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Merebank’s toxic apartheid environmental woes escalate exponentially 29 years into democracy


Dr Brij Maharaj is an academic and civil society activist.

Communities in South Durban have been living cheek by jowl with polluting industries since the 1960s – and little has changed, with the government continuing to approve large-scale toxic projects in the area despite the health consequences for the people who live there

Similar to the almost generic South African experience since 1994, most of the former black residential areas in Durban have continued to decay and decline through a process of deliberate neglect, and approval of conflicting land-use zoning. This can best be illustrated with reference to the South Durban Basin, and especially Merebank (declaration – this columnist’s hometown) and surrounds, which has also earned the rather dubious honour of being one of the most toxic, polluted zones in the world, with several health-related risks. 

Given Merebank’s turbulent history and the trials of displacement it faced during apartheid, it seems that in South Africa’s democratic era the residents are exposed to similar hardships, largely because of the government’s failure to comply with its constitutional obligations. 

Some of the first industrial pollution hotspots in South Durban were located in Wentworth, Merebank, Congella, Umbogintwini, the Bluff, Jacobs, Isipingo, Umbilo and Clairwood. There was little or no consideration for the negative impacts on the environment and residents in the area. This overt industrial takeover of South Durban was planned to ensure access to cheap labour from Merebank, Wentworth, Lamontville and Umlazi. 

‘Island in a sea of industries’

The entrenched environmental racism resulted in low-income African, coloured and Indian communities living cheek-by-jowl with heavily polluting industries in the South Durban Basin. Each residential suburb in South Durban gradually became an “island in a sea of industries”. Most notably, Merebank is home to two of the largest oil refineries in South Africa operated by Engen (commissioned in 1954), and Sapref (South African Petroleum Refinery, 1963), as well as the 13th-largest pulp and paper company in the world, Mondi (1967). Other significant industrial operations include paint factories, chemical plants, sewage treatment works, and chemical warehouses. The effects of pollution were exacerbated by the fact that a large part of Merebank is a natural valley that is hemmed in from the sea by ancient sand dunes that are up to 100m high and inland by a ridge that reaches 150m high in some places.

By 1994, the democratic dispensation in South Africa coupled with the increasing global awareness of environmental challenges, put significant pressure on industries in South Durban to reduce carbon footprints. As part of its response to community pressure to demonstrate greater social responsibility, Engen established the Community Awareness and Emergency Response forum at the end of 1994 to promote community communication with the company. However, the forum failed because Engen refused to sign any legally binding pollution emissions agreements.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Environmental Injustice in South Durban: Community caught between toxic polluters and climate shocks  

In the apartheid and democratic eras, civic organisations played a key role in mobilising the community against polluting industries, and up to the early 1990s, the Merewent Ratepayers Association (MRA – established in 1933 as the Merebank Indian Ratepayers Association) led the way. In 1989, MRA described Merebank as “an island in a sea of industries”. However, it would appear that in the democratic era the MRA became a victim of the demobilisation of civil society (some MRA leaders were elected as local government councillors), and it has remained curiously silent on serious challenges facing the community, such as the sale and conversion of the racecourse into a logistics park. 

If you stand out in the playing fields of that school, if you look out in the one direction, you see the smokestacks of the Engen refinery. If you turn around, directly behind you, you see the smokestacks of the Sapref refinery [Shell and BP].

It was left to the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), established in 1995, to take up the cudgels. Over the past 25 years SDCEA has led the struggle, “organising against oil refineries, paper mills and other toxic industries in Durban in order to contribute to the struggle against environmental racism and working towards environmental justice and environmental health for all”. Notwithstanding the commitment in Section 24 of the South African Constitution that everyone has the right to an environment which is not harmful to their health or well-being, Merebank’s toxic apartheid environmental woes have escalated exponentially in the democratic era.

The school in the middle of it

A 2004 epidemiological study and health risk assessment for South Durban by researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in conjunction with the University of Michigan in the US revealed that the high levels of air pollution in Merebank contributed to increased rates of respiratory issues in children, and adults complained about hay fever, bronchitis, wheezing, and hypertension.

Professor Rajen Naidoo, head of occupational and environmental health at UKZN, elaborated: “Work really started with a single school, the Settlers’ Primary School. There was an incident where a large number of children were collapsing and it was attributed to the elevated levels of pollution in the area. Settlers’ Primary was a very interesting school. If you stand out in the playing fields of that school, if you look out in the one direction, you see the smokestacks of the Engen refinery. If you turn around, directly behind you, you see the smokestacks of the Sapref refinery [Shell and BP]. So clearly depending on which direction the wind blew on a particular day, that school was always in the middle of it.”

Other forms of pollution through soil and groundwater contamination further compounded the ecological challenges in Merebank. Heavy metal contaminants in marine, soil and groundwater systems added to the pollution challenges in the area, especially increased chromium and mercury levels.

