In South Africa, women assert the Constitutional right to breathe fresh air is a State responsibility

Promise Mabilo

Section 24a of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa declares, “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.” Everyone means, or should mean, everyone. For decades, coal mining and coal-fired power plants have turned the Mpumalanga Highveld into the site of the most polluted air in the world. Two years ago, Greenpeace reported that the area was the world’s largest power plant emission hotspot. In 2007, the South African government created the Highveld Priority Area to respond to the deadly situation. Nothing changed. If anything, the air became more deadly. This year, women in Mpumalanga, most of them members of the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, decided enough was already way too much, and, with another environmental justice organization, groundWork, sued the South African government. The women declared they knew what was happening to their children, neighbors, community, and to themselves, and they said that they had pushed every other way conceivable and now, it was time for the South African government to abide by its Constitution. Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being. Everyone means everyone. The case is known as the “Deadly Air” case. In May, the Pretoria High Court heard the case, and the decision could come out any day.

After the case was heard, Promise Mabilo, coordinator of Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and one of the claimants, explained, “For me, this case is very important because people around the Highveld are really suffering. I have a son who is suffering from asthma and I feel the pain when I look at him. His childhood had limitations because he couldn’t play with other children, run around or carry heavy objects. I also noticed his school performance dropping because he wasn’t attending school regularly as he would be sick for one week then be okay the next …. The more I see the results of breathing in this polluted air and the people I live with in the community who are also sick and suffering from asthma, I feel abused and violated because I know what the cause is … We wish for the government departments to work together with other departments, such as the Department of Health. We do not just want compliance from the polluters because once we get sick, we even struggle to get proper healthcare because we don’t have money.”

Mbali Vosmang added, “I live with my  two children. Princess is seven, and Asemahle is three years old. When they were born, they were not sick but since living Emalahleni, we have become sick. It is very tough to sleep in hospitals due to COVID-19. The beds are full, and our children are put on oxygen tanks from the bench. The Deadly Air case is very important because I do not want others to continue to suffer the same issues as we do.”

When the government tried to explain that cleaning up an area takes time and that the claimants, majority women, were being emotional rather than rational, their attorney, Steven Budlender, responded, “The Constitutional Court has spoken with great force and passion about the need to … make a difference in ordinary people’s lives, and when you speak about 10 000  deaths of predominantly poor people in an area, that’s not emotional, it’s not irrational. It is the fact and the facts give rise to a constitutional violation.”

The facts give rise to a constitutional violation. The women of the Mpumalanga Highveld know the cause of the rampaging death in their communities. It is the air and it is the refusal of the State to care sufficiently. A state that can save its airline industry and its tourist industry is able to address the deadly air, produced by mines and power plants, in its rural areas. In Mpumalanga, in the northeast of South Africa, the women want the world to know, everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being. The women want the world to know, everyone means everyone.

(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Daily Maverick / Daylin Paul / Life After Coal)

African Women Stand their Ground Against Big Coal

For the past week, women from mining communities in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been meeting in Johannesburg to share their experiences, strengthen their networks, map and take the way forward. They have been brought together by WoMin, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction. They have had enough of environmental devastation, corporate predation, and State violence. They are sick and tired of living and dying in communities and households where everyone is tired, sick, and dying. And they have had enough of being ignored or silenced. They come together to say, Now is the time! They come together to make NOW the time.

In an hour long interview this week, Samantha Hargreaves, Regional Coordinator of WoMin; Nhlanhla Mgomezulu, Coordinator of the Highveld Environment Justice Network; and Susan Chilala, Secretary of the Rural Women’s Assembly, in Zambia, laid out the program. Generally, the women are calling on the State to divert its massive investments in the infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction into alternatives, particularly solar, wind, tidal, and thermal, all plentiful in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, region. All of the countries are already investing great sums of money to make mines happen. The women say: Make something else happen; something sustainable and renewable that will meet the challenge of growing consumption in growing economies.

This diversion would mean that the State would have to reconsider its comfortable relationship with those few who make huge profits at the expense of the many. This would also mean, the women said pointedly, that politicians, such as Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, would have to address their complicity as shareholders and leaders in the mineral extractives sector.

The majority of the interview describes the impact of coal mining on local communities. Susan Chilala explained that coal mining attacks women small scale farmers most viciously. She described the impact of coal mining on farming and food security. She talked about the impact on women when their space is taken over by an industry that is so deeply male dominated, from top to bottom.

Nhlanhla Mgomezulu described the impact on women in the South African Highveld: “We women are the ones who suffer most.” Women suffer as individuals, in that their own health is endangered by poisoned water, air, and land, but they suffer even more as principal caregivers of the community. When the children are sick, women work more intensively. When the men return from the mines with asthma, kidney failure, tuberculosis, injuries and more, women are work more intensively. And this labor is `free’ and it’s 30 hours a day, 8 days a week, for life. If that’s not slavery … what is?

Last year, Greeenpeace published a report, which looked at Witbank, in Mpumulanga, in which they found that Witbank has the dirtiest air in the world. This is the gift of coal as a mainstay of `development’: “Sonto Mabina … works at a small tuck shop that’s just a short walk from her home in an informal settlement over the train tracks outside Witbank, in Mpumalanga. She’s lived here for 25 years, arriving well before the three coal washeries that now surround her house … Sonto Mabina, or Katerina as she likes to be called, lives with her husband, Andries. Their house has no electricity or water and Katerina uses a coal stove to cook their suppers, the black plumes of smoke clouding their home. A municipal truck brings water once a week, but most say it’s too polluted to drink. If you can afford to, you buy bottled water in this area of the country; if not, you boil it like Sonto does and you hope for the best. `Dust is my main problem,’ she says. `Every time my child goes to the hospital it’s because of the dust. The doctors say his chest is full of it. The doctors asked me where I lived and I told them. My other child also has problems with his nose because it is always running – the dust affects him too.’ It’s an everyday problem here.”

The women who have gathered in Johannesburg are saying NO to that everyday. They are engaging in a public dialogue, breaking down barriers, transforming isolation into community, teaching as they learn, and they are demanding a better present. Not a better future, a better present. They have lived too long with politicians and others ignoring them. They are demanding that the State take climate change, the environment, community health and wellbeing, and women seriously. African women are standing their ground and more. They are organizing and on the move. The time is now!

(Photo Credit: Mujahid Safodien / Greenpeace)

It was amazing

It was amazing

It was amazing
sex workers disclose
while folks still can
(we have a right to know
those Mandela-moments)

It was amazing
good money made
outside of the launch
of the ANC’s manifesto

It was amazing
more clients came
election plans made
the country anticipates
(will it be work for all)

Participants’ hotels
lodges and their cars
the scene of much activity
(service delivery at work)

(was the handbook
suitably amended
allowing members
to go forth and engage
with the electorate)

It was amazing
the demand very high
big fish landed
colleagues wishing for more
(ANC rallies out yonder)

After the main event
local industry supported
was it business as usual
or was it the usual business

(though food and fruit vendors
had different responses
to the brisk street trading)

It was amazing
politicians at work
introducing our born-frees
and other impressionables
to the ways of the world

It was amazing

Sex workers in Mpumalanga’s capital city get to meet the ruling party’s politics (“Launch is a shot in arm for sex trade”, Cape Times, January 14 2014).

 

(Photo Credit: The Randburg Sun)