Durban, south africa

South Africa’s biggest single location-specific investment project ($25 billion—the cost estimated prior to what could become a typical 50-300 percent price escalation) is the proposed eight-fold expansion of South Durban’s port-petrochemical complex over the next three decades. The doubling of the petroleum pipeline capacity from Durban to Johannesburg alone recently cost $2.3 billion. The notorious refineries owned by BP, Shell, and the Malaysian firm Engen present major health threats to residential areas. These neighborhoods have been occupied by black South Africans for generations—the “Indian” areas of Merebank and Clairwood and “colored” Wentworth—but have become very slightly desegregated since the end of apartheid, mainly through the influx of low-income African shackdwellers. In South African terminology, the African, Indian, and Colored people have been considered “Black” in relation to the need to fuse their interests against the historic white apartheid project, though after 1994, when democracy was won, the breakdown of the cross-racial alliances has often been a painful feature of life in Durban and elsewhere. The potential to desegregate Durban was great in 1994, given large tracts of land that became redundant by deindustrialization and the need for densification, but by all accounts practically no progress was made.

Jobs for South Durban’s vast unemployed labor reserve are desperately needed, and government’s (myopic) national planners claim the expansion of world shipping, from Panamax 5000-container ships to super post-Panamax ships more than three times larger, will raise annual container traffic from 2.5 million to 20 million units processed annually in Durban by 2040. However, local residents’ organizations— united as the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA)—offer multiple overlapping critiques of this project, including the flawed participatory process, the destruction of small-scale farming and long-standing communities (with tens of thousands of expected displacements, major ecological problems in the estuarine bay, climate-change causes and effects, and irrational economics fueled by overly generous state subsidies but still resulting in an unaffordable harbor.

The framing of the campaign is of great importance not simply because the state and allied businesses falsely promise tens of thousands of “jobs” (in an increasingly capital-intensive sector) but because an alternative vision is being established by SDCEA based on an ecologically-sensitive, labor-intensive economic and social strategy for the South Durban Basin. To achieve victory will require a major shift in the balance of forces, one which campaigners argue can be enhanced by financial sanctions against the project and its parastatal corporate sponsor, Transnet. This is a site-specific project but one with more general lessons for grassroots contestation of industrial mal-development.

Global contradictions are often amplified at lower scales, especially when intensified metabolisms of capitalist commerce and energy threaten widespread displacement, pollution, and community unrest. The “spatial fix” to overaccumulation crisis is witnessed in the ongoing restructuring of world shipping, while externalities such as greenhouse gas emissions represent “accumulation by dispossession,” as capital takes further control of non-capitalist territories, consistent with theories of imperialism and crisis displacement pioneered by Rosa Luxemburg.

The expansion of the Durban port and petrochemical complex—sometimes termed Africa’s “armpit” (for its noxious smell)—is the main site-specific “Strategic Investment Project” within the national government’s 2012 National Development Plan. South Durban is the second highest-priority mega-project of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (after a coal railroad expansion). Raising the vast funds required will be the most critical challenge, given SDCEA’s willingness to begin a financial sanctions campaign against the project. The first phase of the work, costing approximately $4 billion, was pre-funded by the government and allied financiers so as to bring more oil from Durban to Johannesburg and shore up the Durban port’s main existing quays. The major contestations ahead are over the much greater needs entailed in a new “Dig Out Port” to be built on the site of the city’s old airport as well as a logistics park and massive roads and rail lines.

2014-2040 components of Durban’s port expansion
Transnet’s Investment Strategy

But funding is already being lined up. In March 2013, during the Durban BRICS summit, a Chinese bank lent $5 billion to Transnet. This was mainly for the purpose of extending rail infrastructure further into the northern and eastern coal fields for subsequent coal exports mainly to India and China. But the funds also provided resources for the purchase of locomotives (mainly from Chinese producers, mainly for the Waterberg-Richards Bay coal route) and for Durban’s harbor expansion, since such funding is essentially fungible. In addition to increasing the speed and magnitude of freight to the world’s largest coal export terminal, at Richards Bay, Transnet has also been planning a fully-privatized port management model for the Durban dig-out port.

Durban is also now a site of offshore oil prospecting by ExxonMobil, not far from the point where Africa’s largest refinery complex stands in hyper-toxic South Durban. There, near-universal community opposition has emerged against Transnet’s plans, including on grounds of climate damage. Transnet’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) consultants made a contentious statement in 2013—that larger ships in the new port will allegedly result in lower emissions per container carried—because they failed to consider the alternative of not increasing shipping by the extreme eightfold multiple.

Aside from doubling the width of a petroleum pipeline to Johannesburg, the first set of projects will result in a dramatic increase in existing port capacity, in order that 5000+ container “post-Panamax” ships can be accommodated in the current harbor (stages 1-3). Originally the dig-out port at the old airport site was to be excavated in 2016, with an anticipated first berthing in 2020 (stage 4), but in November 2015 Transnet announced an indefi ite postponement due to adequate existing capacity. The final growth of the existing port will include an extensive dig-out of the area currently under Transnet railroad siding property (stages 5-6).

The helter-skelter growth of container traffic prior to 2008 reflected the liberalization of transport in the early 1990s, and with it the move of freight to road-based trucking. That left large amounts of Transnet rail-related land mostly unused. The latter stages of the project are in close proximity to the predominantly Indian areas of Isipingo and Merebank in the south and Clairwood in the north, as well as the African township of Umlazi and the colored Wentworth area. The Clairwood area is most immediately threatened by stages 1-3 port expansion, as trucking companies invade the residential space to stack containers.

Transnet’s most critical challenge will be finding the money for an estimated $25 billion worth of other mega-projects, especially given the scale of the project and how many aspects are being contested. The Chinese bank loan apparently comes without conditions (and with terms not publicly disclosed), and subsequently there were also several bond offerings of several hundred million dollars, including in the London markets in November 2013, where Transnet paid an enormous 9.5 percent premium on its Rand-denominated bonds. But the longer-term threat to South Durban and other communities is that the BRICS New Development Bank launched in July 2015 will seek projects like this one as exemplars of export-oriented infrastructure.

In July 2013, a high-profile meeting of the Durban Transport Forum heard Transnet’s port expansion director Marc Descoins update his team’s planning: “the fatal flaws analysis yielded many risks but no show-stoppers.”13 Descoins had not at that time factored in resident and labor opposition to the mega-project, its vast environmental implications, or rising disgust about construction-driven white elephants. Tracing several of the problems with the port-petrochem expansion in South Durban sheds light on the interconnections between social and environmental grievances as well as a growing debate about SA’s vulnerability to the world economy.

The Doubling of Oil Pipeline Capacity

Transnet’s Durban-Johannesburg oil pipeline construction project lasted from 2007-14. The mega-project, known as the “new multi-product pipeline,” cost $2.34 billion, a dramatic cost escalation in part because the pipeline was diverted hundreds of kilometers from the traditional route west along the N3 highway. That route ran through mostly white Durban suburbs (Mariannhill, Hillcrest, Shongweni, and Camperdown), and now the pipeline moves double the pre-existing oil volume through (mostly-black) South Durban, Umbumbulu, and other former KwaZulu bantustan areas.

Aerial view of Durban Harbour South Africa

According to Durban’s leading environmental journalist, Tony Carnie, “The $600 million petrol, diesel and jet fuel pipeline will replace the existing Durban-to-Johannesburg pipeline which was built in 1965. The existing pipeline is believed to have rust defects and cannot cope with the future demand in fuel growth in Gauteng.” By moving the project southwards before turning west, the cost estimate rose by more than 50 percent. But there were many other cost increases, with the total reaching $2.34 billion by 2013, in part because of apparent construction company collusion on tendering by one of the main pipeline construction companies, Group Five Civil Engineering.

In his own 2012 review of the cost overruns, without considering construction company collusion, Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba uncovered “systemic failings that compromised the intended outcomes,” and he admitted that his project managers “lacked sufficient capacity and depth of experience for the client overview of a megaproject of this complexity,” especially related to “analysis of risks.” Nor were EIAs or water and wetland permits “pursued with sufficient foresight and vigor.” Well before this became public knowledge (Group Five only stepped forward to confess its role in industry collusion in 2009), SDCEA offered several critiques of the pipeline, including the racially-biased routing; inadequate public participation; dubious motivations for the pipeline; government’s failure to prevent, detect, or manage pipeline leaks; and climate change.

According to SDCEA, the race and class bias were crucial reasons to reject Transnet’s re-routing strategy because “the pipeline threatens people with potentially severe environmental safety and health problems (well known to refinery victims in South Durban), in a manner that is discriminatory along class and racial lines.” The local ecology itself was already saturated with toxins, SDCEA alleged in 2008:

Durban Bay, in which the harbor is situated, is struggling to cope with the pollution loads from harbor and associated activities, contaminated riverine and storm-water inflows. The expansion will require further removal of aspects of the Bay’s ecosystem, which will in turn further reduce the assimilative capacity of this threatened and fragile estuary. There have been major incidents affecting the harbor, including the September 2007 fire at Island View Storage. Reducing the amount of hazardous material being stored, handled and transported in the harbor is a crucial first step to reducing the risk to people living, traveling and working in the area. Yet the pipeline proposal will do the opposite. The routing of the pipeline south, directly through low-income black residential areas instead of through areas including farming lands owned by wealthy white South Africans, is suspiciously reminiscent of the environmental racism we in South Durban have become familiar with. […] The leaks that have occurred in existing petroleum pipelines have been devastating to South Durban, including the 1.3 million liters that spilled from Sapref lines in 2001, that were not detected until residents complained. According to present practices, only a leak of more than 1 percent will be detected. Incidents leading to a loss of product which is not detectable by the system may continue to pollute the soil and groundwater for a long time. During this period, many people, fauna and flora may be affected by the consequences of the pollution and not understand the cause until it is too late. In this case, the costs will not be borne by the polluter, as our legal framework requires.

Many of the same complaints arose again four years later in mid-2012 when the next stage of the port-petrochem complex reached fruition: the proposal for a new dig-out port and expansion of the old port. The most heartfelt of the critiques levelled was against displacement because, for many Indian and African residents of South Durban, their earlier neighbors during apartheid were moved to South Durban from Cato Manor, a well-located residential area. Displacement was central to apartheid’s racial segregation strategy. Now the same appeared imminent, though this time for class reasons.

Displacement and the Trucking Threat

SDCEA, the Wentworth Development Forum and Merebank Residents Association, and the Clairwood Residents and Ratepayers Association are justifiably convinced that the port-petrochem project will generate not just traffic chaos but residential displacement on a substantial scale. From the north, the old harbor’s expansion creep will displace residents by the thousands from the culture-rich, 150-year-old Indian and African community of Clairwood. That area’s African shackdwellers and longtime Indian residents are already under threat from reckless trucking companies, who are beneficiaries of the rezoning—or simply failure to enforce existing zoning—that facilitates Back-of-Ports creep.

In the process of liberalized zoning and lack of residential area zoning enforcement by the municipality, ten Clairwood and nearby Bluff suburb residents were killed in the decade 2003-13 by truck accidents. Mostly carrying freight, these drivers killed 70 people in the course of 7000 accidents in Durban in 2012 alone. The worst single case occurred in September 2013, when 23 people were killed by a runaway freight truck on a mountain range within Durban city limits, the Field’s Hill section of the alternative (non-tolled) highway from Johannesburg.

That tragic accident was revealing, for one of the world’s three largest shipping companies, Evergreen, hired a local informal truck company which allegedly instructed its driver to avoid tolls to save $4. Police cracked down after the accident and found several of the company’s trucks operating under unsafe conditions. One that hit two commuter taxis was driven by an unqualifi d, underpaid immigrant driver. The truck’s brakes failed on one of the steepest highways in the country. A few weeks later the government proposed restricting that particular hill to only five ton trucks, banning 16 ton trucks, but the broader problem of rising accidents was not addressed.

