Address by Bobby Peek, Director of groundWork, to healthcare professionals at the Middelburg Provincial Hospital.

27 July 2018 -

Dear Friends, Mr Modise and Dr Rahimi

I have spent the last week in the Highveld, Sekhukhune and the Gauteng area.  It has been an interesting trip of early morning road journeys, and flights over the area, that has been heavily blanketed in some of the thickest pollution I have experienced.

I first visited Middelburg and the then Witbank area in the 90s, when we worked with communities and worker groups challenging vanadium impacts on workers and the burning coal mines, which was referred to as the fires of hell, around eMalahleni.  Later we came here in Mpumalanga to challenge Sasol’s pollution at Secunda, an operation that is the source of the single biggest greenhouse gas pollution in the world. 

The 90s was an exciting decade. Tata Madiba  broke free from the shackles.  We had our first democratic elections, a people’s government and with it came a democratic constitution and the promise of a new future enshrined in the Bill of Rights. We were all jubilant and worked hard with our new democratic government to make the commitments in the Bill of Rights a reality for all.  Section 24 of our Bill of Rights says: “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being”.  But from  the onset, we realised that we had to work hard with  people in their respective communities to make this right a reality.  In 1994, we had no laws that protected people from toxic waste dumping.  Indeed, environmental racism was the order of the day because it was in black neighbourhoods that industries dumped their toxic waste.  Apartheid city councils dumped the excessive waste of privileged white consumption where it rotted and polluted black people’s neighbourhoods, our land, air, water and, above all, our health.  This was racist, as well as an environmental injustice.   Democracy promised to reverse this racism and injustice.

As civil society in the 90s we fought to get environmental justice into our new democratic laws, and as a result, the 1998 National Environmental Management Act forbids that the poor and black people should suffer because some have more, some are wealthier, some think they are ‘elite’. It calls for environmental justice.

In 1999, groundWork was born and we immediately started working with community people living next to waste dump sites and the petro-chemical industries to challenge for democratic laws.  While we had the new National Environmental Management Act, we were still a lawless society, for we did not have specific laws; i.e. emission standards for pollution from industry that could protect peoples’ health.  We worked tirelessly and in the 2000s got the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act and the Waste Act.  Critically, the decisions made in this period were as a result of government listening to community voices, and for the first time we had a law on emission standards for polluting  industries.  This was in 2004.  It was a critical victory, for until 2004, we were governed by a piece of archaic legislation that was concocted by the apartheid state in 1965, based upon a piece of British legislation from the turn of the 19th century.

Critically, we also got a section in the Air Quality Act, Section 18, which indicated that government would pay special attention and invest significant and additional resources in polluted areas such as the Highveld.  These areas are referred to as Priority Areas, based upon our narrative of the early 2000s which described these areas as “pollution hotspots”.  In 2004 we walked  the chambers of parliament in Cape Town feeling confident that we were building a strong democratic base for a future where people in Middelburg and eMalahleni will have clean air, and “an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being”.

For us, be it groundWork or the community people we work with, environment speaks to our health foremost.  We see environment from a justice perspective and by this we mean we have to have decent basics of life such as nutrition;  services such as water, energy and health; a safe and decent working environment; and an area where can live as a community in the knowledge that our children can play in an environment that will foster their growth.

From day zero at groundWork, we focused on health and we spent time and resources to understand the air we breathe and the impacts it has on children.  We have always tried to find innovative ways of getting people to understand the air that we breathe and the unquestionable negative effects it has when polluted.

We have invested in various air pollution sampling methods and the results of these air samples and the subsequent health research laid the basis for the Air Quality Act. As groundWork we always recognised that we cannot fight for and attain environmental justice alone.  We also recognise the fact that you cannot do it with a one-dimensional strategy.  The reality is that our praxis is a deliberate process of mobilising and resistance, to advising and cooperation to ensure that we bring about transformative change.

From 1999 we have worked with the young Health Care Without Harm, and have grown with this international organisation over the years and today we have an exciting model of citizens working with the health sector for environmental justice globally.  From the early days of fighting for a better health care waste management system that sought better health care waste management and the elimination of mercury in the health system to the present Global Green and Healthy Hospital (GGHH) programme.

Today we are fighting for the world to understand the dangers of climate change. We believe strongly that tackling climate change is a health issue and we need the health sector to be a leader. Given the seriousness of climate change and the impact this will have on the public health, there is a growing demand by the public that governments engage at the nexus of sustainable development, climate and health. The health sector plays an integral role in ensuring that people’s health and climate change remain at the forefront of decision makers’ actions. Climate change and health can no longer be approached  as mutually exclusive challenges.

The biggest drivers of climate change and health impacts are burning fossil fuels and, in this area, the burning of coal by Eskom, Sasol and the metal industries.  Sadly, the poor who do not have access to healthy energy are forced to burn coal in their homes.  So they suffer from outdoor and indoor air pollution.  The links between climate change and air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA) is clear for everybody to see. Climate change and air pollution are driven by big industry and, in particular, the energy sector in the HPA.

In the past 5 years the WHO and other global health organisations of good standing have categorically stated that air pollution is responsible for a significant portion of the global burden of disease and is the leading cause of non-communicable disease deaths globally.  This has been because of the very many in the global community, particularly in the health sector, raising these issues.

The deaths attributed to air pollution in the HPA are not properly accounted for and we need the health sector to work with us to address this environmental and health injustice. Clinics, hospitals and health care systems around the globe are already taking innovative steps to reduce their own carbon footprint, invest in clean renewable energy, develop resiliency strategies, educate their staff and patients, and advocate for policy that protects public health from the impacts of climate change and promotes environmental health.

The GGHH programme has played a fundamental role in ensuring these changes are realised.  The Western Cap and KwaZulu Natal Departments of Health, the Johannesburg Health Department, the Free State and Northwest hospitals have all joined these GGHH initiatives. Membership from other parts of the continent include one hospital in Kenya, one in Morocco and 12 hospitals spread out across Ghana, Tanzania and Madagascar.

The overall goal is to have the involvement of all health care structures in Africa and across the globe all working towards providing sustainable health care practices that will consider patients, health workers and environment care.

We want you to add your voice to the energy debate, as environmental factors such as air pollution is responsible for 25% of the global burden of disease. This makes air pollution a health issue rather than just an environmental issue.

Your voice is power and is trusted, we believe the government will hear your call to action.

Finally, I stand here today before you because I grew up and lived for many years a mere stone’s throw away from South Africa’s oldest polluting oil refinery, Engen.  I also remember been shipped off to a rural boarding school so that I could be free from the toxic air pollution from Engen which made my evenings a hellish experience as I fought to stay alive trying to breathe as the polluted air closed my lungs with asthma.  And it was on the dumpsites of small town South Africa at boarding school that I played with and gathered the syringes from discarded medical waste and bartered these for other boyish necessities.  So, air pollution and the health sector is in my DNA – groundWork’s DNA – and I hope that through our collaboration our children do not live with these experiences.

Thank you.