When the penalty is death

Dicing with death: Lacking resources, poor children from Wentworth turn veld near the Engen refinery into a playground. (Rogan Ward/M&G)

Dicing with death: Lacking resources, poor children from Wentworth turn veld near the Engen refinery into a playground. (Rogan Ward/M&G)

Wednesday morning. There’s a group of five children, three boys and two girls, playing a game of football on the strip of sickly grass alongside Tara Road in the Durban township of Wentworth. Four sticks stuck in the ground have been turned into goalposts. The roadside acts as a touchline. A pathway cutting the verge in half marks the other boundary of their impromptu pitch. It’s more brown and grey than green.

The five youngsters seem oblivious to the Engen oil refinery across the road. The refinery, a national key point surrounded by walls and razor wire fences, is hard to miss.

The children appear equally unaware of the fleet of massive petrol tankers heading for the main entrance of the refinery. It’s early in the day, but the traffic volume along Tara Road, which runs from Merebank through Wentworth to Fynnland, is already heavy.

The sky is dark grey, low, ominous with the threat of rain. It highlights the white smoke pouring from the refinery, provides a backdrop for the flames coming from its conversion plant. It’s almost beautiful, in an ugly, dirty, industrial way.

The Bluff stands behind and above the refinery. The stench from the sea of tanks isn’t as heavy as usual. The wind is blowing towards the ocean, carrying the stink up the Bluff and into Marine Drive. The smell is still there, but it’s being wafted upwards towards Wentworth’s more affluent neighbour.

Most of the stink comes from sulphur dioxide. According to the municipality, Engen accounts for almost half the sulphur dioxide pumped into the air in the area the city calls the Durban South industrial basin. About 3 000 industrial businesses of various sizes operate in this part of South Durban, among them a chromium processing plant, a massive paper mill and hundreds of chemical factories.

The locals call it cancer valley, courtesy of the high levels of leukaemia and other cancers, asthma and respiratory illness that have plagued the area for the past 60 years.

READ MORE: Cancer valley pays a high price for South Africa’s oil needs

Last year, according to Desmond D’Sa, chair of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, a single local church buried 50 people who had died of cancer. There are dozens of churches in Wentworth, Austerville, Merebank, the Bluff.

During the apartheid days, the kilometres of refinery wall acted as an unofficial border between the white Bluff and coloured Wentworth, along with a small wetland park rehabilitated by Engen to offset the environmental damage done by building the refinery. They still do.

My parents lived up the hill from the refinery for nearly 30 years. They were on the wrong side of the ridge overlooking the ocean and Anstey’s Beach, so they had to live with Engen’s stench on days like today. Gerald, my dad, is in remission from cancer. My mom, Winnie, lives with emphysema.

The larger of the girls is patrolling the goals. She has a confidence about her, like she’s enjoying herself.

One of the boys, a short, wiry child, fires a shot. She parries the ball deftly, sends it flying to her left.

The boy stops the ball before it reaches the tarmac. Moves infield and takes another shot with his left foot, the ball flying up parallel to the road. The keeper blocks the shot again, sends the ball off towards the left once more. The boy scurries after the ball. The wind whips it into Tara Road. He dives after it, oblivious of the oil tanker bearing down on him.

The group of men gathered across from the Engen gate start towards the child, shouting warnings, waving at the truck driver to stop.  The other children have frozen, watching as helplessly as the rest of us.

Time stops.

I look away. I don’t want to see what’s about to happen. He must be about six years old.

I hunch my shoulders, waiting for the impact.

There’s a massive screech as the truck comes to a halt. Then silence.

I look up. Somehow the tanker has stopped before reaching the youngster. The drivers behind the tanker driver are hooting, urging him to get going.  He waits for the youngster to grab the ball and dart back to the roadside before, he puts the truck in gear and turns into the refinery.

The boy takes a quick throw in, chases the ball, his brush with death seemingly forgotten.

The group of men on the side of the road look dazed, nauseous.

A passing Metro Police car slows down. The driver leans out the window. Shouts at the children. Tells them to stay off the road. Eyeballs the group of men disdainfully as he cruises past, all aerials, 9mm and German shepherd.

“Where are they supposed to play when there’s no fucking field,” one of the men sbouts after him.

The keeper blocks another shot. Parries the ball to the left.

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