||The stench of rotting blubber would hang for days over the Bluff, thanks
to Norwegian immigrants whose harpooning skills helped stock Durban with
cooking fat, margarine and soap, starting about a century ago.
The fumes became unbearable, and a local uproar soon compelled the
Norwegians ‑ led by the crafty Durban consul‑general, Jacob Egeland ‑ to
move the whale processing factory from within Africa's largest port to a
less‑populated site a few kilometres south.
There, near the Bluff beachfront, the white working‑class residents of
Marine Drive (perhaps including those in the apartment where I now live)
also complained about the smell from flensing, whereby blubber, meat and
bone were separated at what was the world's largest onshore whaling station.
Ever since, we have been the armpit of South Africa. Further south and
west, 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. Today, just up the hill
from the intersection of Bluff Road and Old Mission Road is the Whaling
There you'll sense the Norwegians' Vikingesque stance: brave, defiant,
unforgiving to those they pillaged, and utterly unconcerned about the
sustainability of the environment they had conquered.
Déja vu, earlier this month, when an invisible but persistent cloud
suffused with a cat's‑pee ammonia aroma floated from the area's
petro‑chemical complex ‑ the continent's largest ‑ south to Umlazi and
north to Umbilo.
Once again the community's salt‑of‑the‑earth rabble‑rouser, Desmond
D'Sa, of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance |(SDCEA),
called a picket against an uncaring municipal bureaucracy. On Friday,
November 12, the target was the city's environmental health officer,
Siva Chetty, a former SDCEA cadre. But the smell returned, sourced to a
business in Clairwood last Friday night, says D'Sa.
On November 26, D'Sa and his allies in Climate Justice Now! KZN will
protest at the government's ICC hearings on electricity policy, and
again on December 4 to raise awareness about the Cancun COP.
The South Durban community's persistent pollution crises are a visceral
reminder that we must follow the example of ye olde Norwegian whalers,
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, scientists confirm.
Might such a detox be agreed to next December when Durban hosts the
Conference of the Parties (COP) 17, the world climate summit? Recall how
badly the global elites performed when tasked with making binding
emissions cuts in Copenhagen a year ago. Not only were none made, but
the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's minor 5 percent cuts (measured from 1990‑2012)
were completely undermined.
Last December 18, 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).
At the upcoming COP 16 climate summit, lasting until December 11 in
Cancun, Mexico, these same men definitely need a strong wake‑up slap,
not a quiet meeting place where they'll just back‑slap.
The last time Durban hosted such a sensitive global political event was
nine years ago. On August 31, 2001, a march of 15 000 to the ICC led by
Fatima Meer and Dennis Brutus against a pathetic UN racism conference
came close to barging in on the lethargic delegates. The activists
complained then of inadequate discussion about the need for Northern
reparations for slavery, colonialism and apartheid, and about the
failure to condemn Israeli racial oppression and occupation of
Palestine, due to pressure on Kofi Annan from both Colin Powell and
Again today, there is rising disgust with filthy leaders who cannot even
clean the world's fouled financial nests ‑ as confirmed by the G20
meeting in South Korea last week ‑ much less planet‑threatening
emissions. Cancun will again demonstrate how US and EU rulers spend
trillions of dollars to pacify the world's richest financial
speculators, from Wall Street in 2008 to Athens, Dublin and Lisbon
bondholders this month. But they'll balk at a few hundred billion
required annually to save the planet.
The Norwegians in the campaigning group Attac are also intent on
fighting what a workshop leader, Heidi Lundeberg, termed Norway's "Good
Samaritan masking the face of our new oil imperialism". The Oslo
government's Oil for Development fund provides millions to lubricate
Washington's petrol and gas looting in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan,
and also supports venal oil‑rich African dictators.
The same fund promotes carbon trading to mitigate gas flaring at oil
wells. But this 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 oil extraction.
At the world's worst flaring site, the Niger Delta, the activity has
been declared illegal. Activists from Port Harcourt's Environmental
Rights Action movement, led by Nimmo Bassey, demand that no carbon
trading be allowed to legitimise illegal flaring.
The same problem confounds another Norwegian Clean Development Mechanism
strategy: dumping millions of alien‑invasive trees in monocultural
plantations across East Africa. This wrecks local ecology and pushes out
indigenous people, as the Oslo firm Green Resources is doing to 142 000
hectares of Tanzania highlands.
The Norwegian state is rewarded with 400 000 tons of carbon credit
offsets, thus giving a green light for yet more Norwegian oil pumping.
South Durban, meanwhile, suffers a raft of petro‑problems: our massive
greenhouse gas and SO2 emissions, regular fires and explosions,
devastating oil pipe leakage, the world's highest recorded school asthma
rates (Settlers Primary), a leukaemia pandemic, extreme
capital‑intensity in petrochemical production and extreme unemployment
in surrounding communities, a huge new pipeline to double the oil flow
to Joburg, and an old airport earmarked for expansion of the
petrochemical, auto or shipping industries. These contribute to SA's
emissions record: CO2 per unit of per person GDP around 20 times worse
than even the US.
This makes south Durban one of the world's most extreme sites of climate
cause and effect: well‑paid managers run leaky‑bucket toxic factories by
day and escape to western suburbs by night, and gasping residents either
slowly die or wake in fear when Engen erupts with noxious fumes late at
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 and environmentalists
are promoting in their own petrol‑rich Lofoten region. The demand there
is identical to that 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 co‑edited the 2009 UKZN Press book Climate Change, Carbon
Trading and Civil Society.