Lloyd Gedye & Niren Tolsi

On Khangela Bridge, the trucks rumbling to and from Durban’s harbour sound like industrial torture containers. Pistons, cogs, wheels and naked brake pads squeak and screech against each other lending a metallic soundtrack to the air, thick and cloying, with exhaust fumes and the smoke from factory chimney stacks.

Newspaper vendor Samkelo Dimba stands in the middle of the trundling, belching intersection from early in the morning until his wares sell out at around midday: “It is nonstop,” he says, “trucks coming, going, all the time. It’s difficult to breathe, especially when it’s hot, and I am sure standing here and breathing in the exhaust fumes all day will affect me later in life.”

An extension of Bayhead Road, which runs down the back of Durban Harbour, Khangela Bridge connects Bayhead and South Coast roads to Sydney Road, forming the main entrance and exit point into Durban’s harbour. Following its opening in 2009, it ensures almost 60% of South Africa’s imports get into the country.

The R200-million tender for the extension of Bayhead Road and the construction of Khangela Bridge was one of several big-money contracts rigged by the main protagonist in KwaZulu-Natal’s construction sector, John Jackson, a director at Stefanutti & Bressan.

This was confirmed by a list of rigged projects Stefanutti & Bressan submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority as part of its agreement to avoid prosecution.

The scope of the work included the construction of the bridge, the reconstruction of Glastonbury Place between Umbilo and Sydney roads, and the widening of the intersection at the Queen Mary Avenue and Umbilo Road.

Stefanutti & Bressan bid as a joint venture with Basil Read. Their competitors were Group 5. On 18 September 2006, the parties agreed that Group 5 would submit a higher price and allow the joint venture to win the tender.

The joint venture would then subcontract part of the work to Group 5. The project was completed in 2010.

The contract  was awarded in 2007 in the midst of protests, which are ongoing, from local residents about a lack of consultation by government, and concerns over noise and air pollution and the port’s “creep”, resulting in increased levels of accidents, prostitution and crime.

Residents’ concerns have been borne out. According to the Durban Transport Authority, there were 1 685 accidents involving heavy commercial vehicles in the Bayhead area between 2010 and 2014. That’s 337 accidents a year – almost one a day. The accidents – most of which happened in dry conditions outside of peak traffic hours – resulted in two deaths and 69 injuries over that period.

The area mapped, according to the authority, includes several residential areas that border the harbour, such as Umbilo.

Debbie Kinloch, a teacher at a local Christian school near Umbilo Road, says that as the accidents have increased on the road, so has the school’s concern for its pupils’ safety: “The noise pollution has certainly increased, and there have been more accidents on the road,” says Kinloch. “Many parents drop their children off and they cross the road unsupervised, which is a huge concern for us. We are also worried about strangers talking to our children over the school fence.”

On Sydney Road, grey-haired George Coetzee [Not his real name] wheezes and coughs as he describes the unbearable heaviness of living in among the increasing noise and air pollution – and seeing his 20-year-old grandson die earlier this year from an acute asthma attack.

“I’d say the trucks and trailers have tripled since they built the bridge. There are always diesel fumes, and this green smell in the air … [My grandson’s] death is linked to the pollution, I am sure of it …He was born here and lived here all his life,” says Coetzee. His dead grandson’s partner, and the four-month-old child he never got to hold, watch over Coetzee as he speaks and splutters.

A former mechanic, Coetzee says he can “hear the problems with many of the trucks. Some don’t have brake shoes, I can hear that. Many of the trucks are not roadworthy. It’s dangerous.”

Coetzee says trucks park outside his home and start warming up their engines from as early as 4am. His neighbour, Sizwe Sokhela, points out that “no one on this road uses there front gate or door. We all use the back entrances because it is too dangerous at the front.”

A 2009 eThekwini Municipality report on port-related traffic identified the migration of trucks into the Umbilo residential suburb. It noted that although traffic had been diverted from the Rick Turner Road Bridge (formerly Francois Road), the traffic demand on Queen Mary Avenue had increased “correspondingly”.

