South African townships: an environmental disaster


"Townships are dormitory towns — reservoirs of cheap labour, dumping grounds for dispossessed and displaced blacks. They are divorced from natural beauty and the green heritage. They are plagued by criminal violence and gangsterism; by disease and vandalism. They lack basic amenities. They are occupied by poverty-stricken people in a bleak and unhealthy environment ... They must be destroyed. A new environment must be created conducive to the development of our people's humanity." In a recent speech in Cape Town, Barney Desai, a senior leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, summed up the enormous task a liberated South Africa will face in rehabilitating apartheid's environmental legacy.

Desai pointed out that a only democratic order can dramatically change this legacy. In the meantime, it was necessary to campaign around a number of important issues, including:

  • Democratically controlled town councils to make possible environmentally concerned town planning.

  • Air pollution. The Soweto area, home to 8 million people, is under a perpetual haze which causes alarming levels of chest, ear, nose and eye diseases. The main culprits are the state electricity utility, Eskom, and heavy industry. Worldwide, says Desai, South Africa is the worst offender in emitting gases that damage the ozone layer. Township residents are forced to use coal and paraffin for fuel, adding to the pollution problem. Despite the existence of a national power grid, township residents have no electricity.

  • Education. "Why should this generation be interested in the environmentally related issues whilst those in control treat them like unwanted luggage?", asked Desai. The South African government allocates four times as many resources to a white child as it does a black child. Millions of black students do not go to school because of a lack of facilities, while more than 200 white schools have closed because of a lack of students.

Desai announced that the PAC had created a post of secretary for the environment within its organisation. He called for a new South African constitution to include the legal right to go to court to protect the environment and the quality of life. The state must be committed to policies that prioritise concern for the environment. Desai also proposed an environmental ombudsman, independent of the state and private sector, to mediate in environmental issues.

"Let us move forward to a Constituent Assembly so that we, the people, ensure that the constitution not only deals with present realities but also embodies our aspirations to protect human life and our natural environment", Desai concluded.