First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
“There’s a smell that’s just not right in the mornings and in the evenings. There’s this smell in the air all the time. When I go outside in the morning I start coughing and sneezing.
“I arrived here in 1992. The asthma started in 1993.
“At first I thought it was because I am from [KwaZulu-Natal] and it’s hot there. And here it’s cold. But soon after, they told me it’s asthma. They haven’t told me what has caused it, but we know it’s from all the pollution.
“So many, too many people here have the same disease. A child is born and almost immediately they have asthma. Why?”
Nikiwe Shabangu (52) knows that the system is uneven. Rigged against somebody like her. Rigged against her body. She understands it deep in her bones.
Her fist grip tightens when she speaks. She would draw in a deep breath and let out a sigh, but exerting her respiratory system causes her pain and leaves her breathless.
She knows that the deck is stacked. That for people like her, for people who live here, the system was not designed to function.
We cross to the pavement on the other side, Nikiwe leading me from the winter sun into her home.
She reluctantly poses for a picture. When she eventually steps out of camera shot after an hour of walking up and down, up and down in mock nonchalance; when she is done answering personal questions, explaining, repeating; when she is done, two 50m (about) smokestacks and six hourglass-shaped concrete boiler towers double in size in the distance. Kriel Power Station sharpens bleakly into focus.
“My second-born also has asthma. The other three are okay. Next door, one of the twins there also has asthma. And down the road there.
“So we go to the clinic and they give us pills and pumps.
“You go once a month to the clinics and they give the medication but that finishes before your next appointment and you have to go to a doctor to get more medication. Which means you have to have money.
“And even if you have just enough money to buy it you can’t because you need a prescription. So if you don’t have money you don’t get any medication.”
A report in 2020 by Greenpeace, using satellite data from US space agency Nasa showed that Kriel in Mpumalanga has the second-largest individual sulphur dioxide (SO₂) emissions in the world, owing to the concentration of coal-burning power stations in the area. SO₂ emissions also contribute to the secondary formation of the dangerous pollutant called fine particulate matter, which is linked to a number of severe conditions, including lung cancer.
SO₂ is one ingredient in a cocktail of gaseous industrial soot which includes nitrogen, carbon dioxide and particulate matter, which together have wrecked the air quality in Mpumalanga and left it dangerously foul.
Kriel, and Thubelihle township inside it, are ringed by, and rely economically on, the concentric hexagon of power stations and the coal mines that feed them.
To the township’s southwest, 22km down the R547, lie the Kriel and Matla power stations. Thirty-four kilometres northeast is Komati. Travel double the distance in the same direction and you’ll land at Hendrina Power Station, while Kendal Power Station is a 51 km loop to the northeast, and not far from there is Kusile, the largest and newest of the stations. Camden, Tutuka, Grootvlei and Majuba form the outer ring of power stations.
The first three power stations are visible from Nikiwe’s doorstep. Thick tendrils of smoke and steam, white as dry ice, carpet the horizon at the edge of the burnt-black grass fields separating Thubelihle from the power station and the rest of the world.
In 2007 the minister of environmental affairs declared the 31,000km² area that covers most of Mpumalanga, and parts of Gauteng and the Free State, a priority area owing to the elevated levels of pollution in the area.
Around the same time, Eskom admitted that air pollution from its coal power plants killed an estimated 320 people in a year.
Independent studies put the number of annual deaths at as many as 2,200.
The seven-point plan formulated by the government back then, to make air quality liveable, has not worked. It has not been implemented.
Fourteen years on from the seven-point plan, two years after activists took government to court for not implementing the plan, a year after Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, told fellow lawmakers in Parliament that the plan “needed to be urgently implemented”, little progress has been made.
Eskom, more than R400-billion in debt and responsible for supplying 90% of the country’s electricity, still hopes to delay meeting minimum SO₂ emission standards at its Kriel Power Station and other ageing coal-burning stations.
It would cost too much to retrofit its stations with technology to meet air quality laws, Eskom says.
“Last week we were burying a child from down the road… She had difficulty breathing, and in a few days she died.”
Nikiwe’s fist clenches again. She unclenches her fist, takes her cellphone from her pocket and scrolls through it for a few moments, eventually stopping at a photograph of a smiling woman.
“This is my daughter. The one who has asthma. She lives in Middelburg. She’s studying there. I hope she doesn’t come back here.
“We’re still learning how to fight this thing. We lost our chance during elections. We didn’t say anything about pollution. That’s why it’s good that you’re here. Maybe when they see us and how we’re suffering, something will happen.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.