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Bond, Patrick (2015) Durban’s port-petrochemical complex
as a site of economic and environmental violence. Presented to the conference Rethinking Cities in the Global South: Urban Violence, Social Inequality and Spatial Justice Tata Institute, Mumbai : 1-33.

South Africa’s biggest single location-specific investment project is the proposed eight-fold expansion of South Durban’s port- petrochemical complex over the next three decades.

There have been two substantial postponements of the main project – the ‘Dig Out Port’ in the place of Durban’s old airport – but no formal cancellation or plans for alternative land use. The project is estimated to cost $25 billion, but that could be dwarfed by typical 50-300 percent price escalation. For example, the doubling of the petroleum pipeline capacity from Durban to Johannesburg recently cost $2.3 billion alone, after being initially estimated to cost just $600 million. In addition to the ‘economic violence’ that is represented by displacement and the opportunity cost of the investment, environmental violence in the area is already world famous. The notorious refineries owned by BP, Shell and the Malaysian firm Engen – Africa’s largest refinery complex – present major health threats to neighbouring residential areas. These neighbourhoods have been occupied by black South Africans for generations – the ‘Indian’ areas of Merebank and Clairwood and ‘coloured’ Wentworth –but have become slightly desegregated since the end of apartheid, mainly through the influx of low-income African shackdwellers. Because of sustained economic violence against Durban’s working class, in the form of systematic deindustrialisation since the early 1990s, jobs for a vast unemployed labour reserve are desperately needed.

Government’s national planners claim the expansion of world shipping, from the ‘Panamax’ 5000-container ships to super post-Panamax ships more than three times larger, will raise annual container traffic from 2.5 million to 20 million units processed annually in Durban by 2040. However, local residents’ organisations – united as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) – offer multiple and overlapping critiques of this project, including the flawed participatory process; the destruction of small-scale farming and longstanding neighbourhoods (with tens of thousands of expected displacements; major ecological problems in the estuarine bay; climate-change causes and effects; and irrational economics fuelled by overly generous state subsidies but still resulting in an unaffordable harbour. The framing of the campaign is of great importance not simply because the state and allied businesses promise tens of thousands of ‘jobs’ (in an increasingly capital intensive sector) but because an alternative vision has been established by SDCEA based on an ecologically-sensitive, labour-intensive economic and social strategy for the South Durban Basin. To achieve victory will require a major shift in the balance of forces, one which campaigners argue can be enhanced by a popular backlash: internationally coordinated economic violence – specially, financial sanctions – against the project and its parastatal corporate sponsor, Transnet. This is a site-specific project but one with more general lessons for grassroots contestation of industrial mal-development, in part because so many issue areas are up for contestation. The strategic and tactical questions include whether grassroots activists’ commitment to physical non-violence is going to be sustained against the system’s growing economic and ecological violence, and potential recourse to the kinds of police violence witnessed in so many other sites.

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