The Social Justice Lens
The Social Justice Lens

Waiting to inhale (Part 1)

By Gillian Schutte

It’s a blistering hot afternoon when we arrive at the Barracks. This regimentally built cluster of council houses was erected in Wentworth in the 1970s and used to temporarily house part of the community that was forcibly removed from Cato Manor to Durban South in the 1974. Thirty-six years later the same community live there, most of them impoverished and unemployed despite the fact that they live less than 50m away from the Engen oil refinery and a host of other industries. The smell of rotten eggs permeates the air. The stench is not rotten eggs though, but rather a blend of pollutants emitted from the refinery stacks that overshadow the dwellings of the people living in the Wentworth community. To be precise what we smell is a concoction of about 100 chemicals that are discharged from the oil refinery every day. In this case the rotten egg smell comes from the Engen oil refinery — but Sapref oil refinery is only a couple of kilometres away and also emitting its own 100 chemicals or so. This toxic concoction is what the Wentworth community breathes in daily, and there are very high asthma, cancer and leukaemia rates in the area. The blend includes metals like lead and mercury as well as very small dust particles called PM10 that get deep into the lungs making it hard to breathe. Add to that, emissions such as sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, benzene and others. It is no wonder this area has been referred to as a virtual gas chamber.

We have come here to follow up on a documentary we made six years ago on the chronic asthma experienced by the children living at the Barracks — where practically every child is on chronic medication and carries an asthma pump. There is a relaxed post-holiday feeling in the community. Children play in between the rows of run down one-story apartments. Women sit on plastic chairs or overturned tin drums and smoke and chat while they keep an eye on their children. Different music emanates from various houses.

“A little girl was raped here recently,” says Gail, a mother of girls. “But it was someone from outside the Barracks community. He lured her away with sweets. We have to watch them all the time.”

I ask after a few children who I had interviewed six years earlier, but am told that today many of the youngsters are visiting friends or family in the surrounding areas. I ask the group of women sitting in the sun if they mind us coming in over the next few months to do some more case studies on the health of their children. They readily agree and begin to tell me about the health problems they experience in their families. “Look at these sores on my girl’s head.” Gail spreads open a pathway in the curly hair to reveal a cluster of dried-out sores. “All our children get these sore on their heads.”

“It is due to what Engen is letting out at night when we are sleeping … that’s what is making these children get these sores. We don’t know, we just see a lot of black smoke clouding us and that is why many people have asthma here also,” says Roanne.

“Engen has fires every year. I’ve seen about 20 fires here so far. After these fires the children started having blocked noses and their parents are sitting with them at the clinics every day. And over 30 children have developed these sores on their heads … children who had never had sores before. Plus minus 80% of kids have asthma here. They go to the clinic because the clinic is free and nobody pays our health bills.”

A shirtless man emerges from his house to join the conversation. I ask him to turn down the R&B music, which is blaring from his door. He calls loudly into the room asking his mate to turn it down. “She doesn’t like our music,” he shouts. I assure him that I do but I cannot afford the royalties I would have to pay if it infiltrates the soundtrack of my documentary.

“It is not the health thing that is our major problem,” he tells me. “The main issue is housing. No one is bringing up the issue of housing. There are too many people here and there is overcrowding.”

Gail agrees. The main problem is the overcrowding in the houses. You will find five families in one house and this causes a lot of problems. It is more pressing than the pollution. Overcrowding is our main struggle.”

I ask about the plans to relocate them. “They are moving us to some flats in Lansdowne Road, but we don’t want to go,” Roanne explains. “We have lived here for 36 years and now they just want to throw us out.”

I am confused. The last time I was here the community expressed the sentiment that they wanted to be moved away from the pollution.

“Yes we did want that, but they have not moved us away from the pollution. They are moving us to Lansdowne Road, which is right near a busy highway and paint factories. It is right in the middle of an industrial cluster,” explains Gail.

“They are relocating us to a much smaller place and the kids won’t have a place to play. Here is better. There we are near the freeway and a whole lot of other industries. They are moving us from pollution to more pollution. We will have to walk miles to the shops and our kids will have to walk far to school. And the flats are terrible. They are built on steel structures with thin walls and are tiny. I will not be able to fit my furniture into those flats. The kitchens are so small most of us will have to sell our kitchen furniture,” says Dora.

