South African Environmental Justice struggles against "toxic" petrochemical industries in South Durban: The Engen Refinery Case

This case study explores the South Durban community's struggle against disproportionate exposure to a hazardous environment and sulphur dioxide pollution, and at the same time, being faced with "clear and present" health hazards linked to petrochemical industrial production. To unpack the environmental justice challenges facing post-apartheid South Africa, the case study examines the role played by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance in articulating environmental injustices and poor environmental responsibility of the petrochemical industry in South Africa.

Table of Contents


Key Actors


Lessons and recommendations




Environmental justice struggles in contemporary South Africa have their foundation in struggles against t he legacy of apartheid politics and spatial planning discourse and practice. Analysis of post-apartheid South Africa requires framing issues within a historical context; taking into account a painful history that left deep social, economic, political, and ecological (environmental) scars. It is through recognizing the impact of apartheid that one is be able to unpack contemporary environmental justice struggles and how they are closely tied to socio-political injustice. Durning (1990) states that Apartheid was not only an example of political injustice but it was also the most glaring example of environmental injustice (apartheid). Apartheid left deep scars on the environment, and its legacy continue to pose “numerous hazards to public health and people’s daily lives” (Heeten Kalan, South African Exchange Program on Environmental Justice). The zoning strategy of apartheid and its “racialized” separate development philosophy resulted in black South Africans being coerced to live in overcrowded “Bantustans” and townships located “downwind or downstream from industrial complexes” (Heeten Kalan).  Consequently, the black South African communities are overburdened by both disparate exposure to industrial pollution and socioeconomic deprivation. They live in extreme poverty and work in hazardous conditions.

This case study offers lessons and roadmaps on the racialized nature of environmental injustice in South Africa, and demonstrates the “conscious” intent of apartheid politicians and top public officials to locate polluting industries close low-income black South African townships (an vice versa).  It is little surprise that low-income communities in south Durban continue inhale “the deadly fumes of environmental injustice in South Africa” (ibid.). They bear the public health costs of environmental injustice associated with the petrochemical industry. These health costs include high levels of asthma, severe chest complaints, and cancer.

It is against this background that the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance is fighting for environmental justice in post-apartheid South Africa. According to Sven “Bobby” Peek, a South African environmental justice activist,

“Communities must not relent in their struggle against environmental injustices and racism and should not let obstacles of industrial and state power foil their quest for the ideal environment.”  

Pictorial Depiction of Petrochemical pollution in Durban:

Large-scale pollution: South African refineries produce approximately 82 tons of sulphur dioxide gas daily. [Mail & Guardian, April 28, 2000]

South Durban

South Durban is the industrial hub of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal Province.  It is “home” to one of the two biggest oil refineries in South Africa. South Durban has the largest concentration of petrochemical industries in the country, and it refines approximately 60 percent of South Africa’s petroleum. Apart from being overwhelmed with petrochemical companies, the South Durban industrial basin is also home to “waste water treatment works, numerous toxic waste landfill sites, an airport, a paper manufacturing plant and a multitude of chemical process industries” (Sven Peek). In total, the South Durban area contains over 120 industries, including the two oil refineries. This petrochemical basin has been dubbed the “Durban poison” which disproportionately overburdens low-income communities with environmental stress (pollution) and public health costs.

The discussion of South Durban industrial basin must take into account the apartheid legacy, particularly spatial planning and its impact on black communities (people of color). It was no coincidence that black communities (generic racial term for Indian, Colored and African communities) reside close to “toxic” industries and inhale fumes of environmental injustice. The South Durban basin has a population of approximately 285 000 people, and the black communities comprise an overwhelming majority of this population. The low-income communities are located in the following residential townships, Wentworth, Merebank, and Bluff.

