||This perspective reflects upon the struggle of Sajida Khan, an environmental activist based in Durban, South Africa, who dedicated her life to fight international corporations and local municipalities on the pollution and environmental degradation of her community.
Khan’s battle is then linked to ecofeminist theory and international feminist, anti-capitalist struggles. The paper ends with an interview of Khan about her views on environmental justice and possible ways forward to create healthier livelihoods.
Who killed Sajida Khan?
Patrick Bond and Rehana Dada address the mystery
Internationally-known environmental activist Sajida Khan passed away on
Sunday night in her Clare Road home at age 55. She was suffering her
second bout of cancer, and chemotherapy had evacuated her beautiful long
Before slipping into a coma last Thursday, she watched out her window,
seeing within a few meters the interminable crawl of dumptrucks
unloading heaps of stinking rubbish, as dust carried the smells and
chemicals into her yard and home.
Khan’s last painful weeks were spent coming to peace with her failed
struggle to close the Bisasar Road dump, a task that successive,
dishonest Durban governments had promised to fulfill as early as 1987.
Now the vibrant, uncompromising activist has died, while the dump is
thriving and in search of international investors. We don’t need Belgian
detective Hercule Poirot to learn why, for the answer is found in Agatha
Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express, in the Calais night coach
where a man is found dead of 13 stab wounds.
Meet the suspects:
1) Bisasar Road’s original design team of apartheid bureaucrats who in
1980 dumped what became Africa’s largest formal garbage heap into the
middle of a nature reserve in the mixed-race residential neighbourhood
of Clare Estate.
2) Operators of the illegal medical waste incinerator that was parked at
Bisasar during the 1990s, sprinkling toxins onto Khan and her neighbours
until its closure.
3) Durban Solid Waste for not closing the dump, and instead trying to
cover up its crime through perfume rods which give off a smell just as
noxious as the rotting garbage and methane fumes they are meant to disguise.
4) The methane incineration system that spews yet more cancerous
ingredients – dioxins, lead, cadmium - into the toxic soup around Bisasar.
5) The World Bank team who met Durban officials in 2002, persuading them
that for seven to twenty more years, the dumpsite should remain open.
The reason? To capture carbon credits by selling investments in Bisasar
methane-to-electricity operations to global polluters, who in turn will
face less pressure to cut their own emissions.
6) The Kyoto Protocol – meant to turn the corner on climate change - is
thus also a suspect. In 1997 when the protocol was drafted, the United
States government was (and remains) utterly irresponsible. Bill Clinton
and Al Gore insisted that even to consider signing on, a ‘free market’
must be established in carbon credits, to permit polluters in the North
to purchase shares in ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ projects like
Bisasar, as an alternative to reducing their own greenhouse gases.
7) Major international polluters ranging from Big Oil to the Dutch
government, who are the buyers of this ‘privatised air’, according to
critics in the Durban Group for Climate Justice, an international
campaigning network associated with Sweden’s Dag Hammarksjold
Foundation, which Khan’s struggle inspired the founding of in 2004.
8) Other landfill sites in Marianhill and La Mercy are suspects too. The
World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund invested in these minor projects
three months ago, with the hope of getting the camel’s nose under the
tent. The bigger prize would have been a $15 million Bisasar investment,
but Khan’s 90-page Environmental Impact Assessment submission initially
frightened off the Bank. Now extra vigilance is needed so that they
don’t come back to a Bisasar project whose main watchdog was buried
9) Who can forget the role of the national Department of Environmental
Affairs and Tourism? What Khan termed ‘carbon colonialism’ is its
official policy, according to the National Climate Change Response
Strategy: citizens must understand ‘up-front’ how the ‘Clean Development
Mechanism primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities, both
big and small. This could be a very important source of foreign direct
investment’. Khan and her Durban Group comrades considered this position
a form of eco-prostitution equivalent to accepting toxic waste for a
10) KZN provincial environmental authorities were also asleep at the
regulatory wheel, and gave the dump approval for permits, as did the
national Department of Water Affairs.
11) City manager Mike Sutcliffe visited Khan at home last year, but
refused to negotiate: no compensation for her illnesses, or reparations
for the damage done, or adequate funding for her and neighbours –
including shackdwellers - to move to a safe spot.
12) Then there’s the South African economy itself, addicted to fossil
fuels and the world’s cheapest energy. The US is the world’s largest CO2
emitter in absolute terms, but in relative terms SA emits 20 times more
of that gas than the US, measured by each unit of output per person.
That in turn has made Pretoria aware of the need for even rotten offset
projects like Bisasar, to market SA’s feeble attempts to cut back on
13) The final suspects are you and me, for the governments we elect, for
the rubbish we generate each day – most going to Bisasar - which we
never think about, and for the greenhouse gas emissions we create
through overconsumption, waste and air travel (especially we two).
Taking us all on, Khan equipped herself with a detailed knowledge of
chemistry, public health and landfill economics. A decade ago she
organised a closure petition campaign with 6000 signatures as well as a
With Khan, Muna Lakhani of the Institute for Zero Waste in Africa worked
out an alternative to keeping Bisasar open. Hundreds of reliable jobs in
recycling could be created with a zero waste approach, and the
simultaneous termination and rehabilitation of the Bisasar dump could
begin alongside the job of safely removing its methane, preferably
through piping it out of the area to a nearby gas main via a cleansing
As a Muslim woman, Khan waged her campaign at a time, as Ashwin Desai
puts it, ‘when religious gate-keepers were reasserting authority over
the family. This involved the assertion of male dominance.’
She resisted, Desai testifies: ‘Sajida Khan was breaking another mould
of politics. During apartheid, opposition in her community was
channelled through the male-dominated Natal Indian Congress and Durban
Housing Action Committee. But these were bureaucratised struggles with
the leaders at some distance from the rough-and-tumble of local
politics. She eschewed that.’
‘In contrast to Sajida’, says Desai, ‘her political peers in the
Congress tradition have built an impressive electoral machine, but ended
up merely with votes for party candidates rather than a movement to
confront global apartheid and its local manifestations.‘
High-profile heroines have led such struggles: for example, Lois Gibbs
against toxins at Love Canal, New York; Wangari Maathei fighting for
Kenyan greenbelts; Erin Brokovich campaigning for clean water in
Hinkley, California; Medha Patkar opposing big dams in India; etc, etc.
Others have written eloquently of Chipko tree huggers (Vandana Shiva)
and the Niger Delta’s women activists (Terisa Turner).
As Desai muses, ‘Sometimes when lives are judged by visual victories, we
see failures, and after all, the dump remains right outside Sajida’s
front door after her 14 year fight.’
‘But on the other hand, if a life is judged by a legacy that endures and
is built upon, hers is one of multiple larger victories: of a woman
standing against male domination of nationalist politics, of knowledge
about global capitalist ecology over amnesia, of ordinary people
harnessing the most incredible forms of expertise so as to enter forums
usually dominated by people with multiple degrees, and of a political
ecology that is a politics of all the people. Whatever you might say
about her race and class privilege, the final denominator is that this
was not a death of privilege, it was murder.’
So who killed Sajida? We all did!