“I Can’t Breathe”:

A toxic tour with the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance

Bongani Mthembu, staff at SDCEA describes the Durban port landscape, filled with refineries, dumping sites, and other industrial plants.

Gregory Hodge reflects from South Africa.*

The impact of air pollution is ever-present in South Durban, or rather Cancer Alley “on steroids.” Through door-to-door surveying, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) found that the local cancer rate overall is 24 times higher here than anywhere else in the world. As visitors, after just for a few hours, we feel the impact in our lungs for days.

Sitting on one end of the Durban port is Engen, a major refinery owned by foreign nationals but being taken over soon by the South African government. On the other end is SAPREF, a joint venture of Shell and BP. A sewage treatment plant, a paper mill, sites for dumping the highly-toxic chromium 6 and other industrial sites fill out the landscape.

Like Los Angeles on a bad day, you can see the air. Here, you see it every day.

Desmond D’sa is a man who immediately impresses you as passionate, gentle, brilliant. He greeted us warmly and invited us into the tight, literature-packed, offices of SDCEA, where he and a small staff take on the issues of environmental justice confronting the South Durban community and beyond. SDCEA is an action research organization that engages residents in identifying and addressing critical quality of life challenges. In a country where 50% of Blacks still don’t have access to clean water and healthy food, SDCEA works with 17 other organizations on a range of environmental justice issues from air quality to toxic dumping.

Desmond D’sa won the Africa Goldman Environmental Prize in 2014.

When we arrive, Desmond quickly begins talking about SDCEA’s work and introduces us to staffers, Priya Pillay and Bongani Mthembu, who accompany us on the first part of the tour. We go to a viewpoint that sits astride the ridge connecting the refineries. On one side is the Indian Ocean, where fishermen are trying their luck at a juncture where a man-made canal meets the sea. We learn that they are part of an “early warning system” that alerts SDCEA staff of releases of cast-off chemicals from the refineries and plants directly into the ocean via the canal. The skin of the fishermen becomes irritated and their pant legs become “bleached” as an immediate, visible impact of the toxins. The police authorities often interfere with these men and women because they are “not good for business.”

There is complicity among the government, the refineries, and local politicians to keep the residents and their allies silent and sick.

We next go to Settlers Primary School, where we meet a teacher who shares his story about the impact of the air quality on him and his students. When he began teaching there more than a decade ago, he noticed that the students had rashes, frequent runny noses, and headaches. In their door-to-door surveying, SDCEA found that 52% of the children in South Durban have asthma, along with the several that had cancer.

Priya Pillay, staff at SDCEA at a school at the intersection of a toxic hot zone. It has the highest rates of leukemia, asthma, and skin diseases in the entire community of South Durban.

After years of struggle, SDCEA and the citizens of South Durban got a concession at this school. It is in the form of an air monitoring machine, which sits on the school’s campus. However, the machine is not on an elevated platform, which would allow it to take accurate measure of the air quality on a daily basis, and the machine is not monitored. It is a hollow victory, but represents a start.

SDCEA works with more than 100 schools conducting workshops on environmental justice issues. SDCEA’s curriculum for students to learn about the public health challenges facing their communities provides young people with tools to fight a good fight as the next generation of leaders.

SDCEA’s work is important as a training ground for the future of the nation.

Many who make up the current generation of leaders, from the ANC and elsewhere, have become partners in these crimes. Many of them, their friends and family members have become wealthy capitalists, much like the old regime but in “black face.” Too many of the promised reforms have not materialized. Unchecked economic development in the name of “progress” has been at the expense of the poor, the refugees who suffer the brunt of xenophobia, and the health of the children of South Africa.

Our “toxic tour” group at a local landmark in South Durban. The plague reads, “This stone represents the strength and the sensitivity of President Nelson Mandela who listened and acted on the concerns of the…Community on 25 March 1995. His humility will inspire our community.”

SDCEA has a focus on women and children in part, because women take an active role in these struggles on behalf of their children. SDCEA has started a cancer support group, a 24-hour clinic, and a crisis hotline to take note of complaints and concerns from residents. They communicate with community members using social media like Facebook, blogs, and WhatsApp as well as “old school” tools — word of mouth, radio and community newspapers.

Through it all, Desmond remains optimistic. In the face of great challenges, he and his colleagues continue to research, teach, and train, with the belief that life will be better on this toxic ridge and in all of South Durban, for its children and those yet to be born.

Here, change can’t come a moment too soon. For me, the “I Can’t Breathe!” protest chant we shouted in the U.S. following Eric Garner’s death by choking at the hands of the New York Police department officers, takes on a whole new meaning here.

*Gregory Hodge is a social change activist based in Oakland, California and is an organizational development consultant with Khepera Consulting.