In addition to pollution, residents in Merebank and surrounds faced the constant danger of industrial accidents. From 1998 to 2009, South Durban communities witnessed more than 120 industrial incidents, and the majority were linked to Engen and Sapref.

On 28 October 2006, a fire broke out at the Sapref diesel de-sulphurising unit resulting in a three-hour blaze and diffusion of thick smoke throughout South Durban. Merebank residents on the fence line of the refinery left their homes and sought refuge at the Clairwood Racecourse.  SDCEA blamed degraded and outdated infrastructure in the refineries, especially the pipelines. 

On 19 November 2007 one of the storage tanks at the Engen refinery containing 7 million litres of petrol was struck by lightning, causing an extensive fire that burned for three days, engulfing neighbouring communities in toxic smoke and hazardous emissions. Residents evacuated to the Clairwood Racecourse. In November 2008, there was another incident at the Engen refinery, which led to an explosion. These incidents resulted in residents experiencing sore/burning eyes, sore throats and tight chests. 

According to Engen’s own monitoring, the fumes released during the 2007 fire were not toxic. SDCEA, however, contended that these small fires and explosions were warning signs related to the management and maintenance of the refinery whixh were exposing the neighbouring communities to significant risks. 

List of incidents

From 2010 to 2020, SDCEA recorded approximately 61 major incidents in total – about 13 from Engen and 48 from Sapref. The incidents consisted of hazards such as thick black smoke, odours and flaring, while accidents involved explosions, fires and plant malfunctions. A 2017 report found that between 2000 and early 2017 there had been 55 major fire incidents in the Merebank and adjacent areas. Each of these explosions and fires harmed the health and safety of residents as well as workers at the various industries. 

On the morning of 4 December 2020, there was a massive explosion at the Engen refinery. The blast was heard up to 20km away in the north of the city. A nearby block of flats was set alight while other buildings suffered structural damage. Seven people living near the refinery were injured as a result of the blast and subsequent fire. They were treated for burns and smoke inhalation.    

The residents of Merebank continue to be exposed to toxic environments daily as a result of oil refineries and chemical industries in the area. There is no sign of any relief for residents as the government continues to approve large-scale neoliberal, toxic projects in Merebank and surrounds – a form of ‘accumulation by contamination’. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Durban South residents resist Engen plans for fuel storage depot

For example, advanced plans for the Dugout Port (DOP), Back of Port (BOP) and the conversion of the Clairwood Racecourse into a logistics park have left the residents of Merebank in a state of panic and uncertainty, fearing increased pollution and the very real possibility of displacement and relocation. The rezoning of the racecourse has resulted in the loss of the last green lung in the area as well as a recreational space, escalation in pollution hazards, and an increased influx of trucks into the residential area.

The government turned a deaf ear to community protests opposing these projects. Key decisions were made behind closed doors without any public participation, as well as any serious social and environmental impact assessments. Joanne Groom, communication officer at SDCEA, emphasised that there was a need for “stricter enforcement of the Constitution and environmental health policies, which means regulatory bodies should stay away from corruption and instil policies that are aimed at protecting the environment and lives of people”.  

Slow violence

It is important to note that the threat to the homes and livelihoods of South Durban residents is not new and has been on the agenda of the Durban City Council for the past 60 years. In October 1964, the City Engineer, CG Hands, contended that to promote “industrial expansion in the City … it can be expected that the following net acreages of land will become available in the future: Clairwood Flats 310 acres … (p. 40) … Merebank-Wentworth Housing Scheme area (when houses have been amortised) 740 acres (p.41)”.

There have been suggestions that Merebank is being industrialised by stealth, through a process of deliberate decline, dereliction and an abdication of social responsibility by the government and corporates over decades and generations, which has been referred to as a form of ‘slow violence’. According to Professor Rob Nixon from Princeton University, slow violence “occurs gradually and out of sight, [like toxic pollution] a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is not typically viewed as violence”. 

Merebank has historically been a zone of heavy industries, especially chemicals and is a direct result of racially prejudiced apartheid-era town planning. The historical juxtaposition of residential and industrial zoning in Merebank and surrounds contributes to the current social and environmental crises such as pollution, health problems and industrial accidents, and this is grounded in racism and social inequality. 

Three decades into democracy, this situation is worsened by the inability, failure or reluctance of government agencies to monitor and enforce regulations and comply with constitutional obligations, while the offending industries continue to be evasive with residents and civics about risks. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    With both the Engen and the SAPREF oil refinery now shut down and unlikely to restart, one would have thought this could be the start of a new, clean and restorative era? Alas, it seems mindsets remain fixed on a damaging model of ‘industrialisation’?

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Money talks,to quote Thoreau”the more things change, the more they stay the same”

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