Local Ecological Degradation

Opposition from local communities will grow even more intense once the largest part of the port expansion begins. The proposed digout port is where the old airport stood, on the southern border of Merebank. To dig a 1.5 kilometer length of soil 20 meters deep is dangerous, given how many toxic chemicals have come to rest there over the decades. Even Descoins conceded, “we have to look at contamination issues. Hydrocarbons have been pumped around this area for decades and we know there have been some leaks.” That soil, water, and air pollution will exacerbate the five-year dust cover under which the dig-out port’s construction will suffocate Merebank and Wentworth, the mainly Indian and colored communities of South Durban. These neighborhoods are already coated with regular oil-related sulfur and soot showers from the oil refining complex, as witnessed in their world-leading asthma rates.

In addition to damage to human health, BirdLife SA observed that since Durban has one of just three estuarine bays in SA, its “ecosystem services” value of goods and services is vast, as a heat sink and carbon sink, for biodiversity, as a fish nursery, for waste disposal, and for storm protection. Moreover, the Bonn Convention’s protections for bird migration should make estuaries and wetlands, such as South Durban’s, immune from more cementing. In May 2013, Gigaba dismissed the worries over “frogs and chameleons.” In contrast, the ecological damage implied in this stage of Transnet’s expansion was so extreme that the Department of Environmental Affairs rejected the first version of the EIA in October 2013, which described the impacts of the build-out of Berths 203-205—then able to handle ships of no more than twelve meters depth—so as to accommodate super-post-Panamax ships of 15,000 containers or more.

One of the two reasons was Transnet’s failure to do more than “monitor” the damage caused to the major sandbank in the middle of the estuarine bay, which hosts so many reproductive processes for fish and birdlife. As SA’s leading maritime journalist Terry Hutson remarked at the time:

In Durban there is little likelihood of any big growth in volumes in the near future. A few years ago, the port went backwards in the number of containers it handled, dropping something like 200,000 TEU in a year and there has been little growth since […] So the questions remain: Does Durban need the deeper berths and aren’t the bigger ships premature?


Global Ecological Implications and Local Climate Adaptation

The other reason Transnet suffered an early rejection of its EIA was due to the most important environmental problem of all, climate change. The firm’s consultants simply did not consider the impact of rising sea levels or extreme storms.22 As oceans warm up, cyclones and hurricanes intensify, with resulting sea-level rise. “The volume of Arctic sea ice has been reduced by 75 percent in just 30 years,” reported the world’s most respected climate scientist, James Hansen, in 2012: “There is a danger that the ice sheets will begin to collapse and we could get several meters of rising sea levels in one year.” At that rate, big parts of central Durban would sink, along with other cities where coastal sprawl has left millions in low-lying danger: Mumbai (2.8 million inhabitants exposed as sea waters rise), Shanghai (2.4 million), Miami (2 million), Alexandria (1.3 million), and Tokyo (1.1 million).

Durban has suffered early indications of extreme weather events and associated damage. In March 2007, in one storm exacerbated by unusual tidal activity akin to a tsunami, Durban’s main municipal official reported “wave run-up heights” which “peaked at 10.57 meters above Mean Sea Level.” The bulk of the beach sand was washed away along the coast and nearly a billion dollars’ worth of coastal infrastructure was destroyed. In June 2008, a storm submerged much of the South Durban Basin’s main valley, cutting off the Bluff and Wentworth from the main access highway. In November 2011, the day before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) summit began in Durban, a rainstorm wreaked such havoc that a dozen people died when their poorly-constructed publicly-funded houses collapsed. In August 2012, the same Durban port berths (203-205) proposed for expansion were severely damaged during heavy winds which bumped a ship up against cranes, resulting in a two week-long closure, and the Engen oil refinery was largely submerged by flooding.

Just as important, what of the mitigation challenge associated with the port-petrochem complex? According to the Academy of Science of SA’s 2011 book, Durban: Towards a Low Carbon City, “the transport sector is pivotal to the transition to a low carbon city […] The top priority was identified as the need to reduce the vehicle kilometers travelled in the road freight sector as this provided the greatest opportunity to simultaneously reduce emissions of GreenHouse Gases and traditional air pollutants.” The port-petrochem expansion will do the opposite, in part because for decades Transnet sabotaged its own rail freight capacity, allowing road trucking of container traffic to surge from 20 to 80 percent.

