On this page you will find a collection of opinion pieces. Opinion pieces provide detailed viewpoints written by groundWork staff and researchers. Most of these items will also appear in the press, both print and online. Click here to access our Opinion & In the Media ARCHIVES menu at the page bottom.

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Landfill Has Become a Permanent Problem for City

Every piece of waste legislation has been contravened by the site

By Musa Chamane - 05 August 2020

The New England landfill site can now be correctly referred to as a dumpsite as it has become a fixed or permanent problem for the city residents. In addition to being a hub for the city’s waste, it has seen its fair share of mismanagement, corruption, political squabbling, murders, violence, and fires that produce toxic fumes and unfairly affect the entire population of Pietermaritzburg.

In 2002 as a student at the then University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg, I learnt that the New England Landfill site had approximately 7 years left in its lifespan. This means the site should by now have been closed, rehabilitated or repurposed around 2008 and replaced with a new site or an alternative approach to deal with the city’s waste adopted. Fast forward to 2020, the site is still in operation and its extended existence is proving to be catastrophic if not deadly for the city and the people of Pietermaritzburg.

The recent fire which is still ablaze is nothing new, as one community member said, ‘This is now an annual event”. Landfill fires are considered by waste experts as the least desirable outcome for environmental and public health, and sadly are the usual result from a very poorly operated waste management system. This open and uncontrolled burning of landfill sites and the waste therein poses many risks - they pose a significant threat to the environment and also to human health through the hazardous chemical compounds they emit to those exposed directly to the smoke and windblown ash during and after the fire.

These hazardous chemical compounds especially affect people with compromised immune systems and those with sensitive respiratory systems, as well as young children and the elderly. In the short term, exposure to smoke can cause headaches, nausea, and rashes. Over time, regular landfill fires exposures can increase the risk of chronic health impacts such as certain cancers and heart disease. This is because in the landfill smoke there are many harmful chemicals such as heavy metals, volatile organic substances and a particularly potent family of cancer causing chemicals called dioxins and furans. These particularly harmful chemicals have regularly been recorded in landfill fires (these are cancer causing chemicals formed when organic waste is burnt in the presence of PVC which makes up many common plastics), and are known to cause reproductive impairment and cancer in humans. Additionally, chemicals such as Arsenic, Mercury, PCBs, Lead, Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen oxides, Sulphur oxides, Hydrochloric acid – all harmful to human health are commonly recorded in landfill fires. Some of these chemical pollutants can also end up in the ash after the fire and therefore they can be inhaled as it gets blown on the wind. So therefore the combination of the smoke and the ash after the fire will deteriorate the quality of the ambient air quality in Pietermaritzburg.

SavePMB has advised exposed residents that environmental health is compromised and people in the vicinity of the fire must move out of their homes. We are in general agreement with this statement if people are directly exposed and are breathing in smoke – e.g. if the smoke is not coming into their homes then the risk is less, however if people’s homes are flooded in smoke and they experience difficulty breathing and have an acrid taste in their mouths then they should definitely evacuate from that place.

The ills that we see at this dump is as a result of deliberate negligence of the landfill and it has been reserved by corrupt politicians to further their interest. The dumpsite should be covered with soil daily and waste materials should be compacted. Dust suppressor truck should always be there to make sure that dust is supressed and can be utilised in case of fire hazard but that is not being practised because the site is run by political appointments. In South Africa we have over 100 landfills/dumpsites with waste pickers on site. There is no dumpsite that constantly burns like the Pietermaritzburg one. Medical waste drips and syringes, PPE masks, hospital gloves were recently observed by us on the dumping site even though we are aware that this is not a medical waste site - only domestic waste is allowed.

Back in 2011 R21 million was given by cooperative governance (COGTA) to the district to construct a materials recovery facility (MRF) in the city. An MRF is a waste sorting infrastructure which was would have diverted recyclable waste ending up on the landfill by more than 60% - most materials would have been recycled. This would have been a very good “forward looking plan” by the district and COGTA. The money was received, MRF plans were designed, sites identified, waste pickers were trained and organised into a cooperative all was going smoothly…. But as the system was about to be implemented, the district and local municipality had a fallout about the proposed MRF and as a result the MRF was never built because of some political squabbles. COGTA took back the unspent funds!

Similarly, the dumpsite licence was issued by someone other than the appropriate government department – in normal circumstances the licence for this dumpsite would have been revoked. Every piece of Waste legislation has been contravened by the poor management of the site, howeverthe site is still open. Communities of Hayfeilds, Sobantu, Lincoln Meade, Mkondeni, demands answers and that is why they have organised a protest against the landfill management.

Every Pietermaritzburger has had a dose of toxic fumes from the latest incident over the last 3 days and it’s a pity especially for those that are in hospital battling COVID 19 as we know that most victims suffer respiratory challenges. They’re battling to get oxygen into their system and the landfill smoke makes it worse. One Sobantu family had to be evacuated from their house due to prolonged exposure to smoke that lead to a baby failing to breath properly… and what about those poor folks that do not have alternative accommodation?

Musa Chamane is a Waste Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA.

This article appeared in The Mercury. You can view the original press clipping here. You can view/download a standalone webpage of the item here.

Defending Communities and the Environment

By Robby Mokgalaka - 21 July 2020

Life in Somkhele - a rural village in northern part of KwaZulu-Natal - has not been the same since the opening of a coal mine in 2011. The mine has not only brought the continuous buzz of mining’s heavy machinery. It also brought with it, coal dust, potholes on roads, land destruction, water pollution and water flow disruption, unfair relocation settlements and forced removals, exhumations and relocation of graves, greed, and violence. And all of this has been met with constant and unshaken resistance from local activists.

