neighbours, and how basic sanitation is utterly broken.

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Another man who had travelled some 200 km to be at the meeting, shared the story of how his community's water supply has been destroyed by mining, polluting the water sources that had once been used. Now water is trucked in once a week, but it has to be paid for, something many families cannot afford.

We heard from those who practice subsistence fishing, totally reliant on the produce of the sea and how rampant pollution from industry and failing sewage systems has led to greater risk for those fishing in the polluted waters, the risk of E. Coli, and even how, during the pandemic, the beaches were closed to all - including those who make their livings from subsistence fishing. Note that commercial fishing still was allowed to continue.

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Through numerous stories it was clear that there were great failings within the governments, local and national, to meet the basic needs of all citizens of the country. Infrastructure collapses sometimes do not get fixed. In one community a bridge was washed away in a storm. It only got fixed by the local community coming together to build a new crossing themselves. We heard of how officials would come to investigate problems, take photos, meet with residents but then nothing would happen.

Into what could be a hopeless situation, is the voice of solidarity which organisations like SDCEA are promoting by bringing together poor people affected by environmental catastrophe in order to work together to demand that politicians and leaders listen to their plight.

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We visited the site of a memorial to a moment in 1995 when Nelson Mandela came to listen to the people of Wentworth, a part of the city, and to their objections and fears about the environmental impact of industry especially on the poor. The levels of cancer and asthma in the communities that immediately surround huge oil refineries and storage areas are elevated. I was blown away by the visual contrast of the massive sand dune with Indian Ocean waves rolling in on one side and the ugly and polluting petrochemical plants on the other.

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We journeyed with Desmond D'Sa, the SDCEA Co-Ordinator, around the area on a "toxic tour". It is so easy to see how poor regulations, a lack of oversight, the corrupting influence of huge amounts of money, and rampant profiteering by multinational companies has a devastating impact on many communities. It is no wonder that there is considerable resistance from these communities at the moment. That people in these situations find ways for their voices to be heard is critical.

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The housing areas and small farm lands run right up to the massive plants. Near the harbour is a petrochemical storage facility with over a thousand not always well maintained containers and gasometers. Memories of the Bhopal disaster in India were brought to mind when we saw the scale of these facilities.

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Just Transition

The late afternoon was in the company of David Hallows of Groundwork. We discussed the complexities of a just transition from an extractive economy with all the damage that this does to environments and communities to a regenerative economy which has co-operative production at its heart. These are massive shifts, and of course ones that we in Aberdeen should be spending a lot more time talking about ourselves. This is huge rethinking from a capitalist mindset that requires continual growth to feed an ever hungrier beast (consumerism) to a kind of society that tries to live well with each other and the earth.

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It goes without saying that those States that are reliant on petrochemicals for their wealth are fighting any attempts towards that kind of shift in our thinking as inhabitants of our one earthly home.

Our discussions later in the evening as we reflected on all we had seen and heard today were fascinating. We talked a lot about our own distorting presence as representatives of NGOs or other Northern bodies with all the collonial baggage that brings to the table and how challenging it can be to avoid any paternalistic thinking, It would be easy to wallow in the lament and stories, but it is also essential that people in these situations find a way to resist and mobilise themselves to confront the challenges they face and those who try to retain the power to influence decisions. The slogan on the back of Desmond's polo shirt read "The RIght to Know. The Duty to Enquire. The Obligation to Act." And that does helpfully summarise a lot of what we heard today. For us, coming to visit, we were reminded "Don't talk about us, without us."

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There was an awful lot to take in today, much of which needs further thought. But this is a wee snaphot of some immediate thoughts.

Tomorrow we are visiting a settlement to see first hand some of the issues that people are having to live with.