Soapbox: Gigaba’s pleasing infrastructure promises are soon to be broken in Durban

The indefatigable eco-justice activist Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) just won the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco. It’s an extraordinary award, often described as the ecological Nobel; indeed, the late Wangari Maathei from Kenya’s Greenbelt movement became famous with the former, and later won the Nobel Peace Prize.

At Transnet’s headquarters on the 49th floor of the old Carlton Centre in central Johannesburg, there will be shudders of fear as the news sinks in. Transnet executives may recall that “groundWork” NGO director Bobby Peek’s 1998 Goldman Prize was based on work in the same neighbourhoods in “Africa’s Armpit”: closing a noxious, racist Umlazi landfill and fighting petrochemical pollution at the Wentworth-Merebank site of the continent’s largest oil refinery complex, as well as other toxic flotsam from Africa’s busiest port.

D’Sa’s and Peek’s next target: a South Durban port-petrochem expansion that ranks second in the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission bizarre priority list, just after Transnet’s climate-destroying coal exports from the Waterberg via Richards Bay.

Exactly a year ago, not long after the Brics heads of state met in Durban, Public Enterprise Minister Malusi Gigaba derided the activists’ opposition as misplaced concern for “frogs and chameleons” – but suddenly the stakes just got much higher, as a new mini-doccie featuring D’Sa shows. (Transnet’s also online with its side of the story.)

Last week, Gigaba made pleasing claims atop his Mail & Guardian “Soapbox” (23 April). After the ANC wins the May 7 national election, “radical socioeconomic transformation” will make the economy “a more labour-absorbing one that is characterised by deracialised and widespread ownership.” Amandla!

Gigaba wants “local beneficiation and value addition.” Viva! He believes in “inclusive and equitable growth” – Phambili! – and “millions of sustainable and decent jobs. One of the levers we are using to restructure the South African economy is infrastructure investment.”

Infrastructure? Sounds plausible – but hang on, let’s look more closely. Gigaba brags of an upcoming R4 trillion in spending, yet he and his ANC comrades have a very big problem that will intensify after the election: talking left and spending right.

South Durban hosts what will be the single biggest site-specific infrastructure project, currently estimated at R250 billion (what with the crony corruption that riddles mega-projects, a figure no doubt bound to soar). But social resistances is rising, as is true for inappropriate infrastructure all over South Africa, especially inadequate state services in most townships and shack settlements in contrast to what even local soccer supremo Danny Jordaan apologetically admitted are “white elephant” stadiums and elite transport, not to mention the climate-busting power plants Medupi and Kusile.

I live on the Bluff and, alongside SDCEA members in Merebank, Wentworth, Umlazi and Clairwood, can say frankly, Minister Gigaba, we don’t believe you, especially the overblown promises of 64 000 short-term construction and 28 000 operational jobs at the port.

Hundreds of residents protested your plans on March 29 at City Hall, as they did at the old airport site last November and in late 2012 when another demonstration at the base of the Bluff shut down the back of the port for several hours. (Nor do we believe the Democratic Alliance, whose local councillor Duncan DuBois was blasted at a community meeting earlier this month for promoting Transnet’s agenda.)

Will South Durban become KZN’s “Marikana,” as chief provincial planner Frikkie Brooks predicted at a public meeting in September 2012? Our country’s schizophrenic eco-social metabolism pulses out of control, as more pressure is put on the overstressed political ecology. Pollution-intensive mega-projects in mining, electricity generation and shipping are intensifying already extreme community-labour-environmental-feminist anger.

The eco-social stress is worse here thanks to sustained environmental racism, such as climate gimmicks at the continent’s largest landfill (in the black neighbourhood of Clare Estate) and what are called “neoliberal loos” through which the city’s “toilet apartheid” creates such severe sanitation crises (for low-income black people) that in turn, create explosive e.coli counts in the rivers that plume into our beautiful ocean, in turn forcing the municipality to default on its Blue Flag beach status in 2008.

That was during the dark ages of Mike Sutcliffe’s reign, but Durban is still one of the filthiest cities facing these eco-social pressures, including climate change. No surprise that we needed a  fake twitter/FB campaign by a fib-addicted “Tribe” of municipal consultants – Carver Media – in last month’s World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) “We Love Cities” EarthDay competition just to get our town into the running.

The black residents of South Durban already face a world-leading threat from noxious fumes – creating rampant asthma and a leukaemia rate twenty times the national average – not to mention runaway container-laden trucks which have killed ten residents locally and on one occasion last September, wiped out two dozen working-class commuters at Field’s Hill – another target of D’Sa’s protest movement.

