south africa: focus on sdcea and veja
"When we breathe the air of freedom, we do not wish to choke on hidden fumes," said Judge Albie Sachs of the South African Constitutional Court. Yet in post-apartheid South Africa, those 'hidden fumes' - the result of corporate malpractice - still continue to blight the lives of many.
David is starting to take on Goliath, however. Local environmental justice organisations working closely with Friends of the Earth South Africa (aka groundWork), are increasingly - and successfully - holding governments and multinationals to account.
Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) and Caroline Ntaopane of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) explain just what concerted community action can achieve.
Role: Coordinator and Spokesperson of the SDCEA
Experience: Over 24 years spent in the textile and chemical industry with major multinationals, working in the process area and later in HSE through my work in industry dealing with environmental issues
Introducing Desmond D'Sa
"I've been involved with the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance right from its earliest days in 1995, when it was set up as the first multi-racial community organisation to deal with environmental justice issues in South Africa.
We also participate in the permitting process of industries in South Durban and have contributed to the national framework of the new Air Quality act. We give our view on a range of pending environmental legislation – as well the repeal of some laws introduced under the old apartheid regime.
It's my job to be the public face of the organisation. I work closely with the media, commenting on all Environmental Impact Assessments that indicate a harmful impact on society and the environment. I also get involved in campaigns tackling issues that threaten the livelihoods of local fishermen, farmers and residents.
We currently have a full time staff of three employees and two interns at the SDCEA. All policy issues are decided by a Steering Committee, which is made up of 32 members representing 16 regional organisations, all of who contribute their knowledge at meetings or workshops.
Right now, one of our main goals is to protect local community space in the face of the relentless - and often very damaging - push for economic development. We run community workshops and have canvassed all stakeholders for their hopes and concerns for the South Durban Area. The final results will be published in early 2008 and used as an advocacy and lobby tool to improve people's lives.
We're also working on a major project to monitor pollution in the South Durban area. This will allow us to map all industrial expansion and relay it to the broader public. All incidents involving toxic air are reported to the government and the community at large, with any health risks clearly highlighted. At the same time, we're also developing an emergency and evacuation plan for local communities in the event of a fire, explosion or gas leak – a job that should have been, but wasn’t - carried out by local government.
A vital part of our work lies in educating the community – of all ages. We're developing a wide range of educational materials, working closely with teachers, students and other institutions and have launched a number of information campaigns on issues such as litter, the clean up of parks and the protection of indigenous plants and flowers.
We also help raise awareness by contributing regularly to local and national newspapers, as well distributing thousands of copies of the SDCEA newsletter four times a year.
Making it all worthwhile
One project I found particularly effective was the work we did to compare the environmental performance of refineries in South Durban and those in Denmark. The differences we found exposed just how much of a habit it is for multi-national corporations to treat as cheap our lives in South Africa. They've been operating in a vacuum of poor legislation and have long felt free to dump their toxic poison just outside the refinery fenceline with no repercussions.
The same is true of the air quality project we carried out. This enabled us, for the first time, to understand clearly which chemicals we were breathing in and the impact this was having on our health and well being.
The community now understands that they have a collective voice in the SDCEA ready to take on the challenges they face. I would like to see diseases like cancer, asthma and leukemia reduced on account of the removal of toxic pollutants from the air we breathe.
The highs ...
"I personally derive a hell of a lot of personal satisfaction from taking on the multi-national corporations and getting them to clean up their mess. The SDCEA has helped a great deal by providing the evidence needed to persuade the government to introduce new environmental legislation as part of our progressive national constitution. It’s extremely rewarding seeing that the toxic levels of chemicals like sulphur have been reduced because of our campaign."
And the lows...
"We need ongoing international support for our campaigns against multi-national corporations. Unfortunately, we lack the legal support to take these companies to the South African courts to attain justice. It's highly frustrating as we're facing an onslaught of economic development at all costs, even when this threatens to destroy future generations. And there is no doubt that 'dirty development' is moving from the north to the south because of the abundance of cheap water and electricity here. In most cases, these polluting industries are placed alongside poor black communities."
