What Sandy Shows South Africa


Durban, South Africa.

What did Hurricane Sandy teach us a week ago, here in South Africa, just as $30 billion of state funds is being committed to the dig out of vast new Durban port capacity over the next three decades, plus billions more nearby for petro-chemical industry expansion in Africa’s largest oil-refining complex?

Not much, judging by the dunces I’ve met during the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, which last Wednesday included an Open Day for discussion sponsored by the biggest investor, the state-owned Transnet port and railroad operator. Africa’s largest harbour, Durban is facing stiff competition: from Maputo in Mozambique for shipments to the huge Johannesburg market; and from other ports along the coast attempting to set up regional freight hubs and export processing zones. Transnet and Durban municipal officials are reacting like clumsy dinosaurs.

Sandy was profiled in the London Review of Books on Saturday, in an article by Mike Davis entitled “The repo girl is at the door,” referring to the repossession man sent by bankers to collect overdue debts. “The construction since 1960 of several trillion dollars’ worth of prime real estate on barrier islands, bay fill, recycled swamps and coastal lowlands has radically transformed the calculus of loss.” Given such “certifiably insane coastal overdevelopment,” Davis concludes, “Sandy is the beginning of the race for the lifeboats on the Titanic.”

Last week’s storm also raised the bar on climate-chaos damage, with around $40 billion worth of property destroyed in a small section of the northeastern US, in the same cost range as the 2010 flooding of a third of Pakistan and as the droughts that wiped out world grain crops in between. And the toxic water coursing through New York City from leaky oil sources reminds South Durban residents of our port’s closure last month due to repeated petroleum leaks into the harbour.

As oceans warm up, cyclones and hurricanes also intensify, with their impact soon to be exacerbated by 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 of NASA, to the Cornell University Global Labor Institute and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation last month. “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).

We recently had our own semi-Sandy cyclone in Durban. In March 2007, according to the assessment of local marine expert Andrew Mather, “wave run-up heights were measured at twelve beaches along the Durban coastline and these peaked at 10.57 meters above Mean Sea Level.” Nearly a billion dollars worth of coast infrastructure was destroyed.

But for too many in power, memories fade fast; two months ago, I got a blank stare from Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan when I asked about climate during our back-to-back presentations and over lunch at a community hall in South Durban’s most vulnerable suburb, Clairwood. He was visiting his old stomping grounds, for three decades ago, a young and then progressive Gordhan successfully organized Clairwood housing protests against the white apartheid regime.

Today, though, Clairwood’s African shackdwellers and long-time Indian residents are being squashed by trucking companies, who are beneficiaries of the rezoning – or simply failure to enforce existing zoning – that facilitates Back-of-Ports creep. Nine Clairwood and nearby Bluff suburb residents have been killed in recent years in accidents caused by crazed truck drivers. Gordhan must have left that community meeting sobered by this dilemma: the state’s single biggest concentrated investment in coming decades, on which his credibly rests, faces near-universal opposition amongst South Durban’s battle-hardened community activists.

The Transnet planners’ objective is to increase the volume of freight containers trafficked through South Durban annually by ten-fold, from two to 20 million by 2040. Will jobs be created? Actually, rising capital intensity at Transnet along with trade-related deindustrialization will probably result in more net employment loss, which is the norm since 1994 when democracy also ushered in economic liberalization due to South Africa’s “elite transition”.

Shockingly, firms like Nemai Consultancy and Graham Muller Associates hired by Transnet and the municipality don’t even mention climate change within their thousands of pages of high-priced reports – whether regarding the overall plan or its first stage. That stage begins soon unless delayed by community critics: a $500 million berth reconstruction that will dock “super post-Panamax ships” each carrying more than 15 000 containers, each with the extreme bunker fuel consumption that makes shipping a much higher source of climate-frying greenhouse gas emissions than the airline industry.

Yet at last month’s Presidential Infrastructure Investment Conference in Johannesburg, Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin – who is also the SA Communist Party’s deputy secretary general – confessed what is patently obvious in the neo-colonial South African economy: “Too much of our development has been plantation to port, mine to port.” Instead, we need “social infrastructure, such as water, hospitals, schools, and housing, in order to prevent the kind of protests witnessed recently in the mining sector.”

Cronin’s growing influence notwithstanding, this rhetoric is probably just a case of “talk-left, invest-right” – in anti-people and anti-planet projects like South Durban’s port sprawl, on behalf of corporate profits. The disgraced former Durban City Manager Mike Sutcliffe, whose policies of neglect especially harmed Clairwood from 2002-11, openly admitted in 2009, “The negative externalities associated with such [port] investments are felt by residents in the South Durban Basin – increased trucking, increased congestion and pollution, unsafe roads and the like.” His reign amplified these crises.

According to the Academy of Science of South Africa’s 2011 book about 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.”

Yet for decades, Transnet has sabotaged its own rail freight capacity, allowing road trucking to surge from 20 to 80 percent of container carriage. Sutcliffe’s South Durban plan, now apparently adopted without amendment by his successor S’bu Sithole, makes matters worse, in spite of vague promises to shift containers off the roads.

But try raising these issues with Transnet, the municipality and their consultants, as I have repeatedly since May. At this moment of “planetary emergency,” to quote Hansen, the SA Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Roy Van Ballegooyen entirely ignored climate in his “Modelling of potential environmental change in the port marine environment” report for Transnet. Then to justify, he replied to my concerns last week in pure gobbledygook: “What needs to be assessed is the extent to which the proposed development will modify the response to climate change that would have occurred in the absence of the proposed development.”

Officials of another Transnet environmental consultancy, Nemai, answered me, “The project will decrease the ship waiting and turnaround times which will have a lower carbon impact” – not realizing that if you increase efficiency by reducing the ships’ offshore wait, you speed up the system as a whole, thus increasing carbon impact.

Maybe Hurricane Sandy will raise these pseudo-environmentalists’ consciousness, as is happening amongst even mainstream media and some of the populace in the most irresponsible emitting country, the United States. Maybe activists of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance will continue mobilizing hundreds of concerned residents at their community teach-ins, as they have consistently managed to do since July.

But I am not optimistic about changing the local elite’s mindset. Just weeks after the same Durban port berths were severely damaged during heavy winds which bumped a ship up against the dock cranes (resulting in a fortnight-long closure), and less than a year after Durban hosted the United Nations climate summit, the latest stormy weather coincides with a new eco-denialism in Durban. It’s as bad as the paranoia that paralyzes the vocal chords of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on climate, and could be comparable in human damage to Thabo Mbeki’s medicines-access denial at the peak of the AIDS pandemic a decade ago.

Instead of recognizing impending climate catastrophe, the South African bourgeoisie’s mandate applied to state investment is to “mine more and faster and ship what we mine cheaper and faster”, as Business Day editor Peter Bruce ordained just as Gordhan was finalizing his $100 billion infrastructure budget in February.

With that pro-corporate philosophy will come horrible new household words we had never heard before, starting with ‘Marikana’ and ‘Sandy’.

Patrick Bond’s new books are Politics of Climate Justice and Durban’s Climate Gamble.

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