In contrast to promises, the taxpayer money spent by Gigaba and his successor will result in a much more capital-intensive port complex in part because of Transnet’s privatisation fetish and in part because of the shipping industry’s tendency towards mechanisation. Walmart’s new 15 000-container robot ship now crosses from China to the US with only 13 crew.

The resulting ownership patterns are not going to deracialise and broaden our society’s wealth; instead, because the proposed “Dig Out Port” at the old airport aims to be 100% privatised, government once again is favouring large multinational corporations with global networks, perhaps augmented with local construction tenderpreneurs like Jay Singh or the Mpisanes, or the collusion-tainted Stefannuti Stocks which last week won a huge port contract. Economic localisation will suffer, not prosper, because an import tsunami from the Durban harbour expansion – from 2.5 million containers the last few years, to the National Development Plan’s desired 20 million per annum by 2040 – will hasten SA’s deindustrialisation.

Any resulting GDP growth will be exclusionary and inequitable. The suburb of Clairwood is first to be demolished, with more than 6 000 forced removals on the cards, and no alternative accommodation in the works, municipal officials admit. Even Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has been criticised here, in his old Clairwood housing-activist stomping grounds. As D’Sa argues, “Displacement is not an option for us,” for he and thousands of other South Durban residents already suffered this fate once, during racial apartheid.

Under post-1994 class apartheid, we already have a good sense of how things will proceed, because a doubling of the oil pipeline (the world’s largest) connecting our neighbourhoods to petrol-addicted Gauteng car owners has already done enormous damage. Under former Transnet CEO Maria Ramos, a combination of institutional racism which moved the pipeline’s path from mainly-white western Durban neighbourhoods through black South Durban communities, Transnet’s incompetence and construction collusion ballooned the cost of that pipeline from original estimates of R6 billion to R23 billion.

Gigaba knows this, because in December 2012 he admitted there were “systemic failings” and that “Transnet Capital Projects lacked sufficient capacity and depth of experience for the client overview of a megaproject of this complexity. There was an inadequate analysis of risks.”

Now Gigaba is relying on the same team for a project at least ten times larger. What did he learn from the pipeline? “Transnet’s obligations on the project such as securing authorisations – Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), land acquisition for right of way, water and wetland permits – were not pursued with sufficient foresight and vigour.”

Precisely – yet his team is up to the same hijinks. Transnet’s port expansion starts with the existing berths which need deep digging to cater for “Post-Panamax” ships that carry more than the 5000 containers that currently fit through the Panama Canal. Digging many more meters deeper required widening the harbour entrance at the Point, to the point extreme storms and freak waves are blowing in now that climate change is a reality – around 5 percent of which can be attributed to the dirty bunker fuels used by the world’s ships. In July 2012, gale-forced winds bumped a ship up against the main cranes, doing weeks’ worth of damage.

To carry out its latest EIA work, Transnet hired landlubbers at Nemai Consulting in Johannesburg, supported by three lads who appear to be climate denialists at ZAA Engineering Projects (Christopher Everatt and John Zeitsman) and even the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Roy van Ballegooyen). Following a great deal of correspondence with critics in South Durban, the national Department of Environment rejected the Nemai EIA last October, agreeing with us that Transnet had not “applied its mind” regarding climate-related storms and rising sea level, or Transnet’s proposed removal of a section of an ecologically vital sandbank next to the main berths.

According to Peek, the danger remains: “Our legislation allows Transnet to carry on submitting reports until they get approval. This thing should be stopped.” Worse, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel just pushed through a law to fast-track mega-project EIAs, and when D’Sa traveled to Parliament to express concern in January, two ANC MPs, Francois Beukman and Elsie Mmathulare Coleman, rudely shut him down just four minutes into his formal testimony.

Genuine infrastructure investment required by hundreds of thousands of residents in the South Durban Basin – especially affordably-priced housing, renewable energy, water, sanitation, other municipal services and public transport plus labour-intensive, green employment – is the polar opposite of the massive white-elephant, high-carbon, high-polluting, low-employment corporate-welfare project envisaged by Gigaba.

In various meetings with Gigaba and his colleagues, SDCEA has set out all these concerns, but to no avail, as charges continue to fly over the integrity of Transnet’s consultations. Will the Goldman Prize now change power relations sufficiently that D’Sa’s threat of financial sanctions against Transnet gets Gigaba off the soapbox to finally address the crisis developing in South Durban? Or – more likely – will he instead just shove it over to the next Minister of Public Enterprises in a couple of weeks, along with his heady infrastructure promises that simply cannot be fulfilled.

Patrick Bond is senior professor of development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he directs the Centre for Civil Society; his new co-authored book (with John Saul) is South Africa – The Present as History.

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