Yet in addressing the obviously adverse ecological implications of their project, Transnet hired Nemai Consulting, an EIA specialist with no apparent climate consciousness. They in turn hired a sub-contractor, an official of the SA Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, whose 2011 report, “Modelling of potential environmental change in the port marine environment,” also completely ignored climate change. Follow-up with officials of Nemai in 2012 generated this reply: “The project will decrease the ship waiting and turnaround times which will have a lower carbon impact.” The consultants did not factor in the dynamic aspects of the shipping system, meaning that if there is an increase in efficiency by reducing the ships’ offshore wait, the result is to speed up the system as a whole, thus increasing carbon impact.

The same carefree attitude to climate was evident in the doubling of oil pipeline capacity from Durban to Johannesburg. According to a SDCEA EIA critique that was ignored by officials:

The proposed pipeline will make a vast contribution to the climate crisis, yet the EIA only speaks in two areas, very briefly, of this problem. The Draft Scoping Report notes that the current Durban International Airport site is within the 1:100 year flood plain, and that the Island View site is “potentially affected by sea level rise in the future as a result of climate change.” The Scoping Report promises to consider this in the future EIA. In addition, the Draft Scoping Report summary notes in “TABLE 5-1: Summary of legal requirements that apply to the project and the EIA process” that the Kyoto Protocol is relevant, as it “commits a country to quantified emissions limitations and reductions. 

In the first instance, SDCEA does not believe the Draft Scoping Report has begun to grapple properly with location of the pipeline along the South Coast. As our appendix of photographs of 2007- 08 storm damage shows, even concrete structures came under severe attack from the elements and were found wanting, as a result of locations in low-lying coastal areas, including The Bluff, Wentworth and Merebank, through which the new pipeline will run. Other areas of Amanzimtoti and the South Coast were demolished in June 2008.

The Draft Scoping Report treats these dangers casually, in spite of the record of public infrastructural decay noted above, in which a variety of pipeline maintenance crises have arisen, causing enormous ecological despoilation. Second, the rise of CO2 emissions that will be facilitated by the pipeline is immense, and is only referred to in the Draft Scoping Report as a potential legal problem, with no details provided. Since Minister of Environment and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk has committed South Africa to substantive emissions cuts which will be formalized at the 2009 Copenhagen Conference of Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, a huge effort by all state agencies, including Transnet, will be required to reduce emissions in all areas. The proposed pipeline does the opposite, just as South Africa enters the 21st century with emissions that are 42 percent of the entire African continent’s output, and 20 times higher per unit of per capita GDP than even the USA’s emissions.


Economic Irrationality

Ironically, in spite of all the socio-economic controversies, fi ancing for the port-petrochem project may ultimately be threatened most by the project’s inefficiency and lack of economic feasibility. The argument in favor of the port is mainly that jobs will be created and SA will have world-class infrastructure for export-led growth. But rising capital intensity at Transnet along with trade-related deindustrialization may result in fewer manufactured exports as well as net employment loss. This has been the norm since 1994 when democracy also ushered in economic liberalization after SA joined the World Trade Organization. Subsequent port expansion and Transnet restructuring did not create new jobs, but rather destroyed employment.

The project only makes financial sense if South Africa’s economic development mentality is locked into national boundaries established in Berlin during the colonial “Scramble for Africa” in 1885, the point at which borders were determined by white men representing imperial interests. As the region’s main port-rail link to the largest market, Gauteng—and from there to the rest of the subcontinent—Durban is facing stiff competition from Maputo in Mozambique for shipments to Johannesburg, because it is a more direct, shorter, and much less mountain ous journey. In addition, there is general container-handling competition from other ports along the coast attempting to set up regional freight hubs and export processing zones, including a vast state-subsidized complex, Coega, in the Eastern Cape near Port Elizabeth.

As it stands, Durban’s costs of processing freight are the highest in the world, at $1080 per container, or $280,000 per typical ship. What port advocates have not been able to do is explain how an additional $25 billion in investments (no doubt much more what with recent trends tripling original estimates) will cut operating and maintenance costs to competitive levels. Repaying the principle, interest on the capital, and all the additional costs will force much higher container handling charges, leaving the real prospect of another white elephant. In Durban, similar projects that were anticipated to earn profits—such as the airport, convention center, and marine entertainment complex—all have needed multi-million dollar annual taxpayer bailouts.

An Alternative Strategy

Is an alternative to this flawed economic development strategy possible? A very different strategic investment project would recognize the urgent need to detox South Durban and reboot the local economy toward more labor-intensive, low-polluting industry and add much more public transport, renewable energy, organic agriculture not reliant upon pesticides, a “zero-waste” philosophy, and a new ethos of consumption. The South Durban activists and the national Million Climate Jobs campaign want society to adopt this approach, but they remain on a collision course with Transnet, its financiers, the Treasury, the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission, and the municipality. Unlike the Medupi campaign from February to April 2010, there is far more time for mobilization of advocacy pressure to halt Transnet’s access to external financing, and hence the project itself.

Investment in South African mega-projects, 1946-2012, Source: SA Reserve Bank
Conclusion: The Risks of Activists Connecting the Dots

Aside from the top-down threats of capitalist irrationality, the greatest risk to Durban’s proposed port-petrochemical complex expansion is the repertoire of mandatory tools in any activist’s toolbox: popular education, democratic decision-making, mass-based organization, linkages of people across interest areas leading to new alliances, unity of purpose, an ability to transcend divisions, powerful analysis, fluidity and pragmatism combined with a profound commitment to eco-social justice principles, and effective strategies and tactics.

There is not sufficient space to do more than reveal some of the discourses being developed in 2011–14 in South Durban by SDCEA activists and their allies. One risk that Transnet and major oil companies—even ExxonMobil—face is that the critical narrative catches on in the broader society and affects the way we think about infrastructure priorities. The timing is propitious because, for at least two decades, South Africa has witnessed what are probably the most prolific protests in the world dedicated to improved “service delivery”—that is, demonstrations against lack of (or excessively expensive) water and sanitation, electricity, housing, clinics, schools, roads, and the like. These have occurred in South Durban, but as ever the challenge is to link people’s immediate concerns to wider matters; to connect the dots between local and global, and back again, and between economic, social, and ecological matters.

SDCEA’s activists were motivated by a variety of minor victories against polluting industries. In two cases, substantial landfills that were used as toxic dumps by unethical waste companies were shut down. SDCEA leaders of those campaigns, Bobby Peek and Desmond D’Sa, were successful in 1996 (Umlazi) and 2012 (Chatsworth), respectively, and in each case they won the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa two years later as a result. SDCEA recorded other victories, notably against the Engen and Sapref refineries, which are collectively the largest refinery zone in Africa. Because of SDCEA lobbying, they both installed SO2 scrubbers so South Durban is not nearly as thick with airborne pollution and the sickly-sweet smells of chemical emissions.

SDCEA’s own strength ebbs and flows, as does any civil society institution fighting injustices where the adverse balance of forces is so glaring. In an earlier stage of opposition to the port-petrochemical expansion, in 2004–05, SDCEA gathered thousands of residents to halt a major link road planned from the city’s main southern freeway to the port. In 2006 SDCEA began campaigning against the doubling of the oil pipeline capacity and its rerouting through South Durban. In 2008 SDCEA used the EIA to challenge the climate implications of a major project for the first time. But at that stage, neither protests nor allegations (quite valid) of environmental racism nor EIA interventions slowed Transnet. Gigaba openly admitted the roughshod way Transnet treated such contestation, leading to numerous problems in the pipeline’s implementation.

In 2011 Durban City Manager Mike Sutcliffe— perhaps the city’s most controversial leader in history—drew up a secret plan, estimated to cost the equivalent of $25 billion, for the entire South Durban Basin. The plan reflected many decades of official ambition to re-engineer the basin, in the wake of the 1940s–60s attacks on black residents which turned South Durban communities into racial enclaves. Racial settlement patterns existed nearly entirely unchanged into the second decade of democracy, with the exception of Clairwood’s desegregation by shack settlers as urban blighting began in the 1990s. Sutcliffe’s master plan was only unveiled to the public in mid-2012, at which point a half-dozen community meetings called by the city under the rubric of public participation were taken over by SDCEA activists, led by D’Sa. A nearly unanimous sentiment was expressed in meeting after meeting: close down the event and refuse to have it declared a form of tick-off participation. The main planner, consultant Graham Muller, was repeatedly frustrated.