“Ja, from shoe boxes to match boxes,” shouts a young teenage boy with a Mohawk and earrings. I turn towards him with my camera and he ducks behind the shirtless man. One of the women tells him to shut up if he can’t say it on camera. He walks away.

“We wanted them to upgrade our houses. We have been here for so long and some of us have up to fourteen people living in one house. But here the rooms are big and we can manage. Now they are moving us to matchbox flats with no room. They don’t care about the coloureds.”

An elderly man, who is far from sober, lurches towards us. “Ja, the ANC don’t care about us bruin ous!” he spits at me. “They are racist. Promises, promises. A better life for all. That’s bullshit.”

A gentle male voice reprimands him. “That’s enough Jabu. Talk nicely. You don’t have to swear.”

Jabu apologises and stumbles off swearing under his breath. Clearly the man with the gentle voice commands respect in this community. “Ask Allan, he will tell you,” says Gail as she twists a bright pink bauble into her daughter’s hair.

Allan is one of the few employed people in the community. His family has been living in the Barracks for 34 years. He lives with his new wife, his baby and his mother in one of the houses but has a cousin who lives a few houses away with 12 people. “You know it is just not fair. We are not animals. We are not the ones who toyi-toyi and kill people with pangas — many of us go to church but they are treating us like we are animals.”

I am surprised at his bold subtext of exactly who has animal status. My husband and filmmaking partner Sipho, is recording the interview. He is obviously a full-blooded Nguni. I glance at him but he does not flinch. He has a little smile playing on his lips.

A chorus of voices continues to tell me that they are being treated badly by the ANC government because they are coloureds. I want to ask if they were any better off under the apartheid regime but I decide that this is no time for a political debate.

“Thabo Mbeki came here in 2004 and told us we should just stop paying rent until our conditions were improved. It would have been better if he were still in power. Things would not have turned out this way,” says Allan.

I’m beginning to wonder if this really is a black vs coloured thing … but before I can ask, Jabu comes back with an ANC T-Shirt. “These people are liars. They lied to my children and to these people here. This is our land. ANC are the biggest liars on this whole earth because they are stealing my land and my children to put me in a congested place, a prison. It looks like a small Westville Prison. They want to throw me into Westville Prison and tax me to death. I’ve been living here for 36 years and I paid all my money.”

Allan tells him to go away. He does but not without pulling Sipho along with him. “Come, I want to show you something.” He points to the rubbish collecting in the open spaces between the barracks. “Now they are refusing to collect our rubbish because they are trying to chase us away. They treat us like animals, but we are not animals.”

I remind him that the municipality is on strike at the moment and that no one’s rubbish has been collected. “It is not just the strike,” says Allan. “This rubbish problem has been ongoing and there is a lack of service delivery here.” Jabu continues shouting and swearing and waving the ANC T-shirt in front of the camera. Allan gets firm with him and he finally moves away.

“Look,” says Allan, “they never took into consideration the sizes of the houses. What they have built us is smaller by far. They built 128 units — 110 families from the Barracks are going there — and eight from the Arc in Wentworth are also moving into there. And then there were 10 left that the ANC was selling. How can you sell flats when we are overcrowded? You build something smaller on a smaller piece of land and you take the Barracks community and move them there. We are used to houses and now they give us flats. Everybody knows that flats bring crime”.

“But I can tell you we are not all going to move. It is going to be a fight and a struggle. We are not going to call a meeting because these people are doing things behind our backs. When you come back I’ll bring the documentation that says ‘you must move or else find yourself other accommodation because we are going to bulldoze this place’. I’ve got a folder where I can show you from day one when we were protesting this thing … and when we got locked up. And common sense will tell you that they didn’t use 40 million to build that rubbish down there. Not even 20 million.”

“We don’t know when they are going to try and move us. They keep changing the dates. But most of us are refusing to go. Some residents have agreed to move but others will not. We will sit in our homes and demand that they upgrade them.”

To be continued …

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