The big stink over Durban beachfronts

The stink caused by the withdrawal of Blue Flag status—the international eco-stamp of approval for pristine beach management—from several of eThekwini’s beaches is a pointed reminder that municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe takes criticism very badly.

According to the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), the organisation overseeing Blue Flag compliance in South Africa, tests on some beaches have shown levels of faeces in the water to be unacceptably high by both World Health Organisation (WHO) and national standards.

Blue Flag national coordinator Wessa’s Alison Kelly said flags were lowered largely because of water-quality issues at the beaches: “To date, E coli levels fall within accepted limits. However, the levels of faecal enterococcus/streptococcus in sea water along the Durban coastline is the cause for concern.”

Kelly also pointed out that while status withdrawal from beaches, including Bronze, South and Bay of Plenty, was largely due to water-quality issues, other beaches, such as Addington and North, had also been penalised because of “poor cleanliness of the beach and facilities”.

It is clear that local government is not doing a sufficiently decent job to meet the standards set on these beaches. Blue Flag status is determined by criteria that include safety and services provided, environmental management, water quality and environmental education and information provided on site.

James Seymour, Tourism KwaZulu-Natal’s general manager for tourism information and services, emphasised that Blue Flag status is the “foremost symbol of the quality of a beach worldwide”.

Which makes Sutcliffe’s poo-pooing of this status loss, coupled with wild calls for Kelly to be fired and a local equivalent of the Blue Flag scheme to be implemented instead, defeatist.

Sutcliffe’s response defeats the purpose of having a recognised international standard of quality to attract tourists. It defeats the purpose of ensuring municipalities and beach resorts provide quality beaches for recreational users.

Sutcliffe has been routinely criticised during his six-year tenure for responding to municipal problems and public failures with obfuscation, denials, intellectual bullying and character assassinations of critics.

His column in Ezasegagasini, the municipal propaganda paper flushed from the bowels of Durban’s city hall each Friday, is an extension of his signature style of engagement.

The municipal manager has claimed the removal of the blue flags is a “politically inspired” conspiracy. He also reckons the Blue Flag scheme demands stricter requirements for developing countries than European ones.

Sutcliffe substantiates this assertion by alluding to the sort of grubby scatological photography that will have ratepayers wondering if zoophilic polaroids are traded at the city-hall water cooler.

In his column he writes: “Colleagues have shown me photographs of Blue Flag beaches in Europe where animals freely roam and defecate.”

The Mail & Guardian attempted to clarify some of Sutcliffe’s claims this week, but he declined to elaborate on his conspiracy theories, saying: “You know Mike Sutcliffe, I have to keep some cards close to my chest.”

On claims of a Blue Flag Eurocentric bias, he would say only that: “The way Blue Flag awards are given out must be exposed … but I’m not going to get into the details.”

He did, however, describe the refusal of the Blue Flag programme’s mother body, the Danish-based non-governmental Foundation for Environmental Education, to meet him as “absolute arrogance”.

Sutcliffe said he didn’t “need someone else to waffle on to [him] about what needs to be done on these beaches … all the issues they are raising we are addressing on an ongoing basis”.

Although most ratepayers would probably be satisfied with an honest assessment of the problems by local authorities and a practical plan for addressing them, Sutcliffe’s labyrinthine efforts to evade the essential fact—that the municipality has not paid adequate attention to sewage-waste management and the upkeep of beaches—continue.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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