||Patrick Bond 23 November 2010
The stench of rotting blubber would hang for days over The Bluff in
South Durban, thanks to Norwegian immigrants whose harpooning skills
helped stock the town with cooking fat, margarine and soap, starting
about a century ago. The fumes became unbearable, and a local uproar
soon compelled the Norwegians to move the whale processing factory from
within Africa’s largest port to a less‑populated site a few kilometers
There, on The Bluff’s glorious Indian Ocean beachfront, the white
working‑class residents of Marine Drive (perhaps including those in the
apartment where I now live) also complained bitterly about the odor from
flensing, whereby blubber, meat and bone were separated at the world’s
largest onshore whaling station.
Ever since, our neighborhood has been the armpit of South Africa. A bit
further south and west, in a black residential area, the country’s
largest oil refinery was built in the 1950s, followed by the production
and on‑site disposal of nearly every toxic substance known to science.
The whalers gracefully retreated into comfortable retirement in the
mid‑1970s, their prey threatened by extinction. Conservationists had
mobilized internationally, and thanks to the OPEC cartel, the cost of
oil for ship transport soared in 1974, so the industry ceased operating
in Durban. Even apartheid South Africa signed the global whaling ban in
What’s left is a small Bluff Whaling Museum where you sense the early
Norwegians’ Vikingesque stance: brave, defiant, unforgiving to those
they raped and pillaged, and utterly unconcerned about the
sustainability of the environment they had conquered. The Bluff’s
world‑class surfing waves regularly toss ashore decayed fragments of
sperm, blue, fin and humpback whales’ skeletons; tens of thousands were
Déjà vu, earlier this month, when an invisible cloud suffused with a
cat’s‑piss ammonia stench floated from the South Durban petro‑chemical
complex – the continent’s largest – across the still racially‑segregated
belt of 300,000 residents. Once again the community’s salt‑of‑the‑earth
rabble‑rouser, Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental
Alliance (SDCEA), called a picket against an uncaring municipal
bureaucracy on November 12, and in the next two weeks further protests
are planned in Durban against inadequate national energy policy and
global climate policy.
The unbearable smell, apparently emanating from the powerful corporation
FFS, lasted for days, reappearing again last Friday night. Further
south, the rotten‑egg sulfur odor from petroleum refinery SO2 emissions
is a permanent feature. These persistent pollution crises are a visceral
reminder: we must follow the example of Norwegian whalers on The Bluff,
gracefully retreating from capitalism’s reckless dependence upon oil,
coal and gas. It is a task that society cannot avoid much longer, as a
devastating climate change tipping point looms sometime in the next decade.
So nearly everyone was pleased, a fortnight ago, with the choice of
Durban to host the 2011 Conference of the Parties (COP) 17, the world
climate summit. Competition was tough. The conference centre in
beautiful Cape Town was rejected, according to a guest post on former CT
City Manager Andrew Boraine’s blog, because of “the high levels of
security required… The CT International Conference Centre (ICC) falls
way behind the ICC complex in Durban. You can lock it down completely
and keep the over‑the‑top protesters well away from the high level
Boraine, a Johannesburg NGO colleague of mine two decades ago when he
helped Alexandra Township civic associations defend their over‑the‑top
protests against apartheid, is now a public‑private partnership
facilitator. “Cape Town's proposal,” he rebutted, “took into account the
need to be able to lock down certain areas for government delegations
Sorry, I don’t accept the need for to safely insulate these rascals, for
last December in Copenhagen I witnessed how badly the VIPs performed
when tasked with making binding emissions cuts. Not only were none made
but even the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s minor five percent cuts (measured
from 1990‑2012) were completely undermined.
SA and US presidents Jacob Zuma and Barack Obama joined Chinese, Indian
and Brazilian leaders in wrecking the last vestiges of UN democracy and
threatening their own societies (especially Zulu and Luo kinfolk who are
on the climate frontline), on behalf of the (mainly white‑owned) fossil
fuel industry and (mainly white) frequent fliers (like myself). Chief
negotiator for the G77, Lumumba Di‑Apeng, poignantly asked, “What is
Obama going to tell his daughters? That their [Kenyan] relatives’ lives
are not worth anything?”
At the COP 16 climate summit, lasting through December 11 in Cancun,
Mexico, these VIPs definitely need a strong wake‑up slap ‑ as activists
there gave World Trade Organisation negotiators in 2003 ‑ not a quiet
meeting place where they’ll just back‑slap.
Actually, the strategy many in civil society considered around this time
last year, was what Boraine unintentionally advocated: ‘locking down’
(and in) the world leaders inside Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, so they
would finally feel the pressure to sign a real deal, instead of the
sleazy Copenhagen Accord.
This would have involved blockades preventing delegates from departing
last December 19, the way activists did in September 2000 at Prague’s
ancient palace, where SA finance minister Trevor Manuel chaired the
World Bank’s annual meeting. The VIPs barely scampered to safety from
global‑justice protesters, after again doing nothing to reform
The plan to lock down the climate‑negotiating VIPs in Copenhagen was
considered and then abandoned when Danish police turned semi‑fascistic.
It’s not even an option worth discussing in Durban given that City
Manager Mike Sutcliffe regularly denies permission to peacefully protest.
But come to think of it, on 31 August 2001, a march of 15,000 to the ICC
led by the late Fatima Meer and Dennis Brutus against a pathetic UN
racism conference came close to barging in on the lethargic delegates.
Recall the activists’ valid complaints then: no UN discussion of
reparations needed for slavery, colonialism and apartheid, and no action
against Israeli racial oppression and occupation of Palestine.
The reason why next year, leading climate activists may decline the
opportunity to appeal to ICC elites – either asking politely, or
amplified with a chorus of vuvuzelas – is simple: rapidly‑rising disgust
with filthy leaders who cannot even clean up the world’s fouled
financial nests, judging by the recent South Korean G20 meeting, much
less planet‑threatening emissions.
The Cancun COP will again demonstrate that US and EU rulers will spend
trillions of dollars to pacify the world’s richest speculators in
financial markets, from Wall Street in 2008 to those holding state bonds
in Athens, Dublin and Lisbon this month. But they’ll balk at a few
hundred billion required annually to save the planet.
“If planet Earth was a bank, they’d have bailed it out long ago,”
British climate campaigner Jonathan Neale remarked to laughter at the
Norway Social Forum’s opening session last Thursday. The money is
certainly available in Oslo, thanks to a petroleum rainy‑day fund worth
$500 billion, the world’s second largest sovereign hoard.
Norwegians in the campaigning group Attac with whom I spent the last few
days are also intent on fighting what a workshop leader, Heidi
Lundeberg, last Thursday termed Norway’s “Good Samaritan masking the
face of our new oil imperialism”. Lundeberg’s edited collection for
Attac, Klima for ny Oljepolitikk (Oslo, 2008), demolishes Norway’s image
as responsible global citizen.
University of Bergen eco‑social scientist Terje Tvedt has also
complained that Oslo’s spin‑doctoring generates “an aura of
moral‑ideological irrefutability”. It’s especially irritating when
accompanying a revitalized eco‑Viking rape‑and‑pillage mentality, such
as growing collaboration with the likes of the World Bank, led by one of
the world’s most destructive men, Robert Zoellick.
The fake Samaritan tendency, evident when former prime minister Gro
Harlem Brundtland ran a 1983‑87 world ‘sustainable development’
commission, is being taken to extremes by current prime minister Jens
Stoltenberg and environment/development minister Erik Stolheim.
Workshop debate immediately ensued with the outraged director of the
Oslo government’s Oil for Development fund, Petter Nore, who back in
1979 coedited a great book, Oil and Class Struggle. “We are NOT the
Samaritan face of imperialism!”, he clamoured, yet his own reports
reveal the fund’s role in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, donating
millions to lubricate the US looting of petrol and gas, and supporting a
stable of venal oil‑rich African dictators.
Nore’s office also promotes carbon trading to mitigate the flaring of
gas at oil wells. He rewards both Northern financiers and Big Oil
polluters with ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ payola, buying ‘emissions
reduction credits’ for the Norwegian state in order to reform extraction
systems in which, at possibly the world’s worst site, the Niger Delta,
flaring has been declared illegal in any case.
As do so many ex‑leftist Scandinavian technocrats, Nore has capitulated
to the worst global trends. He’s using Norway’s oil‑infused cash‑flush
aid to reward corporations for what they should be doing free. Activists
from Port Harcourt’s Environmental Rights Action movement, led by Nnimmo
Bassey (co‑winner of the Right Livelihood Award last month) know better,
demanding that carbon trading must not legitimize illegal flaring.
The same problem can be found in another Norwegian Clean Development
Mechanism strategy: planting alien invasive trees in plantations across
several East African countries. This wrecks local ecology and pushes out
indigenous people, as my colleague Blessing Karumbidza from the Durban
NGO Timberwatch recently reported: “the Norwegian firm Green Resources
has entrenched itself in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania where it
looks to acquire at least 142 000 hectares of land… to plant exotic
trees (varieties of eucalyptus and pine) for the purpose of selling an
expected 400 000 tons of carbon credits to the Norwegian government.”
Along with Norway’s serious environmentalists and development advocates,
I find it heartbreaking that the government’s wonderful Soria Moria
declaration is being trashed by Stoltenberg and Stolheim. The 2005
manifesto promised a U‑turn, for example, through shifting funding from
the World Bank to the United Nations.
Even in the North’s most left‑leaning government, it was all fibbery, as
shown when Bank executive directors had a chance to turn down the
notorious $3.75 billion Medupi coal loan in April. The Norwegian
representative only managed a limp abstention, not the no! vote
demanded by a South African‑led global coalition of 200 concerned groups.
When Nore told the workshop that fifty governments had come to his
agency for assistance in managing oil resources, including South Africa,
I flashed back to South Durban’s oil grievances:
• massive greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to SA’s emissions of
CO2 per unit of per person GDP being twenty times worse than even the US,
• regular fires, explosions, and devastating oil pipe leaks,
• the world’s highest recorded school asthma rates (Settlers Primary)
and a leukemia pandemic,
• extreme capital‑intensity in petro‑chem production and extreme
unemployment in surrounding communities,
• a huge new pipeline to double the oil flow from Durban to Johannesburg
(already two children were killed after falling into unprotected
• an old airport earmarked for expansion of the petrochemical, auto and
South Durban is one of the world’s extreme sites of climate change cause
and effect: well‑paid managers run leaky‑bucket toxic factories by day
and escape to plush suburbs by night, and gasping residents either
slowly die from the exhaust or wake in fear when the refineries erupt
with noxious fumes late at night. Yet thanks to one of Africa’s finest
eco‑social campaigning groups, SDCEA, the area can become an inspiring
site for fighting petro‑power and visioning alternatives.
Consistent with a global consensus that whales should be left in the
ocean, the only solution to the climate crisis is one that genuinely
decent Norwegian community residents, fisherfolk, environmentalists and
social activists are promoting in their own petrol‑rich Lofoten region.
The demand there is identical to one made by South Durban residents fed
up with smells far more damaging than the decomposing blubber of
yesteryear: “leave the oil in the soil!”
(Patrick Bond, based at the University of waZulu‑Natal Centre for Civil
Society ‑ and University of California‑Berkeley
Department of Geography, co‑edited a 2009 UKZN Press book: Climate
Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society.)
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