Representatives of some of South Africa's most powerful trade unions and civic organisations have called for an immediate and total ban on the importation of toxic waste.
The Department of Environment Affairs — controlled by the National Party — recently gazetted a policy which proposes to legalise the export and import of toxic wastes. The policy further suggests that South Africa cannot afford the high health, safety and environmental standards required in industrialised countries.
"Workers reject totally the concept that buying of labour includes buying of life ... workers demand control over what affects them", said Polelo Mogane, national health and safety representative for the Chemical Workers' Industrial Union.
"We were not involved in any consultation on this policy document ... the arrogance continues. We do not agree with the concept that you can only protect the environment and health of workers as long as it does not affect economic growth."
A meeting organised by the Johannesburg-based Group for Environmental Monitoring (GEM) brought together more than 60 representatives of regional government, trade unions and grassroots community organisations, all of whom unanimously endorsed the campaign being led by the environmental pressure group Earthlife Africa.
The government of national unity is faced with either an embarrassing back-down and scrapping of the policy, or standing firm in support of vested economic interests and confronting offended popular movements representing millions of people.
Resolutions taken at the conference called for:
- an immediate moratorium on all toxic waste imports and exports, including for recycling;
- the democratisation of pollution control policy formulation and the inclusion of a hazardous waste policy in this framework;
- a period of at least six months in the participatory formulation of a new hazardous waste policy;
- serious consideration to the OAU's Bamako Convention prohibiting toxic imports to Africa.
GEM spokesperson Anne Sugrue said that the meeting "sends a very clear message to the government. People are not going to allow decisions to be made behind closed doors."
Speaking at the meeting, Earthlife Africa representative Chris Albertyn slammed the Department of Environment Affairs for "continuing to behave as if they were still operating under the apartheid government ... Gone are the days that two or three white men can sit in a huddle and make decisions for the entire country."
Earthlife Africa has collected the support of more than 300 organisations and the signatures of 10,000 people against the proposed policy.