During this time of lockdowns and Covid-19, Somkhele activists and members of the community are being targeted by the pro-mine group for opposing the relocation proposed by the Somkhele Coal Mine to make way for its expansion – demanding more land for their dirty operation.

Between March and April 2020, two Somkhele families (identity reserved) have been attacked for standing up against the coal mine and refusing to move. One family’s house was riddled with bullets through the windows in an attempt to kill them. groundWork together with CER facilitated a process for the family to assisted through the human rights defenders fund, to upgrade their home security in order to fend off further attacks.

The Human Rights Defenders campaign was established in 2019 to help human rights defenders in cases of emergency whereby there are threats or attacks directed to them. The establishment of the campaign was motivated by the collaborative research by groundWork, Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Human Right Watch (HRW) and EarthJustice which produced the report, ‘We Know Our Lives Are in Danger’.

The report is the output of research that was carried out between 2013 and 2018 documenting the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape provinces. The report cites activists’ reports of intimidation, violence, damage to property, use of excessive force, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects in their communities. The outcome of the research confirmed that there were intimidations, threats and attacks perpetrated towards human rights defenders and made recommendations to all stakeholders.

During the launch of the report, the Open Society Foundation joined groundWork and CER in a discussion which led to the establishment of the Human Rights Defenders Fund aiming to provide financial need to human rights defenders for their own safety and security. Parallel to this process, CER and groundWork launched a campaign called, Asinaloyiko (We have no fear). The campaign was aimed at responding to the ‘SLAPP’ suits – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, which a corporate bullying to environmental activists and NGO’s intended to censorintimidate, and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandon their criticism or opposition.

The assistance from environmental defenders’ funds does not begin and end with financial provision, but also employs other strategies for activists to defend themselves. For example, groundWork also assisted in the establishment of a community watchdog in Somkhele, this consists of environmental activists looking out for each other and alerting one another in case of any incidents occurring in their community. Activists are also provided with resources such as airtimes, data, and a Whatsapp group is created for communication to flow. This strategy is at its pilot stage and is monitored constantly with an aim of implementing elsewhere in communities where attacks are happening.

Robby Mokgalaka is a Coal Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This article appeared in The Mercury. You can view/download a standalone webpage of the item here.

Protecting Our Health: There is Life After Coal

Rico Euripidou - 07 July 2020

Public health professionals from around the world have called for a ban on coal. A resolution by the World Federation of Public Health Associations (WFPHA) demands that governments stop the opening of all new coal mines worldwide, accelerate closure of existing coal mines, accelerate the transition to clean renewable energy, and secure a just transition for affected workers and communities.

The WFPHA was established in May 1967 and is now composed of over 115 associations, mostly multidisciplinary national public health associations, including the Public Health Association of South Africa. Together they represent some 5 million public health professionals worldwide including doctors, nurses, health scientists and public health professionals who look after our health needs on a daily basis.

As the only worldwide professional society representing and serving public health, its mission is to promote and protect global public health. At the recent General Assembly on the 9th June 2020, the Federation announced a new environmental policy titled “A call to ban coal for Electricity Production”. The resolution describes the costly and detrimental health effects of coal use for electricity. It argues that the contribution of coal fired energy generation to climate change makes it lethal.  And further establishes the case for agencies centered on promoting human health to facilitate its global ban. This strong message from 5 million health professionals is a wake-up call and means we should all take it quite seriously.

The policy document synthesises the scientific evidence which shows that coal harms human and environmental health at each stage of coal’s lifecycle - from mining, to disposal of contaminated water and tailings, to transportation and coal washing, combustion in coal fired power stations with associated air pollution, and final disposal of post‐combustion wastes.

The policy also provides estimates of the societal costs of coal. These are the “external costs” that are not accounted for by governments and polluting sectors of the economy. The Federation suggests that 95% of the externalized costs of coal consist of adverse health effects on the population.  The estimated annual health costs add up to €54.7 billion in the ‘expanded’ European Union.

Overall, asthma costs the EU €17.7 billion directly and €9.8 billion via lost productivity annually. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, both heavily linked to coal pollution, costs €210 billion and €380 billion per year, respectively. Loss in IQ from mercury toxicity has been estimated at €9 billion annually. In the US, the health costs associated with coal have been estimated at 19 - 45 cents per kWh of electricity produced, which would be an estimated $230 billion in 2017. In Australia, the health costs from merely one coal producing valley are estimated at $2.6 billion per year and globally, the pollution from all fossil fuels are estimated to cost $540 billion per year, the majority of which is attributable to coal.

These annual health costs are staggering to comprehend in South African Rand terms - roughly 10 trillion Rand annually.

In a similar economic evaluation respected health economist Dr Michael Holland assessed the health impacts and associated economic costs of micro sized air pollution emissions from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations in 2017. In a report titled “Health impacts of coal-fired power plants in South Africa”, he concluded that Eskom's coal power stations create a substantial burden on human health, leading to 2 239 equivalent attributable deaths annually, as well as 2 781 cases of bronchitis in adults, and 9 533 episodes in children, together with other related respiratory related diseases in adults and children each year. These negative health impacts are likely to be most experienced by disadvantaged members of society. 

He calculated that health costs from Eskom’s coal fired fleet costs us approximately R35-billion annually in terms of early deaths, chronic bronchitis, hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and a variety of minor conditions leading to restrictions on daily activity, including lost productivity.  Dr Holland’s report excluded the significant impacts on air pollution from mining (such as coal dust), transport of coal and contamination of water.

The WFPHA urges governments to put an immediate halt on the opening of new coal mines worldwide, Enact immediate strategies to accelerate closure of existing coal mines, Accelerate the transition to alternative sources of energy, such as renewables, accompanied by promoting adoption of more efficient electrical appliances, and introducing steps to reduce total demand for energy and electricity, Create alternative employment options for communities currently reliant on the coal industry and develop policies and programs to secure a just transition for these affected communities to the new economic situation.

The Life After Coal Campaign (Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa, groundWork) has called for the end of coal and the transition to a low carbon economy. The groundWork 2019 report titled Down to Zero states that the best option for people and the country is for a rapid transition to renewable energy. Associated with the impacts of coal are the climate change risks including droughts and floods that will further impact on people’s health. Rapidly reducing fossil fuel burning to zero emissions, along with restoring the land and increasing its carbon absorption and storage capacity will help restore our environment and people’s health.

Similarly, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres tweeted on the 29th June that:

There is no good reason for any country to include coal in their #COVID19 recovery plans.... This is the time to invest in energy sources that don’t pollute, generate decent jobs and save money. Now is the time to end business as usual, build a global economy that is sustainable and fair, and put into practice our commitments to future generations".

Rico Euripidou is an Environmental Health Campaign Manager at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA. This opinion piece is available as a stand-alone article here.

You can view the original press clipping here.

A Cheap Shot and Very Bad Attempt at Blame Shifting

By Desmond D'Sa - 22 June 2020

South African Petrochemical giant Sasol is well known for their negligence and environmental abuse revealed their hypocrisy last week when they released a baseline assessment report of understanding the challenges around waste pollution at the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, specifically in the Amanzimtoti and Umbogintwini river.

Their report revealed that the main contributors to plastic waste pollution within the study area to be inadequate and ineffective waste management in communities, lack of environmental education within schools and among communities, a lack of the general public's contribution to clean-ups and litter booms and traps in various locations along the rivers.

To be polite, this is alarming given the fact that Sasol fails to recall that in 2018 their venture NATCOS which runs a storage facility in Isipingo had one of the biggest crude oil spills in the South Durban area in 2001 when SAPREF's pipeline leaked millions of liters on the Bluff and Wentworth. Sasol's oil entered the Isipingo Canal and the Isipingo lagoon, killing many species of marine life. NATCOS have had many crude oil leaks due to a lack of maintenance which has often been denied. Local health officials were informed and they contacted the management which resulted in the storage tanks been refurbished.

Sasol has a history of environmental degradation in the South coast and South Durban area. In 2000 the Sasol Chrome plant repeatedly gassed out learners and educators from the local schools and affected their health badly, as a result it was shutdown. It took a huge outcry from the local community and school management for the government to shut down the plant. Initial complaints from local communities about the constant gas smells which affected residents was ignored.

Sasol Fibers, a plant in Prospecton, South Durban that manufactured acrylic fiber use to release solvents, acrylonitrile and other nasty chemicals used in their production line into the surrounding canals that eventually flowed into the Indian Ocean at Isipingo beach. Eventually in 2002 after pressure from the workers who suffered hip replacements, respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular problems and surrounding communities, SASOL shut the plant and it was sold to overseas interest.    
We wish to tell you that Sasol operations in Lake Charles, USA are different, but even there they have maintained their infamous reputation, denying the local African American community their right to access graveyards of their families. The communities were also not given a fair price for relocation and more recently the remaining residents were gassed out and their health was affected. Not forgetting Secunda which has Sasol's coal to liquid plant which has the distinction of being the single largest point-source of CO2 emissions on earth.

In all their cases Sasol has denied any wrongdoing and has the support of the South African and USA government hiding behind loopholes in the legislation not to comply.  Sasol's recent forage of trying to get authorization for the offshore oil and gas exploration which will ultimately destroy our marine resources and negatively affect the thousands of people who rely on the ocean for an income, like the subsistence fishers and the tourism and recreational industries.

Sasol was built by the apartheid government and handed to white monopoly capital to enrich themselves. The company has a history of oppression of black labour, destroying the environment and affecting the health of communities in South Africa, and now wants to give us solutions that suit them.

Sasol's latest sponsored study is another example of the company wanting to continue the legacy of keeping the dying fossil fuel industry alive by pushing the recycling button and caring for the marine resources when we should be stopping the petrochemical production line for good. Their report is a cheap short and a very bad attempt at blame shifting. Our planet is calling for the end of the fossil fuel dynasty so the climate gets the necessary relief.

Any new investment into new fossil fuel projects given what we know must be understood as an investment into the death of our children and their children. If Sasol is serious as a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Marine Waste Network, it should relinquish all production that creates plastic waste that kills our marine resources and affected the health of society.

Desmond D'Sa is from groundWork partner the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.

This article appeared in the Cape Times, Pretoria News, and The Mercury. You can view the original press clipping here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Wanted: Socially just transition to sustainable energy

Avena JacklinBy: Avena Jacklin - 10 June 2020

South Africa’s ability to transition to an affordable, clean and climate resilient energy system will have to address questions concerning the ownership of energy. The current system neither serves all people’s needs nor produces affordable clean energy for all. The road ahead is challenging and pitted with non-compliance, failing infrastructure, bailouts, rising debt and inadequate leadership potholes that are not repairable with mere plugging in here and there. Our energy system needs a rethink on a national scale and empowerment of people and workers on the ground, while addressing energy usage and needs in an inclusive and democratic manner.

The reality on the ground is that people cannot afford the energy that is being produced. As a result of the Covid-19 economic slide, Treasury expects a wage loss of between 5% and 15% this year pushing people further into poverty.  With job losses, another 10% of people will find themselves there by year’s end. The question everyone should be asking is: “how do we make clean energy affordable for all?” We should be investing our resources in meeting people’s energy needs and buffering communities from future blows of pandemics and climate crises. Privatization of energy with foreign investment will not address the rising cost of energy for the poor.

Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels places us in the top fifteen countries responsible for two thirds of global carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide accumulates and lasts a long time in the atmosphere, causing global warming, drought, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, frequency and intensity of storms and related climate crises.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems, disproportionately affecting the poor. As a water-scarce country, we are extremely vulnerable to drought. This will drive up food prices, increase malnutrition and intensify inequality. Covid-19 has given us a glimpse into how fragile our systems are under duress and revealed the dire need to become resilient to the impacts of climate change. The transition to clean energy therefore has to happen as fast as possible to limit the risk to people and planet.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) limits renewable energy to force coal in. Polluting state-owned enterprise, Eskom, rooted in an apartheid past with crumbling infrastructure and corrupt political maneuvering has plummeted our country into debt of R450 billion and cannot continue to be propped up with more debt. The same goes for any new push for investment in fossil fuel gas infrastructure subject to booms and busts, that will leave us with stranded assets for future generations to pay the price. Globally, we are witnessing some divestment from coal and a growing struggle to push out fossil fuels entirely.

The draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill published for comment by Minister Gwede Mantashe attempts to lock-in fossil fuels by promoting the exploration and extraction of oil and gas. The Bill fails to make adequate provision for consultation with affected communities, particularly those unable to participate during lockdown restrictions. Without proper public participation on national energy policy and enabling peoples’ right to choose, a new era of segregation is emerging that is unjust, illegal and un-constitutional. Those currently in power are widening the chasm between the haves and have-nots, intensifying inequality in our society. Politicians and corporates collude to ride rough shod over people’s rights while smoking pipe dreams of building empires for their short-term benefits.

Several groups including the Centre for Environmental Rights, Earthlife Africa, Frack Free South Africa, Support Centre for Land Change, Oceans not Oil, Enviros, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and groundWork have continuously called for the Minister to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and invest in enabling a just and equitable transition to clean energy that benefits all. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUMSA) supports the transition to a renewable energy system with spokesperson Phakimile Hlubi-Majola saying that it is their members who are affected the most by fossil fuel pollution and climate change: “we are forced to breathe dirty air and drink poisonous water”. The union also supports the idea that the social solution to climate change is not private capitalism and see the need for a socially-owned renewable energy sector as a way to resist foreign multinational corporations capturing South Africa’s energy production. Monopolisation and privatisation excludes all sectors of our democracy and any possibility of social change of energy.

People need to transition from being consumers to both users and producers, that is, ‘prosumers’. This means understanding how we use energy and what it means to produce and supply energy as a collective to the grid. Part of a socially just transition to energy will include the repurposing of fossil fuels infrastructure, rehabilitation of land and water, creation of jobs in renewables, and less reliance on polluting minerals all along the energy cycle. Let people decide how this will work in their own backyards.

People are intricately linked to each other and the planet for survival. The pathological capitalist tendency of detachment from the natural world and losing our core values and human touch is what got us into trouble in the first place. Political parties in power can meaningfully engage with people affected by fossil fuel extraction and combustion, Covid-19 and the transition to cleaner energy. And not exclusively with those that have the resources to communicate virtually.  Empowering people with knowledge and listening to people’s voices through constitutionally sound public participation processes that include the most vulnerable in our society will ensure that no one is left behind. Democracy is about dialogue with each other, understanding each other and jointly building a future together. It will take hard work, inclusion and equality to build a more resilient and socially just energy system that addresses peoples’ needs in a sustainable manner. And, through our recovery from Covid-19, to ensure that we are all protected from the next round of blows expected from the ravages of climate change.

Avena Jacklin is a Climate and Energy Campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This article appeared in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News on 10 June 2020. The original press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Infodemic and Our Miseducation

By Tsepang Molefe - 26 May 2020

If we speak meaningfully of viruses as possessing or being possessed by a drive or instinct, it is an instinct to replicate and multiply. As they multiply they take over more and more host organisms. It can hardly be their intention (so to speak) to kill their host. What they would like, rather, is an ever expanding population of hosts. Ultimately what a virus wants is to take over the world, that is to say, to take up residence in every warm-blooded body. The death of any individual host is therefore a form of collateral damage, a mistake or miscalculation
-J. M. Coetzee-

In light of the recent events, (still unfolding) there has been a surge of false information about the Corona virus and how we need to respond to it.  As the virus spreads, more misinformation about it is shared it seems. While the irresponsible use of social media and other digital platforms is not something new, it’s impacts can cause devastating outcomes as it spreads false counter information and misleads people.  The lockdown did not do this issue any favours, as people are locked inside their homes and using mostly their smartphones to access the rest of the world.

As the death toll and infections from the coronavirus outbreak continues to rise, the sharing and distribution of false health advice and untested prevention measures on mass has not in any way helped the situation. So much that the problem has caught the attention of the WHO (World Health Organisation). The WHO has moved on this by engaging with the landlords of the digital space, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter on how they can curb the spread of the infodemic. Their social media teams and digital people are said to be on the clock from sun rise to sun set to track and respond to misleading information.

The South African government declared: Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the Coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution. They encourage people to verify the information before they share it. Here in South African, the spreading of fake news or misleading information about COVID-19 is now an offence punishable by a fine, six months’ imprisonment, or both. The information includes but is not limited to; false prevention measures or cures, myths and rumours. Since the outbreak an abundance of misinformation has been doing the rounds and it should all be refuted with evidence-based information.

As expected, conspiracy theorists didn’t sit this one out, they also jumped on the band wagon. The conspiracies were also spreading with the same pace as the virus, if not faster.  From Corona being a biological weapon to 5G Networks links, surprisingly they left the aliens out of it. As the Medical Futurist put it: “One person in Wuhan eats an uncooked bat, and your local Walmart runs out of toilet paper. This is such a surreal scenario, no wonder people are looking for alternative answers to how their normal lives got blown into pieces in the matter of weeks.”

The main problem with misinformation is that it sometimes occupies the vacuum of science, facts and truth. This leads to valuable information being misplaced and ignored, its place taken by false information. As the cliché goes, this is a matter of life and death, people are looking for trustworthy information that could assist them in the fight against the pandemic. People should at all times scrutinize the sources of the information they consume. The opening paragraph by the great novelist John Maxwell Coetzee is an abstract from “Diary of a Bad Year”.  While Coetzee made reference to the 1918 influenza pandemic, his philosophical thinking makes for an interesting observation during these times. The Corona virus in its quest to take over the world has brought with it uncertainty, job loses, more economic instability, panic, anxiety, misinformation and many other unwelcomed negatives.

Tsepang Molefe is groundWork’s Media Information & Publications Manager

This article appeared in the Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. The press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Back to basics is the only sustainable solution

Avena Jacklin

By: Avena Jacklin - 29 April 2020

By month end in South Africa, most people are hungry. Every month. That is in ‘normal’ times. And that is for ‘normal’ families – not the very poorest – in a country where 60% of people are poor, according to official figures, and the next 20% are just one misfortune away from poverty. That is a lived experience for most South Africans even before Covid-19 struck. The crisis shines a harsh light on the need to change food system from one that is corporatized to one that is accessible, nutritionally acceptable and controlled by people.

When the lockdown was announced, many people felt rising levels of panic and desperation. Those who could afford it rushed to o buy essential foods and stocked-up. Even before the crisis, most people could not afford a diet with adequate nutrition, according to Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity. This accounts for the high incidence of dietary-related disease such as diabetes and stunting in children. During lockdown, the cost of a household food basket rose sharply, particularly for bread and vegetables. It has stopped informal livelihoods and with the wave of retrenchments and rising unemployment, so are people’s ability to afford even a poor diet.  Some hoped government would supply food parcels to relieve their distress and enable them to stay at home. Food parcels are delivered but do not reach many. The hungry have ignored the lockdown to make means to put food on the table and as the Unemployed People’s Movement echoes: “without food, we need to hustle”. Food parcels while needed at this time, is a questionable approach, taking away people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Addressing the crisis is not about food parcels and hand-outs, but rather about setting in place the practices that will create system change.

The lockdown exposes the fragility of peoples’ basic rights of health, food and water and ultimately to life. It exposes the growing inequalities of the post-apartheid era. The Covid-19 pandemic serves as a wake-up call for how we produce food and who eats what. Following the enclosure of their land, people have been made dependent on industrialised agriculture, turning them into consumers instead of producers. The crisis reveals how many children depend on school meals and are one meal away from starvation. It exposes how many of their parents are just one wage-day away from extreme poverty. It has broadcasted on our TV screens as a reminder to us all about the daily struggles of communities and workers in our country and for many the struggle to survive.

The ‘State of Disaster’ regulations systematically favour the industrial food system. Supermarkets remain open with their supply chains intact.  The reported lack of Covid-19 adjusted work conditions means market gardeners are cut off from markets and street traders are shut down. They are excluded by the paperwork and by not being registered on databases. Such bureaucracy creates rights for big corporates with big environmental impacts but not for informal but sustainable producers. Coastal fisher communities, with the support of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, engaged in a sharp struggle to have their fishing rights recognised. The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries finally issued them with permits to continue fishing to feed their families and recognised this as an essential service. However, it appears that the eThekwini Municipality has not aligned to national State of Disaster regulations and have stopped subsistence fishermen and women from fishing despite their permits, so the struggle continues for fisher folk trying to feed their families.

Everyone who lives in South Africa has the constitutional right to sufficient food and water. These rights are linked to the fundamental rights to life and dignity. Current economic and food systems are neither designed to deliver on these rights nor capable of doing so. They are designed for profit.  Our best agricultural lands are used to grow non-food products and food for export while our people go hungry. Seed supplies are privatised, basic foods corporatised, deadly chemicals and pesticides are sprayed across the land and genetically modified foods entrench corporate control.

For a system change to be possible, people must have access to resources needed to produce food, including water, land and skills. They can create a food network that is not dependent on monopolisation but is owned and defined by people. The choice of what, how and where food is produced is political. It is a matter of survival that people collectively transform the food regime, removing it from the impositions of industrialised systems and create ecologically sound and resilient systems owned and controlled by people. In addition, people need to be equipped to withstand the impacts of the climate crisis including drought, wildfires and floods.

This is what food sovereignty is about. And it comes with a set of practices that include agro-ecology, localised production, seed saving and swopping, growing indigenous foods, conserving water and energy, restoring the soil, protecting biodiversity and sharing knowledge, and ensuring people’s access to food they need.  

A future where everyone has food that is healthy, nutritious and affordable is within reach and it is in our hands.

Avena Jacklin is a Climate and Energy campaigner at groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA

This article appeared in The Mercury and Pretoria News. You can view the original press clipping here or as a stand alone document here.


The Nation needs more than Band-aids, Mr. President - Giving communities power to demand inclusion in decisions made about their lives is key

Avena JacklinBy Avena Jacklin - 14 April 2020

Government is putting people’s democratic rights to know and to say ‘no’ under sustained attack. Government ministers are dodging their democratic duties to consult people and promote public participation by deliberately excluding communities affected by their decisions. Their constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being is undermined in the process along with their rights to information, free speech and assembly.

