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Publication Details

Reference
Bracking, Sarah (2013) Ships and pipelines versus people and planet. Eye on Society column for Mercury : -.

Summary
Last September 1 at Clairwood's historic Tamil Hall, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told hundreds of South Durban residents that the demolition of their houses to make way for port expansion was a good idea, because it would create jobs and economic growth.

I was left in a sense of morbid awe. Gone was any respect for the beauty of the Port of Durban, Wilson’s Wharf, the BAT Centre, the sandbank in the bay, the strip of grass beside the harbour wall where residents play football at dusk. Officials and politicians seem to have no concern that the water flowing into the sea at Isipingo Beach is allegedly the most toxic in the world, or that the primary school next to the Engen Refinery (which keeps spurting hot oil and flames high into the air in sporadic accidents) has the world’s highest asthma rate, with one in two children taking inhalers to school.

Then came this week’s notices of major refinery expansions by both BP at Sapref (next to the old airport) and Total at Island View Refinery – which together with Engen represents the largest oil refining complex on the continent.

Gordhan told us that South Africa is in a race with Mozambicans who are building new ports. So Gordhan is getting finance together from various sources – including R45 billion in a Transnet loan from China last month – to expand Durban’s inefficient port by more than eight times.

So we will say farewell to the rare birds and chameleons, the house that once gave shelter to Gaandhi, the cultural icons of an historic Indian community, temples, graveyards and the very fabric of the communities of Clairwood, Merebank, Mobeni, Wentworth and parts of Isipingo, Bluff and lower Umbilo.

The main report justifying the port and petrochemical expansion is shocking, because the pre-existing places and residents have already become an ‘interface zone’, people-less. The report talks of the urgent need that Gauteng has for oil, and for the huge pipeline already built from Durban to Joburg – nearly three times over budget thanks to construction cartel collusion – to fulfil the national addiction to big cars in far-flung suburbs, to mining and to ripping minerals out of the ground at a faster and faster pace.

Will all this pay for the stuff coming into the port from East Asia destined for the big malls, the plastic pink things for girls, plastic blue things for boys, waste products of global petrochemical addition, and cheap clothes made in sites like the Bangladeshi sweatshop which collapsed this week, fatally crushing more than 150?

In its defense, the expansion will allegedly – so claims Transnet – create 28,000 jobs up and down the whole infrastructural plan, from the new oil exploration work out on the continental shelf, through the logistics chain, and up to Harrismith and Joburg. More oil, more containers, more roads, more pipelines.

But how many jobs are already there in the 30,000 affected households, and in their small businesses and informal businesses? They simply don’t know. One sign of a disadvantaged community is that they are never counted.

Graham Muller Associates, who are the consultants to Ethekwini Municipality, consider biodiversity loss and further pollution: “It may be necessary to plan compensatory reserve areas” somewhere else, as land use within the area is too dense. So Muller calls the (already existing) racecourse “compensation,” even though a large part will also be destroyed with the new logistics centre taking over half the Clairwood course.

As for the human victims, who are already veterans of apartheid’s forced removals, it is no accident that dirty industries were originally put next to Indian and Black communities, and that the expanding petrochemical complex will dose them with further toxic fumes. The municipality’s lack of intervention to protect existing residential zoning of Clairwood now allows Muller’s consultants to frame the community as dysfunctional. It’s a cruel twist: a place and its people can be pathologised and there forced poverty made into a reason for their ultimate destruction.

As Muller’s group observes, “Crime and the inability to manage the problem at all levels of government impacts on quality of life and stability of neighbourhoods”. In other words, they imply that there isn’t really much to be lost here as it’s a pretty terrible place to live. The complexity of a community is re-framed as a sequence of social problems.

True, there are derisory plans to compensate people, but most residents will just be asked to politely walk away. In a letter of 22 May 2012, Durban’s Head of Housing sums up the crisis his colleagues are about to cause: “an oversubscription of almost 18 000 units”. Thus in this sorry tale, you have Transnet, Big Oil, and the city forcibly removing 30,000 affected “units” (that is households), with no plans for compensation.

Only some of us benefit. I sometimes start a lecture to my Manchester University students with a metaphor. Imagine the global economy is a car driving at 160 km per hour down the N1 with no seat belts for the children. Would you want to increase the speed?

Economists and politicians who serve large corporations recommend that an already critically unsustainable and dangerously large global economy grow bigger, better, faster, so that we with the money can shop, consume, dispose – and repeat endlessly. The rest of us should join South Durban communities in opposition and admit: the damage being done is too much, now.

Professor Sarah Bracking from Manchester, a political economist, is a visiting scholar at the UKZN Centre for Civil Society.

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