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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Students, we will need your critical thinking after the Covid-19 hard reset

Economically disadvantaged students suffer most from disrupted education, but they also have the most to contribute to lessening inequality when we build the new normal

Residents raise a stink over landfill

The years-long battle against the EnviroServ waste site at Shongweni has taken a new turn

The mechanism of contagion in racism

How race came to function as fuel to an exploitative economic system. Take the case of South Africa…

On bioclimatic architecture: ‘We have our own science, but we have forgotten how to transmit it’

This conversation between Mpho Matsipa and Mamadou Jean-Charles Tall, focusing on bio-climatic architecture in Senegal, is part of the larger African Mobilities project

The Portfolio: Global Africa Lab

A project by Global Africa Lab explores the future of Black neighbourhoods affected by gentrification in New York City

Beware of Big Business bearing gifts

Large corporates whose business has thrived because of inequalities, could be hijacking the anti-racist movement by offering money and not tangible changes
Advertising

Vaccine trial results due in December

If successful, it will then have to be manufactured and distributed

White men still rule and earn more

Women and black people occupy only a few seats at the JSE table, the latest PwC report has found

ANC still at odds over how to tackle leaders facing...

The ANC’s top six has been mandated to work closely with its integrity committee to tackle claims of corruption against senior party members

The PPE scandal that the Treasury hasn’t touched

Many government officials have been talking tough about dealing with rampant corruption in PPE procurement but the majority won't even release names of who has benefited from the R10-billion spend
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday