The importance of community activism

SDCEA meetingAddress by Bobby Peek, at the 2018 Biennial General Meeting of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance - 03 August 2018.

Dear Friends, Chair of SDCEA Steering Committee, The Chair, and the Staff

Congratulations for keeping activism alive.  For making it through another year of struggle. For taking on what seems like the impossible and emerging victorious.  For taking on the impossible at times, and despite not emerging victorious, keeping your heads up, and continuing the fight. 

Congratulations for keeping up the fight against elite political and corporate power. For rising against the crude capitalistic machinery. For standing firm against the injustices suffered by our people. For Keeping up the fight against “mal-development and undemocracy” as the Abahlali baseMjondolo would say. 

Congratulations on a great and committed steering committee, staff I have grown to admire and have huge respect for and volunteers that continually come through SDCEA, be it academics, students, youth and residents of south Durban.

Congratulations for keeping true to the slogan I often have in my head during difficult times: We Exist to Resist.  A pop cultural slogan that has emerged from the UK in the youth’s defiance of the staid and oppressive politics of present day England.

The work that the Steering Committee, staff and volunteers do as SDCEA is never about self.  It was, is, and always will be about the community of south Durban. From that very first protest against Engen on the 25th March 1995 till today, 23 years later, the defence of the people of south Durban has been at the forefront of the struggle.  With the odds still stacked against us, there is no choice but to stand with each other, support each other, and make sure through this we recognise that the work we do is not for ourselves. As Charlotte Maxeke, nurse, social justice and political activist and one of the first Black women graduates in South Africa and one of the first Black South Africans to fight for freedom from exploitative and social conditions of African women said: “kill that spirit of self, and do not live above your people but live with them. If you can rise, bring someone with you.”  The work of any activist, resistance and justice organisation must live by this marker that Charlotte Maxeke has put down. Today, too often, successful groups who started with resistance fall into the trap of being NGOs taking on a different persona and position to that into which they were born.  It is community groups or fence-line formations like SDCEA and its sister organisations such as the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, the South African Waste Pickers Association, the Karoo Environmental Justice Movement and the recently launched Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network that reminds us that people living on the fence-line and their struggle is most important.

It is not easy in today’s brutal South African politics to be able to stand firm in what you believe in.  Companies such as EnviroServ and Atha Africa Ventures have been implicated in dividing community and public opinion and thus putting local people against each other.  In the Shongweni struggle where SDCEA stood in solidarity with the Upper Highway Community and KwaNdengezi against EnviroServ, they, and in particular Desmond was told that this is not their space by those that have been lured to favour EnviroServ.  This has resulted in a brutal battle with threats of violence being the order of the day.  This divide and rule tactic, that was the basis for the apartheid philosophy is being used by the likes of EnviroServ and other corporates in South Africa and globally, for nothing less than to serve their own interest.  We have to commend, albeit strange for us to do so, the Department of Environmental Affairs who has stood up to this skullduggery and clearly stated in the last meeting of the monitoring committee: “And finally, as a member of this committee and as the regulator, I must caution EnviroServ and Mr Taaka.  The platform here is not to polarise the community.  There is an issue on site with regard to odors.  This is not a platform to divide.  Here is where communities whether you’re, black, white, blue, brown or green, you come together because you’re affected.  So this, what we need to do here, in this monitoring committee is give the scientific facts and give the improvements.  And you don’t have to politicise.”  We need to recognize that the Department finds strength in your resistance to be able to do their jobs as officials.  Because if you do not push them from below, they will be forced to bend to corporate power as so often our politicians do from above.

We must remember that challenging power and the powerful norm of the day is never easy.  Let’s remember what Martin Niemöller, Pastor during the Nazi Era who opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches, said: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me!”  So long live fight by SDCEA against the “powerful norm”.

We need to remember that it was activism in the south Durban area, and SDCEA in particular that laid the platform for democratic legislation on air quality and waste.  It was in south Durban where people were and are ill because of air pollution from oil refineries, and where health studies proved community voices correct.  Now, two decades after these south Durban interventions we have the United Nations and the World Health Organisation admitting that air pollution is one of the key causes for deaths globally.  We can be proud for without the work of SDCEA and the voices of south Durban, this would have never happened.  Now they are talking about big global meetings on health and air pollution – they must come and have it where people are affected and not in fancy boardrooms in Geneva and other places.

SDCEA has survived because it does things it’s own way. It does not try and follow the norm.  They do not try and follow the rules.  Their media strategy is a case in point.  They have developed a strong media presence without following the often spoken about ‘comms strategy’ that floods NGOS these days.  We need to understand why they are so successful.  Keep up this good work.

Finally I want to end off with what Nick Carter, who was a wildlife conservationist and who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1997 for protecting elephants and whales, said: “If you look around and see a problem, and no one else is doing anything about it – you’re elected.” 

Indeed this is the spirit of SDCEA and must be the spirit of community activism throughout South Africa.