...and Caroline Ntaopane
Role in Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance: Coordinator
Qualifications: Certificate in Environmental Law and Environmental Management and Climate Change Risk and Strategies with Northwest University and studied communication and climate change risk and strategies at the Mineral Energy Education Training Institution
Became involved with VEJA: via various community projects
“The Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance was launched in October 2005. We used as our model the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, which had already been up and running successfully for a decade. The aim was to ensure environmental and social justice for all local people – to protect our rights as enshrined in the South African Bill of Rights – in the face of widespread pollution and corporate malpractice.
The Vaal triangle lies to the south of Johannesburg and is one of the country’s largest and most important chemical hubs as well as home to the steel industry. In setting up the VEJA, we wanted to create a coordinated, unified voice for the many environmentally-led organisations within the region. The alliance now represents 15 different environmental, community and labour organisations, working together to tackle the damage done by big business such as Mittal Steel, Sasol, Samancor and Eskom. These companies have long been able to pollute local air and water with impunity, destroying or threatening to destroy many local communities in the area. The local government has declared the Vaal a pollution ‘hotspot’ – but has not yet implemented legislation to protect local people.
Spreading the word
I have a very personal interest in the environmental problems affecting the Vaal triangle. I live about 100 metres from a chemical plant in Sasolburg and experience everything from the smoke rising in the air, the row of flames and the vibrations under my feet to the chemical smell that constantly assails me. Several members of my family have respiratory problems due to the pollution. The turning point for me was when I visited the US in 2002 and realised that though pollution affects everyone - rich or poor, black or white - it affects our disadvantaged black community here in South Africa more than anyone.
I became involved in environmental campaigning in 2001. As a volunteer, I worked for a number of organisations such as the African Sasolburg Environmental Committee and the National Congress. In 2003, I started the Sasolburg Air Quality Monitoring Committee and a year later worked for the Group for Environmental Monitoring (GEM), one of the biggest environmental organisations in South Africa. I was also Chairperson of the South African Climate Change Board.
My own role as Coordinator of the VEJA is to organise meetings, put together workshops, communicate with our affiliates and work as an ‘ambassador’ for the organisation. Until we have the necessary funds to employ someone to take care of our admin, I also do the paperwork as well – although members of the Steering Committee are also often there to lend a hand.
The VEJA has a number of objectives. We want to promote a culture of environmental awareness and sustainable development; to provide a local network of support and assistance to community based organisations; to help people understand the interrelated nature of social, political, environmental and economic factors involved in creating a fair society and using natural resources wisely; and to engage with local and regional governments, industry and communities to promote a healthy, safe and sustainable environment.
We have created four task teams to concentrate on specific problem areas: air quality, (including training in how to identify different smells), water quality, waste management and the health of local communities and workers. The teams have set themselves detailed goals in each area – and their job is to determine what companies’ legislative responsibilities are and then to help monitor the situation on the ground. We advocate a three-way system where the polluter pays for the monitoring, the process itself is undertaken by the state and then community organisations oversee the whole process.
VEJA participates regularly in regional forums and helps promote community-to-community interaction and the sharing of ideas and best practice. We run many awareness campaigns and maintain a high media profile. We’re also in regular contact with local government. A confusing number of platforms have been established by industry and local government, all of which need to be streamlined to avoid allowing companies to claim they have ‘consulted’ the authorities, when they have not.
I really want to see change happen – and believe that I have the experience, passion and capabilities to help bring about that change. My focus now is going to be on women. I need them to be involved – even if many of them still believe this a man’s job. I’m trying to show them otherwise.
Since its launch, VEJA has already achieved plenty in terms of raising awareness and highlighting the damage being done by the big polluters in our region. The creation of our four task teams was a major step forward.
And the lows…
We have limited time and few resources. It sometimes feels like we are struggling against huge obstacles and getting nowhere. But I know we are making a difference.