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Bond, Patrick (2012) Back of Port plan needs urgent rethink.  : -.

A CONFERENCE about non-violent social change, “From roots to fruits”, hosted by Ela Gandhi at the Durban University of Technology, will be officially opened tonight by mayor James Nxumalo and Premier Zweli Mkhize.

The leadership should stick around, to learn cutting-edge strategies and protest tactics. For in the coming months, they will be badgered by the eco-social advocacy group the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. (Disclosure: as a Bluff resident, I’m a loyal lay member.)

The coming conflicts reflect the legacy of Michael Sutcliffe’s R250-billion Back of Port strategy for south Durban, unveiled last month. As city manager from 2002-11, Sutcliffe downplayed countless episodes of explosions and pollution in Africa’s largest petrochemical complex, let truckers run roughshod over residents, ignored blatant zoning violations, proposed a new highway cutting through Clairwood, refused to issue an emergency evacuation plan in the event of a Bhopal-type disaster, and even attacked the alliance because of what he claimed was agenda-setting by international donors.

Now, after years of systematic abuse against the area’s mainly black, working-class neighbourhoods, south Durban will degenerate further thanks to the inherited plan.

Hundreds of thousands of residents from the Port area – Umbilo, Clairwood and the Bluff – southwards to Wentworth, Merebank and Umlazi are learning of an awful fate: our reputation as the country’s chemical-stinking armpit is about to multiply in intensity.

Beyond extreme cases – eg methanethiol “cat’s-wee” emissions by FFS Refiners – recall the ongoing poisoning by petrochemical firms that give Merewent’s Settlers Primary the worst case of asthma recorded in any school in the world, affecting more than half the pupils, not to mention child leukaemia rates 24 times higher than the national average.

Officials now making redevelopment presentations in community halls concede enormous failings: “underutilisation of rail”; “air pollution increases particularly in the South Durban Basin”; and “large portions of Clairwood are being utilised illegally for business and logistics purposes, even though zoned residential”.

Historic Clairwood’s “central residential core (is) recommended to be rezoned from special residential to logistics” – creating thousands of displacees – along with the forced removal of the beloved Housewives Fresh Produce Market. In Umbilo and Merewent, “the existing noxious and general industrial zones will be permitted to continue in their present format,” say officials.

And although Durban hosted the UN climate summit last December, the two words “climate change” cannot be found in the plan, which will massively expand ships’ bunker-fuel consumption thanks to port expansion from 2.5 million to 16 million containers a year, and radically increase road-freight and petrochemical greenhouse gas emissions.

After fruitlessly asking municipal consultants at the Congella public meeting last Thursday, my subsequent efforts to get even a simple e-mail explanation from three City Hall sources and EnviroConsult manager Jon Marshall about this revealing oversight came to naught. Rising sea-water levels will wreck south Durban’s infrastructure – as anyone witnessing that March 2007 storm can testify – yet that threat too is entirely ignored in the plan’s summary document, prepared by Graham Muller Associates.

There is no better time to request a democratic rethink of the Back of Port.

Last week, Sutcliffe wrote to the Times newspaper with outlandish claims about a supposedly “magnificent” rating by Auditor-General Terence Nombembe in the 2010-11 financial audits. In reality, there were five KZN municipalities with clean audits – Umzinyathi, eMadlageni, Richmond, Umdoni, and Umtshezi – but not eThekwini. Nombembe nailed Sutcliffe for 28 cases of “unfair or uncompetitive procurement practices” costing the city R1.2 billion. According to his successor, Sibusiso Sithole, “The tabling of the Manase report into allegations of maladministration, fraud and corruption have raised alarm bells”. Remarked Sithole, “It will take bold actions to undo the damage that this has had on the city.”

Bold actions such as reworking the Back of Port plan should be mindful of alternative visions for the South Durban Basin, such as those promoted by the environmental alliance, local farmers south of the old airport and the Occupy Umlazi initiative who are demanding land for housing nearby.

Today at a public UKZN Centre for Civil Society seminar at 12.30, two of Ela Gandhi’s main guests – Matt Meyer from New York’s International Peace Research Association and sociologist Elavie Ndura from Burundi (co-editors of the book Seeds of New Hope) – consider “the construction of grass-roots movements for sustainable peace and justice in violence-prone South Africa and the Great Lakes Region”.

The tips they provide for south Durban activists will be invaluable for reversing a plan that gives polluters superprofits while, quite literally, killing the citizenry.

Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society

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