Just admit it, corporate SA: You are killers

The hardest part is leaving. I have done it dozens of times and each time I am left uttering some awkward line. It goes something along the lines of: “Hopefully someone will read this and do something. Hopefully they will be embarrassed.”

It is rehearsed, and now I know it is not true. After more than a thousand days of reporting on the environment, I know polluters feel very little shame.

So much of my job involves working in the shadow of big industrial facilities. I parachute in and escape back to my home in largely healthy Johannesburg suburbia. But I have all the short-term effects – asthma attacks from factory emissions, headaches from sharp smells and days of coughing. I have a sturdy pair of shoes just for walking on mine dumps, with their excess of uranium and other heavy metals – not that I think they stop radiation getting through.

I am constantly trying to link community environmental problems with the industry nearby that is so clearly causing them.

Last year I got my hands on reports that civil society groups had forced Eskom to release. These detailed how the utility had built new power stations, and continued to operate its creaking old ones, despite knowing how many people would die as a result. A state organisation is left to decide what is an acceptable human cost to operations. Eskom has never responded to questions.

Those documents also had the names of large companies redacted – at their request – but it’s obvious who they are. It means there is no official evidence in the public sphere of how air pollution caused by them is killing South Africans. There is simply no way for citizens to make companies account for their decisions.

This is a problem because companies make use of state resources and public facilities to operate.

The South African model of industry and mineral extraction has always been to choose the cheapest way of operating, and to externalise costs. Instead of installing equipment on smokestacks to clean emissions, they don’t. Instead of filtering water before it is released, they don’t. This saves them money.

I have been to dozens of places where residents bear this cost. Last week, I talked to people living downwind of the multinational ArcelorMittal plant in Vanderbijlpark. Last year the company made R220-million profit from its local operations.

Before heading south on the N1 from Johannesburg, I had buried my nose in the company’s sustainability documents – the glossy publications with pictures of smiling schoolchildren they give to shareholders. They look amazing. Commendable, even.

But the reality for the people living beyond the factory’s tall grey cement walls is completely different. Their housing built there by an apartheid government to guarantee a cheap labour pool for its industry, they made Sasol, Iscor and Eskom into large corporations.

In this area, chest problems are the norm. Everyone I spoke to either had them or a close family member did.

Standing on a gravel road half a kilometre from the ArcelorMittal plant, a 60-year-old woman said she could hardly make it to the end of her street. Her cupboard is packed with asthma medication.

Her granddaughter said her four-year-old son had such bad asthma that he regularly ends up in hospital. He cannot participate in sport and the communal activities that shape a healthy childhood. He gets to start life at a massive disadvantage, thanks to a quirk of birth.

I have travelled to every province and heard exactly the same things. I predict what people will tell me. I am rarely far from the mark. But in each case the responsible party either says it is a coincidence or – more often – does not deign to answer questions.

Now, I could just be extremely unlucky in always finding myself in unhealthy pockets of the country. But can it really be a coincidence that wherever people live next to a mine or heavy industry they end up with similar complaints?

Legally, it would appear to be a coincidence. Given that those whose lungs are torn apart live far from city centres and rich suburbs, there is little opportunity for them to demand a better life.

In most places the polluter runs the community. It is the biggest employer. Anyone who speaks against it is punished. The consequences of my reporting for people who are brave enough to speak out and have their pictures taken can be very serious – people lose jobs. This is the position that corporations have been allowed to enjoy in our society.

This has to change. Changes only happen when government officials fine companies, or shut them down. Otherwise it falls to civil society to use the courts to force compliance with the law.

Where a community is sick, it is often because a company breaks the law. Section 24 of the Constitution is revolutionary in that it guarantees people the right to a clean environment.

Our corporations do not care. They are above the law. When the environment department promulgated new air quality laws, Sasol took it to court in an attempt to have the law thrown out. Coincidentally, when it was given a stay to comply with the law, it withdrew its case.

ArcelorMittal did a great deal of remediation after some of its operations were shut down by the Green Scorpions. When Eskom is asked to clean up its act, it threatens that this would lead to blackouts.

These three operations show contempt in the way they treat our land and environment. These industries are responsible for three-quarters of the country’s carbon emissions. They are why we emit as much as Germany, per person. They know they are immune. By bullying the state with threats of jobs cuts or investment in other countries, they get their way.

It is no coincidence that many people living downwind of our industrial facilities are sick. Besides these corporations, few groups have the capacity to do the tests and collate the data that would establish the facts and give people a fighting chance.

Do these polluters really think we are stupid enough to believe in coincidence on a national scale?

Sipho Kings is the Mail & Guardian‘s environment reporter

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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