Gwede Mantashe, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, attempted pushing through the Draft Upstream Petroleum Resources Development Bill by publishing it on the 24th of December 2019 when most people were on holiday. That did not work. Seventeen community groups registered their objections to a Bill that favours industry, weakens environmental protections, is heedless of the climate crisis and cuts public participation short.

The Department of Minerals Resources and Energy (DMRE) then arranged consultations exclusively with corporate and legal respondents for the 9th of March in Pretoria, excluding community groups whose livelihoods, land rights and water catchments will be compromised. Officials said it was each person’s duty to call the department to ask if there was a consultation process and if they may be included. The DMRE had no plan to consult with communities nationally. In the event, the corporate and legal consultation was cancelled as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into South Africa and the president declared a National State of Disaster.

In a separate process on amendments to the Mineral Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and draft guidelines on the resettlement – that is, removal – of mining affected communities, community consultations in Emalahleni, Mtubatuba and Kriel were called off without explanation. Following a lengthy struggle to access information on the amendments, communities from Springs, eMalahleni, Middelburg, Wonderfontein, Phola and Ermelo gathered to meet DMRE officials at the Witbank Civic Centre on the 12th of March.  

The DMRE, however, did not show up and it was left to municipal officials to tell community delegates that the meeting had been cancelled. Deeply frustrated, people then marched to the DMRE offices to demand an explanation for the cancellation and to establish clear processes for consultation with fence-line communities. With the police present, acting DMRE regional director Mashudu Maduka addressed them and blamed the municipality and the department’s national policy unit for the failure to communicate as they were leading the process on consultations. More police were deployed and communities were asked to leave with no further communications.

These patterns of exclusion run deep through all sectors of our government. At the Durban Climate Change Strategy Workshop hosted by the eThekwini Municipality Council in February, attendance was by invitation only and the most vulnerable communities living near rivers, in congested townships with water shortages, fisher communities, food gardeners and small business were excluded from consultation processes due to what consultant Derek Morgan termed “budgetary constraints”.

There are many ways to engage the public, disseminate information and create awareness, including radio and partnering with community organisations and tertiary institutions that work in these areas. Such means are being used by the presidency during the COVID-19 State of Disaster at no cost to government. In the time of climate crisis – with storm surges, floods, heatwaves, fires and droughts – the most vulnerable will need the most support. But we are not prepared. Government’s response is crippled with inadequate disaster planning and very little in the way of climate change mitigation and adaptation plans.

On the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown, the Minister of Environment, Barbara Creecy, doubled the Sulphur-dioxide (SO2) pollution allowed from coal fired boilers, raising the minimum emissions standard to 1000 mg/nm3 just five days before the limit of 500mg/nm3, agreed a decade ago, was due to come into effect. The new standard is 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s. The department’s primary intention is to protect Eskom and Sasol, both of which have worked to obstruct implementation of the minimum emission standards.

This is the second time round for the Department. In 2018, it promulgated the SO2 doubling without inviting public comment. groundWork, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, then took it to court and the department backed down. It withdrew the measure but immediately published a second notice allowing a minimal 30 days for public comment. This allowed desktop submissions for those with internet but excluded the communities most immediately affected by Eskom’s and Sasol’s pollution.

Lowering the standard will result in a heavy burden of disease including about 680 premature deaths every year. That does not count the impact of COVID-19. It is now well understood that people whose lungs are compromised by pollution are more vulnerable to the virus. And the latest research from Italy indicates that pollution helps spread the virus as it is carried by particulate matter.

The long struggle against the autocratic colonial and apartheid regimes and for a democratic practice embracing human rights, inclusion and transparency is being undermined. The Constitution calls for a participatory democracy that enables all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.  This includes closing the loop through feedback processes and continuous reporting between initial public participation and final action in a form that is responsive to people’s needs.  Freedom of information is fundamental to this process.

This government is the extension of the economic relations of colonialism and, as in the colonial period, it requires restrictions on people’s rights of access to information, free speech and assembly. The path to justice is now cluttered with commercial confidentiality, enshrined in the Competition Act, coupled with state secrecy, with the apartheid era key points repackaged as the Critical Infrastructure Act. The infrastructure in question is mostly the infrastructure of extraction.

In understanding what is possible, what can be done, we look to the landmark case where communities stood firm on their right to say ‘no’. On 22 November 2018, following a long struggle to protect their ancestral land from mining, the Amadiba community won a court ruling that government may not issue a mining license on their land in Xolobeni, on the Eastern Cape coast, without their consent.

Issuing directives, gazetting regulations and granting authorisations while excluding those whom the system makes vulnerable is a disease of a political past that is spreading through the cracks of a negligent and reckless official leadership. Washing, sanitizing and band-aiding will not heal a suffering nation. But developing more resilient communities with the power to demand inclusion in the planning and decisions that are made about their lives and the future of their children will bring us to a more equal, more connected and healthier society a society based on open democracy.

Avena Jacklin is groundWork’s Climate and Energy Justice Campaigner

This opinion piece appeared in the Mercury and Pretoria News. The press clipping can be viewed here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Coronavirus Underlines Health Inequalities in Society - Covid-19 will hit the poor hardest amid already high levels of malnutrition, TB and HIV

By: Bobby Peek, 30 March 2020

As with the climate crisis, the coronavirus marks out the connections and disconnections of our profoundly unequal society.  It arrived in South Africa with middle class travellers but it will not be confined to the richer classes.  Around 60% of South Africans are poor, according to official statistics, and they carry a very high burden of disease starting with malnutrition, HIV and TB.  People’s health is also compromised by high levels of pollution in the environmental sacrifice zones where our electricity is generated, our fuel is refined and minerals are mined and smelted.  And while the richer minority have access to high quality health care, poor people do not. They rely on a public health system that is weakest where the need is greatest.  Ironically, more government money goes into the private health system that serves the minority than into the public health system that has been subject to austerity budgeting for over two decades.

