South Africa grapples with apartheid's environmental legacy

Issue 

South Africa grapples with apartheid's environmental legacy

By Eddie Koch

JOHANNESBURG — Rainbows have become emblematic of the Republic of South Africa's shift from apartheid to non-racial democracy. Since Nelson Mandela used references to them in his inaugural speech as president last year, they have come to cast their colours across our television screens, our newspapers and the covers of books that describe how he came to power.

The metaphor was first used in South Africa five years ago to describe a novel environmental protest — when a group of white farmers, black peasants, green activists, university students, unionised workers and a traditional Zulu chief banded together outside a British-owned company, Thor Chemicals, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The green group that coordinated the campaign, Earthlife Africa, coined a maxim that said "apartheid divides, the environment unites". Apartheid, by its very nature, was accompanied by environmental abuse. In turn, popular struggles against the human impacts of ecological degradation helped end institutional racism.

Satellite images from space depict a stark border between the lush green fields that are still owned mainly by white farmers and the overgrazed, barren and eroded land in the "homelands" or "bantustans" where black people were forced to live. Under the system of separate development, millions were forced off their land. Just 13% of the least productive land in the country came to be occupied by more than one-third of its 40 million people.

In the former KwaNdebele "homeland" — virtually an edge-to-edge rural slum — and in parts of KwaZulu, the Ciskei and KaNgwane, there is only one-fifth of a hectare of land for each inhabitant.

These extreme population pressures have caused dramatic soil erosion. Annual soil losses — mainly from the former homelands, where congestion and overgrazing have decimated ground cover — are estimated to be almost three tonnes per hectare. "If this soil were loaded onto seven-tonne trucks, placed bumper to bumper, they would extend seven and a half times around the globe", says a recent study on the state of South Africa's environment.

Dr Anton Ebehard, head of the Energy Research Institute at the University of Cape Town, notes that the social engineering of the past has also resulted in severe deforestation. Women in the former Transkei homeland walk six to nine kilometres a day, scouring the bush for firewood so that they can cook and heat their homes.

By 1980 four of the 10 ethnic homelands were already consuming more wood than they grew each year, and it is estimated that, unless this rate is reversed, all natural woodlands in these areas could be denuded by the year 2000.

Apartheid is also linked to the massive air pollution that afflicts Gauteng, the province that makes up the country's industrial heartland. Twelve coal-burning power stations have been located within 100 kilometres to the east of Johannesburg.

These, together with outmoded industrial plants to the south of the city, have been pumping sulphur dioxide and other noxious gases into the atmosphere at levels twice those in East Germany in the 1980s. Emissions from these and two fuel-from-coal plants in the Eastern Transvaal dump 58 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

The pollution has serious consequences for people who live in the affected areas. A report from the state-run Council for Scientific and Industrial Research noted in the 1970s that people in the segregated black township of Soweto took longer to recover from respiratory diseases than people from uncontaminated rural areas.

A more recent study from the Medical Research Council in Johannesburg confirmed that black children living in townships around the power stations — where industrial pollution combined with the soot from domestic coal stoves — experienced higher levels of respiratory disease and stunted growth rates.

These are the repercussions of an energy policy that was determined by the dictates of apartheid. The then government could have imported hydro-electric power from African states to the north, where one dam on the Zaire River could have replaced the kilowatts generated by all the 12 polluting power stations combined. Or it could have used less damaging oil-based processes.

But "international sanctions and a xenophobic mentality led the Government into a quest for energy independence with dire costs for the environment", wrote Allan Durning from the United States-based World Watch Institute at the time.

"Coal-based electricity is used wherever possible, the state has created the world's largest coal-to-oil synthetic fuels programme (using a technology that was developed in Hitler's Germany and has not been adopted by any other government) ... and nuclear power has been pursued for both energy independence and military security reasons."

Late last year F.W de Klerk, the former president, admitted that his government had developed seven nuclear bombs, stored in remote desert bunkers.

The mining industry, which once provided the gilded backbone of the apartheid economy, blasted huge volumes of earth from the ground, hauled this ore to the surface and subjected it to production processes that make use of ecologically hazardous chemicals such as sulphuric acid, cyanide, mercury and arsenic. Professor Brian Huntley, from the Botanical Research Institute in Cape Town, estimates that mine waste accounts for three-quarters of all solid waste generated by industry in South Africa.

Rivers that run through Soweto, and are used by residents of shanty towns for domestic purposes, have been contaminated with a cocktail of chemicals. And a wetland surrounding a mine east of Johannesburg was shown late last year to have radioactive hot spots from waste that was leaking into the ground water.

Imported toxic waste, soil degradation, deforestation, air pollution, water contamination and an adventurous nuclear arms industry — these are only some of apartheid's environmental costs. There are numerous others. Black residents of rural settlements are deeply hostile to South Africa's famous game reserves, because many of them were forcibly removed from these biologically rich areas during the colonial and apartheid periods.

But the protest at Thor Chemicals showed a countervailing tendency that had already begun to set in by 1990. At around that time, the African National Congress and a number of other opposition groups had begun to organise around ecological issues as part of a multi-pronged strategy to get rid of apartheid. Across the country, white and black communities united to get rid of the policies and practices that were blowing toxic dust into their homes and soot into their children's lungs and posing a danger to the biological beauty of their land.

It was as though nature had a magnetic power to rally divergent and sometimes antagonistic groups. Environmental abuse did not respect ethnic boundaries, and this provided fertile ground for broadening the base of opposition to apartheid. "It seems that people who are opposed to each other on other issues are prepared to work together to save the environment", said Earthlife Africa representative Chris Albertyn at the time. "This is a force for conciliation, unity and peace in South Africa."

Albie Sachs, the ANC's legal expert, wrote in a discussion paper on a new constitution: "The establishment of peoples' parks during the uprisings of the early 1980s was more than the creation of leisure areas, it was an affirmation of the desire for beauty in the community. Prisoners on Robben Island planted flowers and grass wherever they could ... When we say Mayibuye Afrika — come back Africa — we are calling for the return of legal title but also for the restoration of land, the forest and the atmosphere; the greening of our country is basic to its healing."

Today the interim constitution that Sachs helped to draft states: "Every person shall have the right to an environment which is not detrimental to his or her well-being". Sachs himself is now a judge in the Supreme Court whose job is to ensure that these ideals become real.

The Reconstruction Development Program — a blueprint for economic growth and wealth distribution adopted by the ANC-led government of national unity — has clauses which say: "Environmental considerations must be built into every decision ... Development strategies must incorporate environmental consequences ... The democratic government must revise current environmental legislation."

There are early signs that some of these principles are being implemented. A land redistribution program has been put in place to begin to reverse the impacts of apartheid, and the government has made available 350 million rand (around A$150 million) for pilot development programs that will ensure that land acquired by displaced people is used in a sustainable way.

Social forestry programs are being implemented across the country. There is now a ban on the import of toxic wastes, although loopholes are being exploited to bring in toxic substances that can be "recycled" for industrial purposes. The nuclear bombs in the desert bunkers have been dismantled, and South Africa is committed to keeping Africa a nuclear-free zone.

But it is early days. The new government faces massive pressures to attract foreign investment, build houses, create jobs and open new mines. There are powerful forces that will oppose environmental regulations as luxuries in a period of rapid reconstruction. >[Abridged from the May-June 1995 issue of Our Planet published by the UN Environment Program (UNEP). Eddie Koch is environmental editor of the Johannesburg Weekly Mail and Guardian.]

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