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ka-Manzi, Faith (2006) Women fighting for clean air and against other struggles in Wentworth

Centre for Civil Society : -.

The environmental crime committed by Engen will continue unabated as they claim with audacity that they had arrived before the settling of the Coloured community in Wentworth. It sounds like a sick justification for the environmental havoc they have caused by their presence in this area.

It seems that Engen and their cahoots couldn’t give a farthing for what they have done to the lives of this community. Activists against this gross violation of their human rights for clean air have either lost someone or know someone and are themselves also victims to the pollution problem facing their community.

Barely five minutes after arriving in Wentworth and I had started experiencing major breathing difficulties in my left lung. Being HIV positive that was scary as I had tried to fathom as to how do people living with TB and other breathing sicknesses cope on day to day basis. Only to find out that most of the community members suffer terribly from the dangerous chemical emissions coming from the Engen plant right on their doorsteps.

“We live daily in fear of our lives because of what we call Black Death”, said Catherine Gordeen. Her words were echoed by her comrade Elizabeth Stanley whom I had interviewed separately from Gordeen. They said that the majority of people living in Wentworth have asthma and suffer from epileptic fits. Stanley also suffers from sinus. “My father and my brother-in-law died of asthma and my sister of cancer”, said Stanley adding that she also suffers form itchy skin and burning eyes.

“We all got polluted lungs”. I couldn’t agree more with Gordeen there. As mentioned before I had been there ten minutes and already my lung was hurting and I was experiencing difficulty while breathing. The foul smell of the chemicals coming from the plant was permeating all around me.

I again tried to imagine that if it was this bad for me, a mere visitor how much more was it for the people faced with this monstrous polluting environment and even worse what was its impact on children. Gordeen has a twin sister, Kate Fisher who lives in Merebank (which also falls under the South Basin). They like seeing each often but after staying for a few days in her sister’s house, she has to go and see a doctor. ‘I suffer when I visit because of what the pollution does to my lung.” Fisher has had one of her lungs removed.

Through meeting Desmond D’sa, these women are now able to vocalize their feelings about what pollution is doing to their community and raising more awareness among other communities afflicted not just by this common problem but also lend their support against post democratic struggles.

A nurse by profession who had been medically boarded because of a degenerative spinal ailment, Gordeen now spends most of her time addressing social issues in her community even though she has not yet fully recovered from a major spinal operation. This post democratic euphoria activist started becoming active in her local community in 2001 by attending meetings of the Wentworth Development Forum (WDF) for talks regarding the upgrading of the flats.

What sparked her involvement was a conflict of interest in her area Alabama / Jonas Road regarding a development strategy whereby flat dwellers wanted
the upgrading of their flats. They wanted painting done to their houses and plumbing among other needs. Meanwhile the better off in their community wanted outside development like stormwater drains.

Both these women, Gordeen and Stanley I had interviewed are very active in all kinds of struggles confronting their community. So day in and day out, whether Gordeen is in the WDF’s office or at home, she is always working. While busy with my interview, an elderly woman dropped by her house with some maintenance problem she wanted attended to about her grandchild.

Mostly she deals with problems like eviction letters, lack of housing, electricity and water cut-offs, the pollution menace, education rights and HIV&Aids. “The infection rate is very rife here and families cannot deal with it and sick people get chased out”, she said. As a member of WDF and now also as chairperson of Women for Transformation, she has been involved in a lot of initiatives on HIV/Aids education awareness drives and like her fellow activist Stanley, she counsels and fights the stigma which still persists against the Aids pandemic.

Elizabeth Stanley was retrenched by Nampak in 2004 during its merger. The poverty and the plight of abused women surrounding her in her community, launched her activist calling. She mainly tackles health issues and is therefore exposed to the woes of the sick and the elderly and as she said, “ to give them comfort and home care”.

She is very vocal against the overcrowding of the hospitals, the long waiting quees and the sending back home of the very sick, especially those who have Aids. Stanley works as equally hard as Gordeen in her daily struggle for civil society. Arriving at her house, I discovered that she was not just with her husband, who is also unemployed but a woman whom she had counseled against an abusive relationship was in her company. This feisty but humble woman coming from a working class background is also involved in drives against crime in her community.

She said Wentworth has a high rate of crime like drug dealing, killings and a lot of stab fights. The young woman with Stanley was appalled and angry that women in her community were not at leisure to walk at anytime (especially in the night) in their own place for fear of either rape or any form of abuse. So Stanley is part of a parents patrol team against drug lords whom she said operate around schools peddling their drugs to children. She and other community members believe that one of the main reasons for the escalation of crime was that a lot of shebeens have mushroomed in their area.

Both Stanley and Gordeen share their frustration at the wrong done to their community by Engen, Mondi and Sapref by not just polluting their area but that of not giving employment to local artisans. “Experienced artisans are being marginalized and they hire people from overseas”.

As I catch a taxi back to town, I breathed a sigh of relief. On the way I contemplated as to how the artchitechs of apartheid, the Malans and Verwoeds had made sure that the legacy of segregation will always chain the non-whites community even after their deaths and beyond democracy. This is now a monster which the democratic government has inherited and it is up to them to rectify or ignore it depending on who is most important to them, their constituents or the multinationals.

Either they move this plant and free this community from a hazard waiting to happen from the poisonous gases emitting from the Engen plant and her offending accomplices or face the brunt of a community no longer willing to allow their young and old to become cancer, epileptic fits, asthma statistics and these women are fighting just that.

The last words by Stanley at the end of our interview was that “Our community is getting more and more mobilized and especially women.” She said that now their next step is recruiting the youth’s involvement in becoming part of the fight against the daily struggles facing their community. The present government should not take these activists lightly as we all know from our history that when women take action against social, economic and political injustices, they always see it through.

As an outsider albeit who still support these women’s struggles, my personal stang against the violation of the Went worth’s community right to clean and safe air, would be to boycott products of the offending corporates and for other civil society organizations to make a lot of noise before the whole Wentworth community is wiped out.

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