The coronavirus has disrupted profoundly interconnected and fragile global systems. However, this gives us an opportunity to make our world more equitable and to test our just transition to a society with decent jobs for all, universal healthcare, and energy systems that benefit people and the biosphere. 

We have to change systems that place profit over health and wellbeing.  We have to recognize and address the political, social and economic factors that govern how health or illnesses moves through our communities.  For example, many people living in informal settlements have no access to running water, making frequent hand washing very difficult, and crowded living conditions make social distancing almost impossible.

In 2007, the groundWork Report warned that economic depression provided the best hope for a credible reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It observed that this was the ultimate expression of unsustainable development accompanied by environmental injustice. This was borne out in the 2008 financial crisis and is again proven with the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Without profound change in the ruling economic system, the costs will be passed to the poor.

We should not be afraid in this time. Most of what to do immediately about coronavirus is already known: wash your hands; don't touch your face so often; stay home.  While individual action is important, it will not stop an epidemic. Only collective action will. Organize locally to care for each other and prioritize reaching and supporting the most vulnerable communities.

Additionally groundWork has taken the following decisions to help slow down the pandemic.

Effective from Thursday, the country has been on lock down.  But will this mean all domestic workers and casual workers get paid; how do we support staff with logistics and additional costs, to build a new work routine, and keep a sense of community during this time; how do we look after our children at home and how does life continue meaningfully.

We understand that we are a privileged NGO and many of our community partners do not have the ability to take the needed drastic action that we can and that is now asked of them.  While our meetings with partners have all been called off, and we are urging our partners not to hold any local community gatherings that were planned we realise it is important for people to organise at the neighbourhood level to ensure that everyone is informed of the crisis and what they need to do and to organise mutual support.  As NGOs we need to figure out how to support community organising as appropriate – way beyond this 3 week lockdown.

In this time of crisis we must be vigilant and find ways of ensuring that democratic practice is strengthened rather than weakened.  One of the practical ways of doing this is for government and corporates to roll-out, as a matter of urgency free wi-fi and data across townships so that people stay in contact and build democratic practice in new forms.  Corporates must drop data charges.  Government must not use this time to push through projects that people have questioned and are not just.  Developments that require public meetings and consultations must honour these processes, and government and corporates must not use this crisis to deny democratic participation.

We urge government to immediately deal with the mass transport system as a matter of utmost urgency and take action to ensure that people who have no choice to use this system are supported and that the taxi industry itself is supported to ensure safety of their passengers.

We are very mindful of the escalation of the Coronavirus (or COVID-19) pandemic.  We need to take extraordinary measures in order to protect our staff and families, especially in consideration that our public transport and fragile healthcare system put our vulnerable communities in particular at risk.  We are working closely with our healthcare partners though our GGHH campaign to make their systems more robust and to meet the most pressing of our environmental health challenges.

We wish you all strength through this challenging time.

Bobby Peek is groundWork Director

This article appeared in The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Mining’s Toxic Legacy for the People of Dannhauser - Profits extracted leaving behind poverty and polluted land and water

By Nkanyiso Mthombeni and Robby Mokgalaka - 16 March 2020.

A very sensitive matter that has surfaced in Dannhauser KwaZulu-Natal which is a small coal mining town in northern part of the province. The town has suffered close to a century of coal mining and has had several issues of environmental injustice cases that have haunted the people and the communities at large way back from the apartheid past to our democratic present.   Mining has brought sadness and poverty to the people of the area.

Like apartheid forceful relocations and grave extraction without proper rituals and compensation to the families concerned is the practice of the past and of present.   Abandoned and unrehabilitated mines are scattered around our lands.  The coal and corporate profit has been extracted and the people are left with polluted lands, water and poverty. 

One such mine is the Durnacol Mine that closed 24 years ago but the community remains with the discarded heap of mine waste and that blows across people neighbourhoods and pollutes the are that people rely on for life.

The state of the Durnacol community has been low-balled - abandoned - by the Amajuba District and Dannhauser Municipality and nothing has been done in challenging Department of Mineral and Resources and Energy to come on board and do something about the hazardous state of the abandoned mine.

As we fight the expansion of mining activity in our communities, we urge people to see the extraction sector as an enemy.  We have seen recent mining rights proposals increasing in the very same region that has been struck by this mining catastrophe in the past and present.

Peoples’ health is compromised on many levels.  Of great concern is government’s community health care hospital built in Dannhauser, just 2km from the Durnacol abandoned mine. The Department of Health should provide hospitals that make people well, and not ill.  It should be a place of healing not illness.  This government facility which started its operation in 2015, is now posing a huge threat to its workers and the community that it’s delivering services to. I've been approached by the workers who are seeing fatal cracks on the walls of this building widening day by day and they now fear for their safety. The sad part is that this infrastructure is only 5 years in existence and had cost R90 million to build, on a shaky ground that was previously heavily mined. The facility is now a threat to the community and employees of the Department of Health. The reason the building is in this state is because this was an old mining site, and the walls are cracking as the land subsides after mining.  The Durnacol shaft number 2 was right where the hospital is now built.