The narrative in the August 2012 pamphlet, “ACT NOW! EXPANDING PORT, POLLUTION AND FREIGHT THREATEN SOUTH DURBAN” is worthy of brief consideration because, like a poster for a March 2014 SDCEA protest at Durban’s City Hall, it helps reveal activist attempts to link issues and constituencies. The first of eight SDCEA critiques in the pamphlet was that “we need one planning process. The municipality refuses to discuss the port expansion projects, which are spear-headed by Transnet.” The city’s strategy was to join Transnet in fragmenting the long 2014–2040 process of approval, construction, and operation so that the vast implications for the entire project are not collected in any single moment of opposition. In reply, SDCEA demanded “a single participation process with all spheres of government, developers and communities to chart a sustainable and common way forward. Otherwise we will be arguing one puzzle piece at a time and will never change the overall picture.”

The second critique was: “Cost vs. Benefit […] proponents boast 130,000 permanent jobs will be created—is this accurate? If correct this means a high capital investment of $190,000/job created. What other ways could this money be invested to create sustainable livelihoods without the terrible social and environmental impacts? Are the full costs—including community destruction, adverse health effects, and our greater contribution to climate change—being considered?

Activists suspected the jobs calculation was far out of touch with reality given, as noted earlier, that even the largest container ships are designed to have crew numbering less than two dozen (13 in the case of Walmart’s 15,500-TEU China-California shuttle). The third critique also questioned the planners’ understanding of global shipping demand: “Is the expansion justified? Transnet are arguing expansion based on projections for the growth in container handling. At an 8 percent growth rate their projections show that a capacity of only 12 million containers will be needed by 2040—yet they are building capacity for 20 million. Is this growth rate attainable given competition from other ports, growing resource constraints, carbon taxes on shipping, and global economic collapse?”

Activists pointed out that harbor efficiency was appalling and that Durban’s notorious status of world’s highest-cost port would not be changed by adding $25 billion in capital costs, given high interest rates affecting repayment of loans plus high operating and maintenance costs.

The fourth critique was that “increased containers mean increased impacts,” and that this would translate into 8x the traffic, pollution and noise […]. There will also be an increase in Port related illegal activity including smuggling, drug trafficking, prostitution and shebeens (informal pubs).”

The fifth was of the “wrong fossil fuel development model. Port expansion will serve increased imports of consumer goods [60 % of container cargo are imports to Gauteng], expansion of petro-chemical industries and fuel storage and the automotive industry [Toyota]. This does not take into account dwindling resources, especially oil, and the need to stop climate change.”

The sixth was the environmental risk: “addition to increasing climate change, port expansion will increase large water areas within the south Durban flood plain while removing the last natural wetlands. Toxic industry is also expanding in the basin. This increases the potential for flooding and hazardous chemical spills as extreme weather events increase.”

Moreover, “the Bay’s estuarine ecosystem has been compromised to the point that it has lost resilience […] The Bay provides a critical breeding ground for reef associated and migratory marine fish. 132 species of birds are found here and 62 species of endangered, migratory birds rest and feed here.”

The sandbank’s destruction in the first phase would wreck any remaining chance of restoring the harbor’s ecological integrity.

The seventh was the resulting “community upheaval […]. Clairwood is earmarked for rezoning to logistics with some light industry. 6000+ people will be forced to relocate through market pressure, and with no active community present will inevitably result in the degeneration of historic cultural sites in the area. The port expansion requires 878 hectares of land for containers!”

The eighth critique was to ask, “Freight—rail or road? The documents make reference to rail and interchange nodes. However the documents refer to “freight routes,” which on some plans are shown as rail but more recently as roads.” Just over a year later, as described above, 24 people were killed by a runaway truck carrying a container belonging to Taiwanese-based shipping behemoth Evergreen. The SDCEA “truck off” protest of 500 residents on the freight area’s main throughway (Solomon Mhlangu Drive) in March 2012 had forewarned of this kind of risk, given that there were 7000 accidents in Durban in 2010 involving trucks, leaving more than 70 fatalities. The Clairwood community leader who opposed trucks the most vigorously, Ahmed Osman, was assassinated in April 2009, shot dead on his front porch in one of many unsolved crimes involving the deaths of Durban activists.

