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SA should tackle ‘environmental racism’: UN expert

In this file photo caustic soda flakes, a toxic waste, was dumped in a river near Silverglen, Chartsworth. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

In this file photo caustic soda flakes, a toxic waste, was dumped in a river near Silverglen, Chartsworth. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 14, 2023


South Africa should increase its effort to tackle the “environmental racism” that has plagued the country since the apartheid regime, a United Nations expert said Friday.

Marcos Orellana, the UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights, also expressed shock that children had died because of poor controls on pesticides, and called for better regulation.

Landfill sites and polluting industries in South Africa are often positioned in poor and migrant communities, Orellana noted in a statement.

Unemployment, hazardous synthetic chemicals and structural inequality were also among the reasons that make it difficult to overcome “the legacy of environmental racism”, he added.

The country has “a landscape scarred by abandoned mines and tailing dumps and acid mine drainage”, he added -- placed there during the apartheid era.

“The legacy of pervasive air, water and chemical pollution disproportionately impacts marginalised and poor communities,” said Orellana, who on Friday concluded a 12-day visit to southern African nation.

And despite the new constitution's commitment to human rights, apartheid-era laws were still hampering progress.

“There are laws predating 1994 that continue to result in harms and human rights infringements, such as the laws governing hazardous waste from 1973 and pesticides from 1947,” he noted.

He was “appalled” to learn that many children had died as a result of consuming or handling hazardous pesticides meant for agricultural use -- but sold illegally to combat pest infestations.

He called for accountability, warning that this could “begin to erode” the country's confidence in democracy if not remedied.

Mining, one of South Africa's largest industries, has left a legacy of thousands of waste dumps.

“The hope for pollution prevention and remediation upon mine closures is lost in the poor enforcement of legislation,” Orellana said in his statement.

Coal mines in particular, have a severely negative impact on the air pollution in these communities, because of mercury emissions, ashes and dust.

Coal is a bedrock of South Africa's economy, employing almost 100 000 people and accounting for 80 percent of electricity production.

The Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, welcomed the report, acknowledging that “rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration, combined with fiscal challenges” had hampered efforts to tackle environmental challenges.

Creecy urged the United Nations to support South Africa’s journey from environmental racism to sustainable development and realisation of the human rights contained in Section 24 of the Constitution.

“We look forward to the outcome of the report and hope that the Special Rapporteur will continue to support South Africa in its quest to improve environmental management and the realisation of environmental rights,” said Creecy.

The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment had arranged for Dr Orellana to hold widespread discussions on the problem of chemicals and hazardous waste with the government, business, civil society and organised labour. Dr Orellana also conducted site visits.

Creecy emphasised the importance for developing countries to receive technological transfer, technical assistance, and financial assistance to make a safe environment a reality.

“Rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration, combined with fiscal challenges, have negatively impacted on government’s ability to effectively manage environmental challenges,” the Minister said.

Dr Orellana will present a report on his visit and his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in September 2024.