Our Burning Planet


‘Deadly Air’: A case about real lives and real people

‘Deadly Air’: A case about real lives and real people
Partner organisations and community members protesting outside the Pretoria High Court on the day of the ‘Deadly Air’ hearing. Photo: Life After Coal

In a landmark court case, the South African government is being sued for the first time by environmental activists for alleged violation of the constitutional right to clean air.

Promise Mabilo has been living at the epicentre of the world’s largest coal-fired power plant emissions hotspot for the past 22 years. Her son was diagnosed with asthma in 2008, which has affected his studies and his childhood.

Emalahleni reimagined

Emalahleni reimagined: Artist Breeze Yoko paints a mural in Emalahleni showing what life after coal looks like while activist Promise Mabilo looks on. (Photo: Life After Coal)

Mabilo is one of the applicants in the landmark “Deadly Air” case heard in the Pretoria High Court on 17 and 18 May. She gave an emotional account following the conclusion of the hearing about how the air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area in the northeast of South Africa has affected her.

“For me, this case is very important because people around the Highveld are really suffering,” said Mabilo. “I have a son who is suffering from asthma and I feel the pain when I look at him. 

“His childhood had limitations because he couldn’t play with other children, run around or carry heavy objects. I also noticed his school performance dropping because he wasn’t attending school regularly as he would be sick for one week then be okay the next.” 

Promise Mabilo

Promise Mabilo, the coordinator of Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, has lived in Emalahleni for the past 22 years and has been directly affected by the air pollution in the area. (Photo: Daylin Paul/Life After Coal)

Mabilo, who has been living in Emalahleni for the past 22 years, said the poor air quality has also affected her emotionally. “The more I see the results of breathing in this polluted air and the people I live with in the community who are also sick and suffering from asthma, I feel abused and violated because I know what the cause is,” she said. 

Two environmental justice groups, groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, are seeking recourse from the high court on the high air pollution levels in the Highveld Priority Area, which was formally declared a pollution hotspot in terms of the National Air Quality Act in 2007.

‘Deadly Air’ hearing

Environmental activist and resident of Emalahleni, Promise Mabilo, outside the Pretoria High Court on the day of the ‘Deadly Air’ hearing. (Photo: Life After Coal)

Mabilo said she would appreciate a positive outcome that shows the courts see and acknowledge the problems they are dealing with. She hopes serious measures will be taken to make sure that the polluters are compliant with air quality laws and that there will be serious consequences for those who fail to do so. 

“We wish for the government departments to work together with other departments, such as the Department of Health. We do not just want compliance from the polluters because once we get sick, we even struggle to get proper healthcare because we don’t have money,” she said.

Real lives, real people

“This is a case about real lives and real people,” said groundWork’s environmental health campaigner Rico Euripidou at a press conference hosted by the Centre for Environmental Rights. “The people most impacted by air pollution are the least responsible for the pollution, and to make matters worse they have the least agency and the least power to act. 

“That is why this court case is necessary, to give those people who are vulnerable the agency so that the government is held accountable to what they themselves said they would do,” Euripidou said.

In court, oral legal submissions were made by advocates representing the applicants, the State respondents and the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment, Professor David Boyd. Boyd was admitted as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) in November 2020 and is represented in the matter by the public interest law organisation Lawyers for Human Rights. 

The respondents are the president, the minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, the national air quality officer and the MECs for agriculture and rural development in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. 


‘Deadly Air’ case

According to Bobby Peek, director of groundWork, this campaign is not a new issue that began two years ago when the applicants presented papers for the government and the judiciary to hear. “We started following government processes in 2007 to be able to understand how we can assist the government in making the situation better in the Highveld Priority Area. 

“That failed, protesting failed, challenging the government to hold proper records and meeting minutes failed, and eventually we had to seek legal action,” Peek said.

The Highveld Priority Area was formally declared a pollution hotspot in terms of the National Air Quality Act by the environment minister in 2007. The area covers parts of Gauteng and Mpumalanga and is home to major towns such as Emalahleni, Middelburg, Secunda, Standerton, Edenvale, Boksburg and Benoni — all known for their poor air quality. 

This constitutional litigation was launched in June 2019, requesting the court to declare that the poor ambient air quality in the Highveld Priority Area constitutes a violation of Section 24a of the Constitution, which states that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing”. 


Health costs

The court application, according to Timothy Lloyd, an attorney from the Centre for Environmental Rights, “addresses the state of the air quality in the Highveld Priority Area, the health impacts caused by the various pollutants, independent expert studies confirming the major sources of air pollution, namely power generation in the area, and the coal mines that supply the 12 coal-fired power stations in the Highveld.”

In October 2017, the centre estimated that 2,239 human deaths a year could be attributed to coal-related air pollution in South Africa, as well as more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis among children aged six to 12.

In the same year, the Department of Environmental Affairs conducted its own mid-term review to assess whether the Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP) launched in 2012 was meeting its objectives. It found that there had been no meaningful improvement in the air quality and that there had been limited progress in implementing the plan.

Highveld Priority Area

Pollution hotspot: The Highveld Priority Area was declared a pollution hotspot in 2007 by the Department of Environmental Affairs. The area is home to most of South Africa’s coal mines and 12 of the country’s coal-fired power stations. (Photo: Daylin Paul/Life After Coal)

The applicants have asked the Pretoria High Court for two primary orders: a declaration that the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area is a breach of the residents’ right to “an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing”; and an order directing the minister within six months of this order to prepare, initiate and prescribe implementation regulations in terms of Section 20 of the National Air Quality Act, which will be to enforce the AQMP that is in place. 

The present minister of environmental affairs filed an answering affidavit to the papers filed by the applicants in January 2021. Lloyd said the minister admits in the affidavit that “although she is aware of the unacceptably high levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area and the potential for this pollution to adversely affect people’s health, she denies that the government is failing in its duty to address the air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area and she explains the steps taken by the government in the past three decades or so to reduce the air pollution in the area”.

Toxic air pollution

‘Toxic air pollution is killing us’. Activists are suing the government for the violation of the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing according to Section 24a of the South African Constitution. (Photo: Life After Coal)

According to Euripidou, the Environment Ministry acts in isolation when it comes to determining the extent of air pollution and the Health Ministry is not vested in environmental governance. “That is a problem because air pollution is a health problem, and if your Health Ministry is not supporting the Environment Ministry then the Environment Ministry doesn’t have the teeth to act,” he said.

Judge Colleen Collis reserved judgment in the case, which means the applicants now wait with bated breath for her to consider all the facts presented before the court, draft her judgment and come to a decision. The wait for a judgment to be handed down can be anything from a week to six months. DM

Andiswa Matikinca is manager of the #MineAlert platform. This article was produced with support from Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism and Code for Africa’s WanaData project.

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