Environmental protector and activist takes on Durban’s petrochemical industry for healthier life for all
From a small office in Wentworth, Desmond D’Sa has been fighting for environmental justice for 25 years, using a combination of community engagement, regular patrols, whistle-blowers and monitoring techniques to hold the powerful accountable and ensure everyone has access to clean air, water and land.
The list of organisations that Demond D’Sa has been instrumental in forming is overwhelming:
- KZN Subsistence Fisherfolks
- Poor Flatdwellers Movement
- South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
- KZN Environmental Alliance
- Coalition of the Poor
As he reels them off, it is hard not to wonder why they are all necessary. But, as he expands on his experience as an environmental activist, it becomes clear that he knows there is strength in numbers. He is also passionate about including everybody in his mission to provide a more just society as well as a healthier and cleaner world for all.
Desmond D’Sa grew up in Cato Manor, KwaZulu-Natal. At the time, it was a lush area with clean, fresh water. There was healthy soil to grow food and ample space to enjoy being part of a diverse and generous community. As the 11th of 13 children, he learned how to share and how to care about the people around him.
It was at 15 years old that life changed dramatically. In 1966, the family was split apart and removed from Cato Manor as part of the Group Areas Act. He was relocated to a flat in Wentworth with his mother where he still lives to this day.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Seventy years on, the Group Areas Act continues to map the future of Durban
Desmond’s journey into activism started in 1998 while he was working at an acrylic factory making fibre for clothing and blankets. He noticed that many of his colleagues were becoming sick from working with the toxic liquid chemical acrylonitrile. They were being dismissed by the factory clinic without any concern or treatment, and so he decided to investigate.
While his bosses were “sleeping on the job”, Desmond would steal whatever paperwork he could find and take it home to read up about the risks that they were exposed to. After he started asking questions and speaking up at work about the dangers, he was dismissed from his job.
This experience lit a fire in him and inspired him to understand the true extent of the damage that the petrochemical industry in Durban was causing to its workers and the communities living around the factories.
From that point on, it has been a life mission for Desmond to be the protector of air, water and land pollution, not only in Wentworth but around the country. From a small office building in Wentworth, he started the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance which has grown to become a team of nine people who work tirelessly to monitor pollution levels from local industries.
Through a programme of community engagement, regular patrols, a network of whistle-blowers, and monitoring techniques for air, water and soil, they keep an eye on the whole city and, when the pollution levels get too high, they know who to hold accountable.
“We are more than a watchdog, the officials don’t even know what is going on. We hammer them, we put pressure when we need to.”
With over 25 years of experience as an environmental activist, Desmond has learned how to fight and how to get his message heard. He is so passionate about his role as an environmental protector that, from the outside, his workload and responsibility to the community can seem overwhelming. But, having had these values instilled in him from a very young age, hard work and helping others is second nature to Desmond.
“My mother and father were always about service. If anyone knocked on the door and asked for anything they would give it. We never hoarded money. We were taught to be providers. As long as we work hard, things will work out.“ DM
The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.
Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]