Sadly, some members of the community are not aware nor suspicious as this matter has been treated with utmost secrecy – the public has no information or report on the situation.  There is a clear lack of democracy and closure of public spaces to get this information.  We need an open democracy that allows informed questioning of the decision-makers and policy-makers who continue to grant mining rights in the area and around this region. The authorities completely fail to acknowledge the sad reality which mining exposes society to which is poor health, polluted lands etc.  Thus people are challenging what is happening and workers are also joining in supporting these challenges.  The call for no mining in our communities is becoming a broad call.

This case is a textbook symbol of environmental injustice and deadly costs that results from mining activity.  These experiences also increases the sensitivity of the community to resist such 'development', bearing in mind the aftermath.

I've been fortunate to be referred to the system manager of the hospital about the state of this building – he is fully aware of it. The Department of Health is also downplaying this issue, the hospital being built on a mining area and the fact that this puts people’s lives at huge and unnecessary risk.  I hope that the struggle to improve the hospital is related to our struggle of challenging the ongoing mining of coal in the area.  The links must be considered and understood in the context of our demand to campaign to keep the coal on the ground.

It is evidently clear that the government prioritizes mining companies and their activities at expense of the wellness and safety of people. The destruction of the environment by mining and impact on the lives of people have long been brought to the attention of the government, but always fell on deaf ears.

Back in 2015, various national Portfolio Committee representatives were invited by groundWork to visit the Highveld to witness for themselves coal-affected communities in the area and hear from community people from around the country about the coal mining impacts on their lives. Only few Portfolio Committee members turned up and very little has been done to date.

In 2017, groundWork again assisted the coal-affected communities to visit the national parliament to convey the same message to the various Portfolio Committees, hoping that the attendance from the Committees would improve, there was still less attendance and from those whom we engaged with, yet there was less action.

In 2018 Newcastle, groundWork also assisted the affected communities by developing memorandums to hand over to Mr. Gwede Mantashe (Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy) in both the KZN Mining Indaba and Mining Charter consultation event, calling upon the Minister to take action against the Ikwezi coal mine that has forcefully relocated people and dug out their graves without proper consultation, the minister failed to respond to the memorandums and the mine is still operating and nothing has been resolved. The government don’t care about the people when it comes to mining, it only cares about mining in the pretext of profit making under the guise of development. If it is development, why are people left to suffer at the expense of this development? Who is this development for? 

We need a development plan for South Africa, not an extractives plan.

Nkanyiso Mthombeni is a community activist from NEJA (Newcastle Environmental Justice Alliance) in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal and Robby Mokgalaka is groundWork’s Coal Campiagner

This opinion piece appeared in the The Mercury, Cape Times, and Pretoria News, and can be viewed in newsprint format here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

Africa Under Threat from Plastic Dumping


WHEN China took action to protect its borders from foreign plastic pollution by effectively shutting its doors to plastic waste imports in 2018, it threw the global plastic recycling industry into chaos.

In 2017, according to the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, South Africa was exporting about 315 000 tons of plastics waste. Until then wealthy countries had become accustomed to exporting plastic waste problems, with little thought or effort to make sure the plastic went towards being recycled responsibly and did not end up harming people or the environment in less developed countries.

In particular, North Americans and Europeans exported not just their plastic waste, but the pollution that goes with getting rid of it. However, the plastic waste, once exported, did not just "go away" inevitably mismanaged in poorer countries, it ended up clogging public infrastructure, causing public health problems and most visibly circulating globally in our oceans.

A recent report by a global zero waste alliance called GAIA found the impact of plastic waste exports to Asian countries alarming. Global South countries simply don't have the policies, capacity or infrastructure to safely manage their own waste, let alone the deluge of plastic and hazardous waste that the Global North has thrown at them.

With more Asian countries closing their doors to dumping of plastic waste, Africa is now in a position of threat. Recently Senegal has been receiving waste from the US, and more recently Liberia had received waste from Greece. This leaves us in a difficult situation. Undoubtedly, any plastic waste dumped into African countries will to begin with being burnt as a means of treatment and disposal, or designated as a secondary fuel source for industries such as cement plants, never designed for such a purpose.

Open burning of waste is common in Africa and is among the least desirable waste management practices globally because of danger ous potential health impacts. Similarly, burning waste in cement kilns releases a harmful class of chemicals called dioxins and furans. They last a long time in the environment and stay in the food chain. One of the major sources is the open burning of municipal waste. These chemicals are also known for their reproductive and endocrine disruption properties.

There are global waste treaties that seek to address the global trade in hazardous waste. In 1989, the Basel Convention was agreed in Switzerland as a global response to unrestricted global toxic waste. However, the original treaty did not ban the trans boundary movement of hazardous waste but instead required prior informed consent.

To address this gap, the second meeting of the parties adopted the Ban Amendment, to prevent member states of the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development OECD, the EU, and Liechtenstein exporting hazardous wastes as defined by the Convention to less developed countries. It came into effect last year.

Similarly, the Bamako Convention is an African Regional treaty in 1998 prohibiting the import into Africa of any hazardous including radioactive waste. The reason African nations entered into this agreement was because of continued toxic waste exports to Africa from developed countries most notably the Probo Koala case in Ivory Coast.This is because of the failure of the Basel Convention to prohibit trade of hazardous waste to less developed countries. History taught us that global waste treaties cannot alone protect us: neither the Basel convention nor the Bamako Convention were or are sufficient to protect our global commons from plastics and toxic waste mismanagement.

Bobby Peek is groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA Director

This opinion piece appeared in the Cape Times and Pretoria News, and can be viewed in newsprint format here. You can also view and print/save this opinion piece as a stand-alone document here.

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