/ 30 January 2007

From suburb to runway

OR Tambo International Airport, to the east of Johannesburg, is Africa’s busiest, transporting about 43 000 people every day on just two runways — and it has run out of space.

Next door is Bonaero Park, born around 1967 — mainly to house the employees of arms manufacturer Denel. If the Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) has its way, the suburb of roughly 800 houses will be demolished by 2015 to enable the airport to extend its old runways and build two new ones.

The area also includes protected wetlands that were home to blesbok, jackals and guinea-fowl in the 1940s but now shelter smaller creatures such as flocks of pink flamingos, grey-headed gulls, sacred ibises, endangered butterflies and giant bullfrogs.

”Basically, the whole of Bonaero Park will have to go,” says Pieter van Eeden, chairperson of the Blaauwpan Conservancy, which promotes the environmental conservation of Blaauwpan — a conserved wetland and nature reserve about 1km south-east of the airport.

Acsa plans to extend one of the airport’s existing runways by 1km, build two new ones — each about 4,5km long — and construct another cargo terminal that will be more than 1km long, according to a ”technical discussion document” leaked to members of the Bonaero Park community.

The airport’s two existing runways can carry up to 30-million passengers yearly, but will reach their saturation date by 2015. With two extra runways, the airport will be able to fly up to 50-million passengers.

The leaked document reveals that the new runway and the extension of the old one jut into Bonaero Park. This excludes the land needed for runway embankments and security, as well as the required buffer zone to protect residents against noise pollution.

Land value

For five years, rumours of Bonaero Park’s flattening have circulated. Though concerned about the detrimental effect this may have on the value of their property, residents also feel they may be sitting on a gold mine. They are prepared to fight for replacement value for their land.

But for some selling is simply not an option. ”I’ve lived here for 36 years,” said a silver-haired man at a community meeting in January, ”and I don’t intend to sell. What about my kids? What’s going to happen? Are they [Acsa] just going to raze it all to the ground?”

At the meeting, ward councillor Andre du Plessis’s assurances that residents’ homes were safe from decreases in property value were frequently drowned out by the rumbling of planes taking off and landing. Though he said buyers were already acquiring property in the area in order to cash in on the replacement value at a later stage, many residents were unconvinced.

Should the expansion plan be given the go-ahead, Acsa has said in a statement, ”the price would be based on market forces in the affected areas”. Acsa also cannot give any final word to the community because its plans still have to go to the transport minister and the Cabinet for discussion and endorsement. The environmental impact of the proposed plans must also still be assessed.

The company says it will make a public announcement once the plan has been submitted to the Ekurhuleni mayoral committee for a final decision in February.

”It would be premature and imprudent to approach the community at this critical stage, and such a move should only be contemplated once the outstanding issues have been finalised,” says Acsa spokesperson Solomon Makgale. ”If everything goes according to plan, the horizon time in which the residential property [Bonaero Park] may be required is from approximately 2015 onwards. This is subject to change depending on the pace of the passenger traffic growth.”


Bonaero Park’s residents won’t be the only ones affected by the airport’s proposed extensions — the plans are an environmental disaster, say conservationists.

Aerial photographs of the optional construction plans show a runway alongside the Blaauwpan Dam, which is no stranger to the airport’s pollution. Three months ago, more than a million litres of jet fuel spilled from the airport into its waters.

Although Acsa has made a tremendous effort to clean the water and soil over the past few months, conservationists believe the company was doing so to be politically correct ”when, in fact, to Acsa, Blaauwpan is dead”, says Bob Dehning, of the Gauteng Conservancy Association.

The runways will also disrupt birds’ feeding and migration routes. Flamingos, grey herons, glossy ibises and spur-winged geese fly between pans to feed, explains Barry Vorster, the vice-chairperson of the Blaauwpan Conservancy.

The endangered marsh sylph butterfly, the giant bullfrog and the endangered plant Trachyandra erythrorhiza, commonly known as the wetland creeper, are also at risk.

Animal life in the area has already suffered from human industrial growth for more than half a century. Anne Mearns (65), a member of the Gauteng Conservancy Association, says Blaauwpan and Bonaero Park used to be a natural area full of game. ”About 25 years ago, my brother and brother-in-law used to hunt guinea-fowl and would often spot jackals and game, but all these animals disappeared when the suburbs were built.”

Twenty-five years later, it’s the suburb’s turn.

”The two runways may affect Bonaero Park, but that depends on how hard we fight,” said Du Plessis at the community meeting, his voice fighting the roar of an aircraft engine. ”We have to stand together; we must not let them bulldoze us.”