Community groups from Southern Africa join forces in South Durban for the launch of the Bucket Brigade campaign to collectively challenge industrial pollution.

23 November 2001 - Community organisations from Mozambique, Swaziland, Highveld East (Secunda), Sasolburg and Cape Town gather in South Durban this weekend to pool their resources and expertise in the first cross-border programme to tackle industrial air pollution in the Southern African region.

Hosted by groundWork and the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), the air quality project, or Bucket Brigade campaign, is the first joint effort by southern African environmental groups to monitor government policy and industrial practices to empower communities to negotiate with polluting industries for a safer, healthier environment.

The SDCEA, made up of diverse groupings, has a strong and internationally recognised history in challenging industry and holding them to account for their pollution in South Durban. SDCEA’s organised vigilance and reputation has forced the South African Minister of Environment, Valli Moosa, to intervene in the area. Moosa has on several occasions, both nationally and internationally, conceded that the South African government was acting in South Durban because the community groupings have organised themselves.

One of the tools used in organising has been the air pollution monitoring bucket that was introduced into South Africa bygroundWork in May 2000. (visit: www.igc.org/saepej/bucket)

The Bucket Brigade, are community groups which will use this unique system to develop with groundWork monitoring programmes to assess industrial pollution in their neighbourhoods.

“This exchange is part of a three year programme that commences this month to start ensuring that there is accountability by industry for their pollution and failure to ensure our basic human rights of clean air due to their need for profit”, said Ardiel Soeker, the groundWork Air Quality Project Coordinator.

The success of this pilot programme in May 2000, has encouraged groundWork to develop an Air Quality Project for the southern African region, whose communities may be spread far apart but are united in their common struggles against big polluting industries from Sasol in the Free State to Mozal in Mozambique.

Sasol, in Sasolburg, tested the scientific integrity of the Bucket Brigade when Sasol invited Leeds University (UK) into Sasol, as part of a broader USA National Aeronautics Space Association (NASA) programme, to measure pollutants in Sasolburg. The result was that the Leeds University sampling process, which took air samples by plane and ground transport, identified similar pollutants to the Bucket Brigade and at even higher levels.

“The evidence is there that we are breathing in pollution from industry,” said Sasolburg Environmental Committee spokesperson, Nicholas Kasa, who lives in Zamdela, a black township placed next to the Sasol industry by the apartheid government. “I urge our Minister Moosa to now act in Sasolburg as well, and not only focus on South Durban.”

Nicholas’ community colleague, Patrick Duma, from Highveld East (Secunda), another town dominated by Sasol industries speaks on behalf of the eMbalehnle Environmental Youth Club. He cautions Sasol of putting health before profit. “Sasol makes a staggering profit of R29 million a day. Surely being a South African company, they should lead by example to other multi-national corporations and start supporting our democracy by reducing their pollution and give meaning to our new Bill of Rights which guarantees us clean air.”

Table View resident and Chairperson of the Table View Resident Association, Andy Birkenshaw has fought for cleaner air legislation at all levels of government and pleads with the multi-national Caltex refinery to clean up, and also questions the profits of companies. "What we can't understand," said Birkinshaw, "is that this international company has for the past thirty five years been shipping their profits off-shore to their share-holders and yet they won't make the investment that will help protect the health of our communities, their neighbours.”

It is clear that profits do come before people’s health in places like Mozambique, too. Mozal the aluminium smelter in Mozambique has run into problems a year after it opened. The cooling tower in the treatment plant, that is an anti-pollution scrubbing device, became corroded and “gave way”. But despite this the company continues to operate, spewing out fluoride pollution on the neighbourhood. “Development is good for Mozambique, but our health is important so that we share the wealth of this development” says Livaningo representative Bruno Nhancale. “We want to learn from our fellow South Africans as to how they are managing to get their government to talk to them and listen to them in South Durban.” Livaningo is the first civil society organisation linking environmental justice to human rights in Mozambique.

The coming together of these Southern African groups will also help to curtail the export of dirty technology from South Africa to neighbouring areas. One group which has already tackled this issue, has been Yonge Nawe, an environmental organisation in Swaziland that is concerned about the import of dirty technology into Swaziland from South Africa. The challenge of waste incineration is high on the agenda of Yonge Nawe. “We do not want polluting industrial technology, such as incinerators to be imported into Swaziland” states, Samuel Payne, Programme Office in Yonge Nawe.

This weekend’s gathering, said Desmond D’Sa of SDCEA, was a welcome opportunity for the people of South Durban to work with similar communities in the region.

“The struggle for healthier, safer environments should not be restricted within the borders of individual communities, but should cut across divides to unite suffering peoples and become a regional, and eventually, a global campaign,” he said.

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