However, apartheid urban planning ensured that these three racial groups lived apart (segregated) while maintaining separate residential development for white communities. The development of South Durban as an industrial hub, starting in the 1930s, involved collaboration between local industrialists (business people) and the white government (regime). Most of south Durban was deliberately zoned for industrial development, and black communities were forcibly removed to make way for industrial complexes (Desmond D’Sa, environmental justice activist with South Durban Community Environmental Alliance). Apartheid spatial planning deliberately sited black residential areas near dirty industries in order to facilitate easy access to cheap labor, and generally these black townships were located within close proximity of toxic dumps, sewerage treatment plants, polluting industries, etc. (Mark Douglas Whitaker, 2001). []. In addition, black communities were forced to live downstream and downwind from industrial complexes. Coupled with overcrowding in black townships, black communities had to bear with extreme poverty, poor and inhumane working and socioeconomic conditions.  The question that one might be asking at the moment is that what had apartheid spatial planning got to do with environmental justice? It is certainly a valid concern. In this case I seek to demonstrate that apartheid was a clear example of environmental injustice that was coupled with human rights abuses, socioeconomic, and public health violations. Its legacy presents post-apartheid South Africa with a mammoth task of redressing these injustices. According to Heeten Kalan, “Apartheid has left an indelible scar on the environment, which in turn has resulted in numerous hazards to public health and people’s daily lives” [].

It is analytical paralysis to ignore the impact of apartheid on contemporary problems and challenges facing the new South Africa. I advance that that racial analysis forms the core of an examination of South African problems, and its omission renders the discussion a “half-baked cake.” In my opinion, whatever discussion about current problems experienced by post-apartheid South Africa has its roots on the environmental question; environment being broadly defined. Apartheid, even though premised on advancing white superiority in all spheres of society, tapped into the environment to secure resources for promoting “separate development” that would largely benefit the white community. It thus stimulated environmental scarcity for black communities, and consequently creating conditions for conflict in society [refer to Valerie Percival & Thomas Homer-Dixon, 1995. “Environmental scarcity and violent conflict: the case of South Africa.”]. Thus the environmental (ecological) legacy of apartheid is grim, and will surely influence sociopolitical and economic conditions of post-apartheid South Africa for decades [Percival & Homer-Dixon, 1995].

In the previous paragraphs, I present the grim picture of apartheid and its impact on sociopolitical and economic conditions in South Africa. The institutionalization of apartheid in 1948 gave way to social and political conflict around environmental resources. One could also argue that institutions and structures (social and political) of apartheid served to allocate environmental resources (thus dealing with issues of environmental scarcity) and the containment of conflict (certainly a function of the struggle between social groups competing for the environmental resources). Percival & Homer-Dixon (1995) clearly state that “the social and ecological legacies of apartheid will continue to affect the ability of both state and society” to meet the expectations, aspirations and needs of a democratic South African population. Such struggles around environmental resources still continue in post-apartheid South Africa, and thus the question of environmental scarcity is critical to our understanding of environmental justice.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDEA) represents the growing commitment of local communities seeking environmental justice and redress of past injustices associated with apartheid. The case will demonstrate how the local communities in South Durban have galvanized their resources to shift the balance of power, patterns of socio-political interaction, accountability and social responsibility of corporate interests. I will show how the South Durban low-income communities perceive the social impact of environmental scarcities (in this case, lack of clean air and a healthy environment) and their attempt to correct environmental injustice. The ability of South Durban low-income communities to perceive environmental injustice and seek redress is a major achievement since it creates an impetus for challenging the status quo. In my opinion, grievance-generation, which is closely associated with a commonly identified problem, promotes community mobilization for action.

Key actors


Engen Refinery in South Durban is a business unit of the Engen Petroleum Limited, a wholly subsidiary of Engen Limited, South Africa. Engen Limited is however a subsidiary of a Malaysian National Oil Company, Petroliam Nasional Berhad (Petronas). In mid-1996, Petronas purchased a 30% stake and controlling interest in Engen. It was considered a major success story of foreign investment (worth approximately US$460 million) in that decade, and in 1999 Petronas became the sole owner of Engen.

Up until 1990, Engen was wholly a South African company with no foreign interest. It initially operated as Vacuum Oil Company of South Africa and then as Trek Beleggings Beperk. The change of name to Engen Limited came into effect in May 1990 following an acquisition (in 1989) of Mobil’s refineries and marketing business in Southern Africa. Mobil Oil sold the company because of public pressure in America for divestment. However, what is interesting and ironic is that Mobil Oil refused to sell its businesses to a consortium of Indian and African businessmen (who had a higher offer), and instead sold such assets to Gencor, the South African holding company that was predominantly Afrikaner nationalist.

