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Noise, fumes from French consulate generators constitute ‘abuse’ of diplomatic immunity, say furious neighbours

Noise, fumes from French consulate generators constitute ‘abuse’ of diplomatic immunity, say furious neighbours
Elize Parker, a resident of St Martini Gardens, speaks to Daily Maverick about how the air and noise pollution from the French consulate's generators is affecting residents. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Residents of the St Martini Gardens in Cape Town’s city centre, next to the French consulate, have had enough of air and noise pollution caused by the consulate’s generators.

‘For the life of me, I can’t figure out how this has gone on for so long, knowing the suffering it has caused us residents,” Jeanne van Heerden, a resident of St Martini Gardens building, told Daily Maverick.

She is among many residents who say the French consulate’s generators are affecting their health and livelihoods. The generators the consulate uses during rolling blackouts emit harmful fumes and, residents say, contribute to noise pollution.

Patricia van der Ross, the mayoral committee member for community services and the health councillor, said a complaint was received on 3 March and the City of Cape Town inspected the generators on 7 March. It was found that two generator units were installed at the premises and were both operational. The emissions from the generator unit located close to Queen Victoria Street were found to be minimal in that street. However, there were substantial diesel emissions from the generator at the rear of the premises, venting towards the back of Dean Street.*

A generator is visible from the road in front of the French consulate in Cape Town. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Residents started a petition and an action group, which has 133 signatures, and have worked closely with the City’s health department, but Elize Parker, a resident and spokesperson for the action group, said their “hands are tied” because of the consulate’s diplomatic immunity. 

I’ve underperformed at work as a direct result of not getting enough sleep, and inhaling fumes throughout the night.

Van Heerdan says her baby’s health has been negatively affected and she had to move to a unit in the building that does not face the embassy.

“​​I was forced to move out from the apartment I own and I am now renting another because I cannot let my baby be poisoned by the diesel fumes.”

Another resident, Motse Molatela, said the consulate’s generators are quite loud and the fumes have become very potent.

“During the day… I close my windows so that the fumes don’t come into my apartment, which is right in front of the back generator. The big problem… is at night… I struggle to sleep, and when and if I do eventually fall asleep, the fumes become so bad that they wake me up and I struggle to fall asleep again because of the headache I get from the fumes.

“This in turn affects my productivity during the day… I’ve underperformed at work as a direct result of not getting enough sleep, and inhaling fumes throughout the night.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘You can taste the metal’ – dust from recycler is making us sick and nobody’s listening, say East Rand shack dwellers

Molatela said he dreads the day after a night of load shedding and sleep deprivation. 

The building’s action group first lodged a complaint with the consulate on 3 February and with the City on 3 March, according to Parker, who said: “I suffer from allergies for the first time in my life which has led to serious nasal as well as ear problems.”

Why it’s ‘complicated’

The City’s bylaws state that anyone contributing to air pollution “must take all reasonable measures to prevent any potential significant air pollution” or to remedy existing pollution.

The fumes from the consulate’s generators exit through a pipe opposite residents’ homes. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Should the City find measures to prevent the pollution have not been put in place, it has the right to recover incurring costs from the owners of the land where the pollution originates. In terms of noise pollution, the City defines this as a “noise disturbance”; “a longer-term issue… from sources that are more permanent but less obvious.” 

However, the City says diplomatic immunity complicates its ability to act on these bylaws. 

Section 15(1) of the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act 37 of 2001 says an offence is created should anyone obtain or execute legal processes against diplomats including consular agents. However, it is expected that the regulations and laws of the receiving state are respected. 

Parker believes the consulate’s continuous use of the generators constitutes “abuse of diplomatic entitlement and not caring about your neighbours”.

At this stage, the consulate has done everything in its power to attenuate the level of discomfort for the neighbours.

Since the consulate enjoys diplomatic immunity, the Department of International Relations has been brought in to facilitate a “constructive resolution”.

The department’s Larissa Manuel noted: “A complaint has been registered with the department and the matter is being attended to.”

In response to the residents’ complaints the French consulate told Daily Maverick:

“The Consulate is aware of the neighbours’ concerns regarding its generators. Ongoing discussions have been taking place for several weeks and a meeting was recently held with representatives of the St Martini Gardens body corporate.” 

The consulate said it was investigating alternative energy options to mitigate the impact of load shedding, including batteries and solar panels. 

Elize Parker stands on the corner of the St Martini Gardens building facing the French consulate. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

Residents are unhappy with the noise and air pollution from the French consulate’s generators. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

As of Friday, 28 April, the consulate noted, “new installations” to its generators “have contributed to a clear decrease of the noise”. 

It went on to explain that bureaucratic red tape is part of the reason it is taking a long time to find a long-term solution:

“We have received some quotes but this process takes time, as the budgets for diplomatic missions are centralised in Paris and this type of spending requires several levels of authorisations. In the meantime, as load shedding worsens, the consulate has no other choice than the use of its generators to safeguard its electronic systems and security systems…

“At this stage, the consulate has done everything in its power to attenuate the level of discomfort for the neighbours as well as looking for more sustainable options for the foreseeable future.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Mother of asthmatic children fights for air in dirty shadow of coal power stations

As rolling blackouts intensify it is worth considering whether increased generator emissions are cause for serious concern. Research from the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine indicates that in Nigeria – where power outages in 2011 led to increased use of diesel generators – there is “indirect evidence of the impact of diesel exhaust on lung cancer is indicated by its rising incidence among urban-based non-smokers less than 60 years old, most of whom use diesel generators on a daily basis”. DM

* This article was amended at 12.24pm on 11 May 2023 to correct a quote attributed to a City of Cape Town councillor.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dieter Petzsch says:

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! Eau de Paris and living it up as representatives of la Grande Nation no matter how and what les voisins have to suffer… How about moving the French AND German consulates in St Martini Gardens to Khayelitsha for some true grassroot monitoring (eau de merde) and reporting? How about the French government introducing sanctions – no rugby games – if the abysmal power supply situation because of criminal incompetence on the part of the ANC government is not solved?
    The only humorous advice one can give the neighbours is “aux armes, citoyens!”, but don’t expect our useless DIRCO to do anything by e.g. supplying the Consulate with 24/7 green electricity or the neighbours with free supplies of Corps Diplomatique champagne!

    • André Pelser says:

      Generators are the cheap option, inverters are clean, and efficient. The problem is that people can install generators without first applying for approval of design and location by the authorities, and due notice to neighbours. The City of Cape Town should have revised its regulations long ago.

  • Thibault Moleux says:

    Dealing with French bureaucracy involving Paris based people (surely on strike cause of the pension reform), in May (half of the months is off), with beautiful spring days in Paris making every lunch a two hours break on a terrasse and apero starting at 16h…. Bonne chance mes amis to get an answer

  • Agf Agf says:

    Seriously? With the left wing woke government of Macron in power, they can’t do better than Diesel generators? Skande! Some panels on the roof and an inverter or two will fix their energy problems quick sticks. I think the little man needs a few more layers in his built up shoes to reach up and sign the purchase orders to sort out his Cape Town embassy problems.

  • andrew farrer says:

    nothing a couple of molotov cocktails cant fix – from russia with love 🙂

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