In spite of such dangers (D’Sa himself was a target of a nighttime firebombing in his working-class flat in December 2007), the rhythm of street protest is also revealing. As the municipality and Transnet began public consultations in 2012, SDCEA activists were able to use the mass meetings as rallying points. For example, in September 2012, Clairwood’s established Indian residents most immediately threatened by the existing harbor’s expansion invited Finance Minister Gordhan—who thirty years earlier was a community organizer against apartheid housing in those very streets—to make a presentation defending Transnet and the city. He attempted to do so, using the standard neoliberal narrative of international competition and specifically the threat that Maputo would get ahead in port traffic to Johannesburg (itself a reasonable proposition given that it is a shorter route without the mountainous terrain of Durban-Johannesburg to cross). Tellingly, however, Gordhan also hinted that a divide-and-conquer strategy lay ahead against SDCEA activists, because Clairwood is also a site of several thousand black African shackdwellers barely surviving in informal settlements, backyard slums, and even large tents. Fires regularly ravage these residents’ shacks, destroying their belongings and often injuring (and even occasionally killing) people, including one night-time blaze that wrecked a double-yard settlement of 500 shacks in mid-2013. The mainly middle-class audience of traditional homeowners of Indian ethnic origin were reminded by Gordhan that the ANC’s ability to mobilize in a relatively desegregated Clairwood could haunt a coming political showdown, in which those with the most to lose were Indians in Clairwood and Merebank, followed by those in the mainly Colored area of Wentworth (which suffers the most pollution) and the traditionally white Bluff rea.

Still, three months later, in December 2012, several hundred people heeded SDCEA’s call to block the back port entrance, leaving a three-kilometer long queue of trucks. Protests slowed in 2013 as the port EIA process and other high-profile debates with Transnet and municipal politicians took priority. But by March 2014, when SDCEA held a march to City Hall of 800 residents, new issues and constituencies were added to the coalition, including farmers on the old airport land who are to be displaced as the dug-out Port is built and subsistence fisherfolk whose access to the existing harbor was contested from the time of the 9/11 attacks—thus generating US paranoia over port security—until in 2013 they were permitted back into their traditional fishing area. The challenge for connecting dots and adding issue areas would arise in subsequent years, as the Umlazi Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) joined the anti-port coalition, as their ambition is to have the old airport land turned into low-income housing and labor-intensive industrial cooperatives. There is also potential for the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), to concretize its ambitions of a United Front linking workers, residents, environmentalists, women, and youth. If Numsa succeeds in taking over the organization and representation of Durban port workers—as they were doing down the coast at the Coega container terminal—and evoking genuine eco-socialist politics, if the UPM leads land invasions at the airport before the 2016 digging is due to begin, and if Clairwood shackdwellers and nearby worker-hostel residents in Umbilo and Jacobs are fully organized, then the threat of racial divisions would fade.

However it must be conceded, finally, that SDCEA remained weak when it came to an alternative approach to the South Durban Basin’s development. As SDCEA’s 2012 pamphlet reported: “We must urgently invest in a post-fossil fuel development path including renewable technologies and resilience to climate impacts. Are we giving up our land, environment and community to facilitate imports feeding rampant consumerism?”

That stark choice lies ahead not only for SDCEA, South Durban residents and the broader city—but for the country and world as a whole. With the capitalist “development model” representing by far the greatest risk to the continuation of a decent life on a climate-constrained planet, and with inequality and political degradation out of control in South Africa and across the globe, the showdown over South Durban’s future could, in microcosm, signal whether disparate forces can find unity in opposition and use that unity to plan a future based on less risky ways of arranging the economy, society, and nature.

Pamphlet Unite against the Durban port Expansion project

Patrick Bond is a political economist, political ecologist and scholar of social mobilisation. From 2020-21 he was Professor at the Western Cape School of Government and from 2015-2019 was a Distinguished Professor of Political Economy at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance. From 2004 through mid-2016, he was Senior Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Built Environment and Development Studies and was also Director of the Centre for Civil Society.

Read more about the struggle at the Port of Durban in Community Actions