The Engen refinery in South Durban is the focus of environmental concern about industrial pollution. Apart from being the largest oil refinery in Durban as well as one of the two largest source of sulphur dioxide pollution in South Durban, Engen Refinery is closely located to two residential low–income black communities, Merebank and Wentworth. Its immediate adjacent proximity to these two communities “optimizes for many the problems of industry’s impact on public health and the problems of quality of Black communities” (Sven Peek). During the apartheid era, the refinery was considered a strategic infrastructure or “National Key Point,” and thus was able to avoid close scrutiny from the public regarding its environmental impact and public health costs. The refinery operated under the “Official Secrets Act, which prevented us from dealing at any level with the public about the business” [a refinery manager’s view as quoted by Sven Peek]. The refinery was also encircled in a razor wire, guard towers, and symbolically, this characterized the “fortress mentality” inherent in most supposedly strategic industries in the apartheid economy.

The environmental costs of the Engen refinery in South Durban could be traced back to the period it operated as Mobil Oil refinery. In the late 1980s the Merebank local community (the Merebank Ratepayers Association) complained about refinery management’s unresponsiveness to environmental pollution. A memorandum was forwarded to the refinery management in 1990, and it raised community concerns regarding the refinery’s pollution and “problem areas.” The community identified the “problem areas” to include regular flaring, sulphur dioxide emissions, and oil spills, etc. However, the management responded by arguing that the pollution was wind-blown from other factories, flaring occurred for safety reasons, and that some oil spillage was beyond their control. However, with the ushering of a new democratic era in 1994, Engen had to revisit its relationship with the South Durban community. The wind of change driven by 1994 democratic elections required Engen doing business differently and being in alignment with “the national discourse favoring consultation with locally affected communities” (Sven Peek, South Africa environmental justice activist). Essentially, we witness during this period an attempt by Engen to step out of its fortress mentality and to seek consultation with the local community.

The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance was formed in February 1997 after “the various differing community-based representatives in South Durban liaised under a common agreed-up mandate” (Sven Peek). To date, there are over 8 community-based organizations and 2 non-government organizations under the banner of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance. Up until 1997, various differing communities of Wentworth, Merebank and Bluff waged environmental struggles against the petrochemical industries, primarily focusing on the Engen Refinery.

The South Durban community is made up of poor blacks (Africans, Indian, and colored/mixed race communities) that have been historically exposed to petrochemical industries and air polluting substances like sulphur dioxide, and benzene (a cancer causing substance, according to US Environmental Protection Agency classification). According to Daniel Knight, the levels of benzene recorded near the Engen Refinery were “up to 15 times higher than World Health Organization guidelines and several times higher than recommended levels in the United States.” Furthermore, investigative studies by local journalists have shown that the rate of leukemia in South Durban may be up to 24 times higher than in other parts of South Africa. []. A study by the University of Natal medical school found that children in the suburbs south of Durban “are up to four times likely to suffer from chest complaints than children from other areas of the city” of Durban. [Paul Kirk, Mail and Guardian, April 2000 ]. The school children in South Durban also bear the public health costs of the petrochemical industries, and have to content with bad smells generated by those industries. For example, attendance figures at Settlers Primary School are perceived to go down when the wind blows toxic emissions into the classrooms. This school is located between two colossal refineries, Engen and SAPREF. In November 2000, the school had to call in paramedics to deal with more than 100 children suffering temporary respiratory problems [, article titled “South Africa: Durban residents victims of environmental racism”]. However, the main challenge facing the community is that there is little medical empirical evidence to support community claims that petrochemical industries are responsible for the incidences of cancer, leukemia, and respiratory problems in the community. In other words, the South Durban community recognizes the problematic nature of hard evidence connecting the polluters (petrochemical industries) to localized health problems. They however understand that their families are exposed disproportionately to environmental stressors than other communities in Durban. Furthermore, the South Durban community is aware of the loops within South Africa’s environmental legislation, and has therefore taken initiative to step in to enforce environmental responsibility on the part of petrochemical industries. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance represents a concerted effort of community representatives in seeking environmental quality and industrial responsibility in environmental care.

The South African Government, be at the national, provincial, and/or local level, has a critical responsibility in ensuring that no community is unfairly exposed to health hazards and unclean environment. The South African Constitution (Article 24) guarantees every person the right to an environment that is not “detrimental” or “harmful” to health. 

It is important that we examine the environmental legislation that provides the framework for dealing with environmental pollution in South Africa. Prior to the enactment of The National Environmental Management Act (January 1998), the Air Pollution Prevention Act (1965) served as the key legislative mechanism for enforcing pollution limits. However, this piece of legislation is outdated and not consistent with environmental law developments taking place within the rest of the world. It allows South African oil refineries to produce as much as 82 tons of sulphur dioxide a day while Scandinavian countries limit such gas emissions to approximately two tons. The central problem with South African environment legislation is the lack of clearly defined legislation to control air pollution [Paul Kirk, Mail & Guardian April 28, 2000]. There is essentially no legally binding air pollution regulation in South Africa, and pollution control is facilitated through non-binding “guidelines”. Thus, in the absence of a regulatory or enforcement government agency, polluting industries rely on their own good will or community pressure to ensure environmental responsibility.

President Nelson Mandela, Mr. Holomisa, the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mr. Martin Lloyd, the Chief Pollution Officer at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Dr. Trevor Chorn, the Director-General of Transport and Energy were national government representatives involved in the Engen case. At the provincial and municipal levels, the Environmental Manager of the City of Durban and the City Medical Officer of Health participated in the resolution of the Engen case. These public officials got involved in the Engen case through political pressure, either explicitly or implicitly, from the community.

Map of Durban, South Africa.


Durban is the largest city of the KwaZulu-Natal province. The province has a population of over 8 million people. Black people (Indian, colored, and Africans) constitute approximately 86% and the whites 14% of the population. Durban has a population of approximately 2,3 million, and most blacks live in formal low-income townships or rapidly growing informal settlements.


This case study focuses on the three residential communities of Merebank, Wentworth and Bluff that live immediately adjacent to the Engen refinery. It reveals the communities' struggle for environmental justice and better environment responsibility and accountability by the Engen Refinery. The case shows also a strong desire by communities to “enforce” environmental responsibility in the absence of clear environmental regulation and law enforcement by the national and/or provincial government. With increasing incidence of respiratory problems, cancer and other health-related complications among community members, the Merebank Ratepayers Association presented a memorandum in 1990 to the refinery management complaining about the industrial pollution. However, the management was unresponsive to the “problem areas” identified by the local community. With the transition to democratic elections in 1994, Engen recognized the need to take into account the changing political mood in the country. It decided to initiate consultation arrangements with local communities on how to improve on environmental management. This process earmarked a critical departure by the refinery management from its “fortress mentality.” According to Sven Peek, Engen had to revisit its relation with local community. Late 1994 national politics favored consultation with locally affected communities. Thus ENGEN made its first serious attempt after apartheid to step from behind its "fortress isolation” by initiating a Community Awareness and Emergency Response (CAER) Committee.

·        Consultative forum

The CAER, even though initiated by Engen, was a response to community pressure on the refinery management to be responsive to their concerns regarding industrial pollution. Engen management wanted to have control over community representatives invited to participate in CAER Committee. From Engen’s perspective, the CAER committee was essentially a framework for discussion between the refinery and local communities, and it was not expected to come up with any legally binding regulations on pollution. Furthermore, Engen’s consultants set the agenda for CAER Committee meetings/discussions. However, the communities challenged Engen’s assertion that its consultant be the chairperson of the Committee, and rather demanded their right to set the agenda, to elect the chairperson, and select their own representatives to the CAER Committee. Thus the communities’ ability to affirm their control over the consultation process gave them some political leverage in determining which issues had to be addressed by the Committee.

·        Shifting political leverage

The community attempted to use the consultation forum, CAER Committee, to exert pressure on Engen to agree to release extensive information on emissions and remedy pollution. The community representatives wanted Engen to agree to a sulphur dioxide emission reduction plan. The South Durban communities of Wentworth and Berebank had identified release of information and emission reduction as their two key priorities. Engen recognized the political danger of fully disclosing its emission information to the local communities given that the information could easily serve as a public relations weapon against it. With the planned visit by President Mandela to dedicate Engen’s expansion, the refinery felt the need to improve its public relations by pointing out its consultation arrangements with local communities. At the same time, the community representatives viewed President Mandela’s impending visit as a political leverage to push Engen to commit to a plan (binding agreement) on pollution reduction. Thus in March 1995, the community representatives of the Merebank, Bluff, and Wentworth drafted a Good Neighbor Agreement, which was also reviewed by their lawyer. The Good Neighbor Agreement draft proposed the following: It called for (1) Engen to release a broad list of information; (2) workplace monitoring, energy conservation, and environmental planning; (3) to pledge to specific plans to reduce emissions of sulphur and carbon oxides, noxious odors, and the production of toxic chemicals; (4) to increase emergency planning and reporting, conduct safety audits, reduce flare pollution, noise and traffic… and (5) to implement affirmative action to address racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination [Sven Peek,]. Community representatives were interested in having Engen legally commit to the Good Neighbor Agreement before the President’s visit, and in return they would publicly praise Engen Refinery. Unfortunately, Engen management resisted making a legally binding commitment to the Agreement, and subsequently the negotiation broke at the time of President Mandela’s official visit to Engen refinery expansion dedication. However, the President encountered local community demonstrators in front of the Engen refinery when he visited the plant.  This demonstration brought the Engen refinery in the national spotlight. President Mandela then met privately with the community, and on 28th March 1995 he decided a joint meeting with Engen management, various Ministers and community representatives to facilitate resolution to the Engen-south Durban community conflict around environmental pollution. This meeting resulted in further meetings between Engen Management and senior government officials. In May 1995, Engen agreed to re-negotiate the Good Neighbor Agreement with local communities before the Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism, Mr. Holomisa. This “Indaba” was convened and it was dubbed the “South Durban Multi-Stakeholder Environmental Management Meeting.”

·        Engen’s reluctance to accept the Good Neighbor Agreement

Engen perceived the terms of the Good Neighbor Agreement draft as unacceptable given their tone for legal commitment. The community representatives had built in a series of legally binding specifics in the Good Neighbor Agreement since they sought Engen’s commitment to release information, to reduce emissions of sulphur compounds by an agreed upon percent within a specified time period, and safeguard the local communities. However, Engen primarily disagreed about reducing sulphur dioxide emissions. Engen’s contention on sulphur dioxide emission reduction was that it was not violating the country’s Air Pollution Control Act since its emission was within the legally acceptable levels. Even though the emission records of Engen refinery revealed that the plant’s emissions were approximately 10 times higher than would be legally permissible in similar refineries in the United States, it technically was not violating any pollution control guidelines. Thus, on technical grounds, Engen did not see the need to unilaterally and proactively reduce its emissions in the absence of environmental law stipulations. The loophole in environmental law and regulation creates opportunities for industrial abuse of the environment. The apartheid government allowed industrial development to grow with limited regard for environmental effects. Unfortunately post-apartheid South Africa has largely permitted this scenario to continue with its failure to keep up with environmental developments in developed economies. Even the National Environmental Management Act (1998) stipulates that industries need to take “reasonable measures” to avoid, to minimize, and to rectify pollution or environmental degradation. It however fails to ultimately challenge “sources of environmental harm and damage located in the existing mode of production” [Patrick Bond and Robyn Stein, “Environmental and Water Management Law in Post-Apartheid South Africa”].

Engen insisted on an alternative agreement with local communities regarding the reduction of sulphur dioxide emissions. Instead of embracing the Good Neighbor Agreement drafted by the local community representatives, Engen proposed the Bluff Valley Model for the reduction of emissions. This model did not require an investment in cleaner production technology to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions but rather called for reasonable emission reductions only during cold weather conditions (for example winter season) that might cause excessive ambient sulphur dioxide concentrations.

·        Cooperative environmental governance: rhetoric or reality?

In early December 1995, Engen management held a secret meeting with Durban City Medical Officer of Health and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The two communities of Wentworth and Bluff discovered it, and tension grew and they decided to blockade entrance to those attending the meeting. Having realized the political costs of excluding local community representatives from the meeting, Engen then invited them to attend. However, the community refused to participate in retaliation to their initial exclusion. The community’s refusal to participate in the Engen meeting raised questions about its legitimacy and sincerity in tackling pollution issues and involving local communities in its processes. The community lobbied President Mandela and Deputy Minister Holomisa to facilitate further negotiations and press Engen to address community grievances.

Engen responded by inviting the CAER Committee to the refinery where it presented its data on ambient sulphur dioxide levels. The impression that it sought to create was that the refinery had significantly reduced emissions to pre-expansion levels and thus it made no business sense for Engen to invest R1 million per stack to monitor actual sulphur dioxide emissions. Ironically, Engen used monitoring data generated during the summer of 1996 at the Wentworth monitoring station to plot the graph of ambient sulphur dioxide levels. Given good wind/air circulation in January, the data revealed very low concentration. This was certainly a clear attempt by Engen to “fool” local communities by misrepresenting the true picture of petrochemical pollution by deliberately not accounting for the winter inversion. A community representative felt insulted by Engen management attempt to manipulate the data to suit its claims on emission reduction. The community members and representatives had thus managed to educate themselves in issues of environmental justice and complexities of industrial pollution. During this period community members kept putting pressure on the Engen to revisit its position regarding the Good Neighbor Agreement by broadening political space for consultation and negotiation. They appealed to higher levels of national government through letters. This strategy managed to bring the Deputy Minister of Environment to convene a meeting between Engen management, community representatives (accompanied by their consultants), and government officials (Director General of Transport and Energy, and Chief Air Pollution Officer at the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism [DEAT]) in February 1996. At this meeting, the community insisted that Engen significantly reduce its sulphur dioxide emissions (to 8 tons per day) but these requests were met with resistance. The core issue was that Engen did not see any violation of air pollution regulation, after all its “emissions of perhaps 40 tons per day were considerably below the 72 tons permitted by DEAT” (Sven Peek). The differential perception of environmental standards between Engen and the local community representatives inevitably resulted in a deadlock. Certainly, there was no agreed upon standard that did not rely primarily on air pollution control laws. The government itself lagged behind in terms to reviewing or amending its air pollution control laws to suit international standards. Even though, constitutionally, it had the responsibility to protect the community’s right to a clean, healthy environment, it was constrained legally to enforce environmental standards that were beyond legal stipulation. The main viable alternative was for DEAT to propose amendments to the current air pollution laws in order to lower the amount of sulphur dioxide emissions permitted. Even Engen management was aware of the legal loopholes in the environmental laws in South Africa, and its Chief Executive Officer (Mr. Angel) argued that his refinery would comply if DEAT’s standards changed. (Sven Peek). Unfortunately, the involvement of senior government officials failed to break the deadlock, and Engen convincingly stated its case on technical ground. In terms of air pollution regulations on sulphur dioxide emissions, Engen was not violating stipulated emission permit. Engen also called an independent expert panel to ascertain the emissions of other petrochemical companies and the public health effects of emissions. The community was skeptical of an “independent” expert panel comprising e most panelists that were perceived as sympathetic to Engen and its Bluff Valley Model. However the independent expert panel never materialized.

·        Community resolve and the formation of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance

Engen had shown, by the spring of 1996, that it was not prepared to succumb to both local community demands and political pressure to significantly reduce sulphur dioxide emissions. At the same time, the communities of Wentworth, Berebank and Bluff were experiencing further divisions within community ranks. This potentially threatened community cohesion and mobilization against the Engen refinery. Recognizing this possible rapture in community mobilization and support, community representatives called, in November 1996, a broad meeting with all community based organizations that were negotiating with Engen and it was agreed that a community environmental coalition should be formed to spearhead environmental struggles. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) was product of community resolve to spearhead environmental justice struggles in South Durban. Thus, it allowed local communities in South Durban to speak with a single voice on environmental issues, and this would ultimately provide them with a vantage point on fighting the petrochemical industries in Durban. Under the single banner of SDCEA, the South Durban communities were able to mount pressure on industries in the valley to reduce sulphur dioxide pollution. SDCEA broadened its environmental struggles beyond the Engen refinery, and targeted other industries. Some industries were receptive to SDCEA request on emission reduction and pollution control, and therefore they made emission reduction commitments. SDCEA was able to broaden the arena for conflict and built an alliance with other receptive industries. Thus SDCEA increased, indirectly, pressure on Engen through its alliance with other industries that had signed on to the agreement on pollution reduction. Such indirect pressure ultimately paid off in 1998 when Engen agreed to a reduction in “pollution permit levels by 65% over five years starting from 1999” [Sven Peek,]. Engen refinery claims that it is taking positive measures in improving its environmental management []. Certainly this marks a positive shift in Engen’s attitude towards the local community, and it opens up new avenues for negotiations on environmental issues.

Lessons and Recommendations

This case study reveals the germination of a unique form of environmental justice movement in South Africa. It ties the environmental justice struggle to industrial development and planning. Of particular interest to the author is community resolve to fighting environmental injustice by mobilizing local resources. It was through a painstaking learning experience and reliance on endogenous resources that the South Durban community was able to formulate a viable local environmental justice movement.

1)                 The case represent a clear case of environmental racism linked to apartheid spatial planning that essentially shifted the cost of petrochemical industries to poor black communities []

2)                 Environmental injustice in post-colonial Africa requires a critical examination of colonial/apartheid systems as social structures of accumulation, and how contemporary black communities continue to bear both the environmental and public health costs of these repressive systems. The case shows that environmental struggles in South Africa are linked to some form of environmental scarcity (e.g., clean environment, improved air quality, access to land, improved working and living conditions). Apart from being an example of political injustice, colonialism and/or apartheid also represent glaring example of environmental injustice []

3)                 The South Durban community recognized the pitfalls within South Africa’s environmental laws and air pollution regulations. The community representatives thus called upon technical and legal experts to help them understand the technical questions. However, they did not rely on litigation (legal action) to make their case against Engen. They sought a more qualitative-orientated approach to consultation with Engen. This required transparency and negotiating in good faith. Unfortunately, Engen management held meetings with government officials without extending invitation to community representatives. Such meetings lacked legitimacy from the local community. In my opinion, negotiations have high chances of success when issues are discussed in a transparent manner and no party is left to surprises.

4)                 The government officials had little to bring to the table. The community expected government to protect their right to a healthy environment. Unfortunately, government’s environmental legislation and regulations are outdated. For example, The Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (No. 45 of 1965) serves as the main law governing air pollution. Unfortunately, it is outdated and in need of major review to be in line with international standards []. Consequently, government officials did not have the legal backing to coerce Engen to implement improved environmental practices and air pollution control since the refinery was operating within the prescribed emission permit.

5)                 Bringing an environmental issue to public attention is critical for increasing leverage and broadening the arena for conflict. The local community capitalized on President Mandela’s visit to Engen Refinery to capture publicity on their environmental struggle. Thus they were able to gain access simultaneously to political leadership and the media.

6)                 The community has also stepped into the environmental enforcement gap by building low-cost (inexpensive) bucket air sampling devices to monitor air pollution trends in South Durban. The “Bucket Brigade” is an initiative of SDCEA, and it aims to educate and equip local communities with simple technical skills on monitoring air pollution. However, the extent to which such “empirical” data is effective in legal action against the polluter is really debatable and/or questionable given the bias towards scientific results.

Personal reflections: The struggle continues! It is important that environmental justice activists continue telling stories of real people fighting environmental, social, and economic injustices throughout the world. As "we breathe the air of freedom let us hope that we do not choke on hidden fumes” (Albie Sachs). Sometimes, these fumes are not hidden BUT clear and present danger. It is distressing to learn that, in post-apartheid South Africa, low income (black) communities continue to inhale “the deadly fumes of environmental injustice” [Heeten Kalan,] associated with environmentally unfriendly industrial production technologies.


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Peek, S. “Conflict and cooperation in Durban’s petrochemical basin.” []. N.B. This article greatly informed this case study. It provides a brilliant descriptive detail of the environmental struggles linked to the South Durban petrochemical basin.

Peek, S. “South Africa: toxic and nuclear contamination.” []

Percival, V. & Homer-Dixon, T. “Environmental scarcity and violent conflict: the case of South Africa.” []

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