Editorial: We can’t breathe toxic air

Our political class has been vocal in its condemnation of the murder of George Floyd. It has been quick to align itself to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. His death is a clear wrong, and happening far away enough it requires no action of them here. An easy win.

In the two week of Floyd protests, excessive plumes of black smoke poured out of the smokestacks of the Engen refinery in the South Durban Basin. This sparked a wave of respiratory illness and other health problems, according to the residents of Wentworth. That refinery, along with its peers, has been polluting people’s lungs for decades. Engen denies this.

South African industries have consistently denied a link between their activities and children with asthma or animals dying in polluted rivers. It can hardly be a coincidence that people who live near sources of pollution get sick and die.

Everyone is affected by pollution, but it is the poorest — black people — who paid and still pay the price. These are people who were forced to live next to steel mills by the apartheid regime, or who cannot find anywhere else where they can afford a family home.

This treatment of black lives as inconsequential is woven into this country’s fabric. The colonial system expanded by killing the original owners of the land. Without land to eke out a living, people had no choice but to work in the mines and factories, living in areas designated according to colour.

Since 1994, we have had excellent legislation to control pollution, but business has continued as usual. Although the new environment minister recently said pollution control measures will be enforced.

In South Durban, those with money live on the top of the hills facing the ocean, where the fresh air is, above Wentworth, Austerville, the Bluff and Treasure Beach, the areas most affected by the recent emissions. Government has done little. This is despite the area being a hive of strong environmental action and protest. An activist from the area won the Goldman Prize, considered the most prestigious environmental prize in the world, for their opposition to industries such as Engen.

That refinery has dragged protestors to court to take away their right to protest for the right to breathe clean air. It is hard to imagine this happening if these were white, wealthy lives. And it is not a unique situation. Poor people sucking in pollution is the norm in South Africa. Companies cutting corners and saving money is the norm because pollution doesn’t show up on their balance sheet. Black people dying as a result is the norm.

If black lives really mattered to our leaders, we would take pollution seriously.

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