A 2011 eThekwini Transport Authority report on trucks on Rick Turner Road found that between 6am and 8pm during May and June 2010, there was, on average, one heavy commercial vehicle on the street every minute. Between 8pm and 6am, there was a heavy commercial vehicle on the street every 10 minutes.

Richard Upton, who lives on nearby Helen Joseph Road, says trucks run almost around the clock, “stacking up and blocking roads towards the weekend” as they vie for entrance to the port. He also notes that many are not serviced properly. “You can hear their exhaust brakes are being used because they can’t use their other brakes because they are finished.”

The trucks have also started to creep into nearby streets, according to Upton, who says many favour parking outside the Queensmead Mall, where drivers while away time at a local betting shop.

This is an observation echoed by Linda Chetty, who says navigating the mall has become a nightmare because of the trucks parked outside: “They park on the streets, on the islands – this is a residential area, man,” she says, clearly annoyed.

Chetty says in addition to parking in residential areas, the truckers also urinate in the street, litter, damage the kerbs, and break manhole covers.

When The Con called the manager of Queensmead Mall, she said she was not allowed to talk to the media.

Port creep and trucks using residential roads is already starting to affect communities. Trucking Chaos in Umbilo, a 2012 report compiled by the Umbilo Action Group for the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society, notes that “a child was killed at the top of Francois Road [now Rick Turner Road] despite residents campaigning for over four years for the installation of traffic-calming measures to check the rampant speeding and excessive heavy-duty transport use of this route as a thoroughfare to the Khangela Bridge entrance to the harbour”.

The report notes that the eThekwini Traffic Authority’s Carlos Esteves had “refused to consider further community pleas”, and the only response garnered from the provincial transport department was a statement saying it was “aware of the problem”.

“Years of lobbying local government has yielded nothing for beleaguered communities,” the report continues. “The eThekwini Municipality’s callous disregard for the deaths and chaos foisted upon communities by the trucking crisis is one such symptom of the state’s growing ambivalence to its citizens, a symptom we can no longer allow to decimate our communities.”

Describing the untrammelled congestion and its consequences in the area as a “crisis”, the report suggests it was allowed to go “unchecked”, and with scant regard for residents because of the municipality’s “cynical attempt to render large portions of South Durban unsuitable for residential use ahead of the proposed Port Expansion Project, plans for which were in place as long ago as 2006”.

The port creep is well under way, according to Neil Fynn, a resident of the Flamingo Court block of flats on Sydney Road. Fynn says the 1 200 residents in the block often struggle to access it because of the congestion. Police and emergency services also find it difficult to access the block, he says.

There has been an increase in crime in the area, with trucks being hijacked or their goods stolen, according to Fynn, who says there has also been an increase in sex workers in the area, with many “just hanging out on the bridge.”

Fynn, 37, was diagnosed with chronic asthma 11 years ago. Many residents in the area have respiratory problems, which appear to be exacerbated by the increase in trucks. At a 2012 community meeting in Umbilo, incensed residents discussed the increased pollution and the city’s lack of consultation.

At one point, a community leader asked the gathering of 100 people whether anyone had a family member or friend who had cancer or a breathing complaint in the past year. More than a third of those present raised their hands.

A 2015 eThekwini air-quality report found transportation within the city creates high amounts of emissions that can cause respiratory illnesses and cancers: 68 292 tonnes of nitrogen oxide, 1 585 tonnes of sulpher dioxide, 2 439 tonnes of particulate matter, 24 642 tonnes of nonmethane volatile organic compounds, and 68 tonnes of benzene a year.

The port itself generates 7 588 tonnes of nitrogen oxide, 7 588 tons of sulpher dioxide, almost 33 tonnes of particulate matter, and almost 21 tons of benzene a year.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) announced in 2012 that new estimates project that 7 million people globally die prematurely every year because of air pollution.

The announcement almost doubled previous estimates, and made air pollution the biggest health risk in the world. The WHO said its data showed strong links between cancer, strokes, heart attacks and respiratory diseases, and air pollution.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” said the WHO’s Dr Maria Neira in 2012. “Few risks have a greater impact on the global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

Main photo: There is no way out of there for residents around Khangela Bridge in Durban where almost 60% of South Africa’s imports are moved out by trucks – by Durban Centre of Photography

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

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