||This is the first in a series of monthly columns in the The Mercury, by staff of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society)
From New Orleans to Durban's Kennedy Road settlement, we are witnessing a new generation of 'failed states' - a phrase traditionally applied to basket-case African and Central Asian governments.
What else would you term a municipality which fails to deliver security and essential services, not because of resource scarcity or warlordism, but because of durable class and racial biases in the context of terribly unequal power relations? From slavery and apartheid to Jim Crow and neoliberal policies, vulnerable communities are kept down by law, politics and especially economics.
However, from repression sometimes springs awareness, organising, hope and change.
Long before last week's mass march against their deficient councilor, Kennedy Road activists raised grievances over lack of electricity, water/sanitation, decent housing, land and employment. This is sometimes called the 'red' agenda, with its focus on social justice.
But green concerns are also paramount. Stopping by for a chat at the public health clinic along the march route, I learned that the community's respiratory problems are severe not only because dirty energy is the norm within low-income households, but also because of the neighbouring rubbish dump, Durban's largest and smelliest.
A relic of apartheid geographical location, the Bisasar Road landfill was slated for closure in 1996. But one City Hall vision keeping it open is a methane extraction scheme which might become a world-leading pilot for 'carbon trading'.
That proposal would permit R100 million of World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund money to subsidise the conversion of gases from Bisasar's rot into electricity, a crucial task by all accounts - but one which is financially uncompetitive because Eskom sells power at artificially low prices.
Reprehensibly, the state power utility does not factor in the vast damage it does to the environment through carbon dioxide pollution. Instead, it offers 'the world's lowest electricity prices' so as to attract big metals smelters - at Richards Bay and maybe soon at Coega - which in turn create very few jobs, have negligible economic linkages and permit profits to escape overseas to distant corporate headquarters.
As a result, we generate twenty times more C02 per unit of per capita economic output than even the USA. Although South Africa is not yet subject to Kyoto Protocol C02 reduction requirements - we are a 'developing nation', like China, India and Brazil - one day in the next decade, those provisions will start to kick in, unveiling our fossil fuel addiction.
That sickness might then be fatal. Just as Bush's insane hunger for Iraq war sucked out the resources needed to build up New Orleans' protective levees, Eskom's drive to solve future energy shortages with unworkable pebble-bed nuclear plans has shortchanged the vital research and development spending we need for tidal, wind and solar energy. Along with radical conservation initiatives, these renewables offer genuine solutions to both energy shortfalls and global warming.
Instead, the advent of carbon trading will change nothing. When big oil companies under pressure to slightly reduce C02 in the North buy into the World Bank's fund and invest in sites like Bisasar Road, in the process they gain permission to keep polluting at the same pace, heating the vulnerable amongst our descendants to the point of an early death.
Civil society is, however, warming to the task. The world's sharpest environmental groups - including Friends of the Earth - have endorsed the October 2004 'Durban Declaration' against carbon trading http://www.carbontradewatch.org
More urgently, the Bisasar carbon trade gambit is now stalled because of heroic efforts by Clare Estate community activist Sajida Khan. Her 70-page objection to the environmental impact assessment - on grounds Bisasar could stay open many more years - apparently intimidated the Bank from its strategy.
But for Khan, this stalemate comes at a huge price. Just as at the nearby Kennedy Road settlement, women bear the main burden of illnesses caused by a solid waste system which disproportionately benefits the wealthier classes (and the men) who authorised - and whose rubbish fills - the toxic dump, out of our sight in a low-income Indian and African residential area.
Early this month, Khan had yet another cancerous tumour removed, lost her once forceful voice to the surgeon's knife, and began excruciating chemotherapy. But she remains confident her arguments will prevail in forthcoming litigation against the city.
And the elites may suffer too. Durban municipal environmentalist Debra Roberts presented scenarios to a Maritzburg conference last week showing the Central Business District under water due to global warming.
Scientists have not yet determined what precisely is to blame for the 3 degree rise in Gulf Coast water temperatures that made Katrina such a virulent storm. And it is too soon to say whether the toxic soup that engulfed especially the low-income neighbourhoods of New Orleans will lap into cities containing sea-level petrochemical complexes (as South Durban communities already experience today, thanks to their corporate neighbours' failure to budget for proper pipe maintenance).
What is clear, however, is the accuracy of Thabo Mbeki's poignant appeal to the United Nations last week: 'We have not achieved the required scale of resource transfer from those who have these resources, to empower the poor of the world to extricate themselves from their misery. Simply put, this means that the logic of the use of power is the reinforcement of the might of the powerful, and therefore the perpetuation of the disempowerment of the powerless.'
That is also the kind of language used again and again by local activists, to describe Mbeki's own failing municipal states.
Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society: