Niren Tolsi & Lloyd Gedye

Durban’s South Basin exists like a subtropical Dickensian nightmare – race and class oppression sweating it out under mango trees heavy with fruit, and chimney stacks billowing pollution. When the wind changes, so does the rotten egg flavour of sulphur dioxide in the humidity.

Families tracing their lives in the area to late 19th-century fishing and gardening folk gossip over fences with others plonked there by forced removals and the creation of race-based labour reservoirs for industry. Relocation is a historical and contemporary threat as bay and industrial creep continues, as do attempts to rezone residential areas.

There are two oil refineries there, Engen and Sapref (owned by Shell and BP), which date back to 1954 and 1960 respectively, as well as a Mondi paper factory, and countless more industrial production and chemical processing factories.

People here died from asthmatic attacks, and they still suffer from an abnormally high incidence of cancers.

“When I started my practice, I saw one death a week from acute asthma,” says Dr Bharuth Seetharam, who started working in Merebank in 1976. “Patients used to come into my surgery and die right there on the bed.”

Seetharam says that although cases of acute asthma have subsided in the past decade because of better access to health care, over the years, he has seen “thousands of patients with cancers, including stomach, brain, skin, lung cancer and leukaemia”.

That rate has not subsided, and although Seetharam concedes “there can be multiple causes of cancers”, he says “the death of a four-year-old from cancer cannot be attributed to lifestyle causes” like alcoholism or smoking. Blaming bad lifestyles for the causes of cancers has been the fallback response by industrial polluters whenever challenged on the health effects of their emissions.

A 2000 survey by the Mercury newspaper, analysed by public health specialist Duane Blaauw of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, found that among young children in Merebank, a suburb in the South Basin, the rate of leukaemia appeared to be 24 times higher than in the rest of the country.

In 2002, the medical school conducted research at Settlers Primary School on Lakhimpur Road, Merebank, and found a “strikingly high” level of asthma among children there compared to global standards. More than half of the 248 pupils and teachers who participated in the research were found to be suffering from severe or mild asthma.

Some of the most prevalent emitted chemicals in the South Basin, and most dangerous to the lungs and blood of humans, include sulphur dioxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and benzene.

According to a 2015 air quality presentation by the eThekwini Municipality, annual emissions from transport contributed to 68 292 tonnes of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, 1 585 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and 68 tonnes of benzene produced in the city. The majority is concentrated around the port and South Basin because of the heavy trucking volumes in the industrial hub.

The port area itself, with its associated industry, emits 7 588 tonnes of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, 5 490 tonnes of sulphur dioxide, and almost 21 tonnes of benzene a year at current rates.


Main Photo – by the Durban Centre of Photography

This work was assisted by a Taco Kuiper Grant from the Valley Trust, administered by Wits University Journalism School .


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