Johannesburg - When mechanic Strike Matsepe cashed in his pension and bought his farm in the early 1990s “at the time of Mandela, when people could buy land wherever they liked”, he imagined a fertile plot that would serve him well into his old age.
Instead, Matsepe died poor and sick in December last year. Like hundreds of residents of Steel Valley, he had long been forced to forsake his farm, and his dream, because his groundwater was poisoned.
“My father was a strong person,” recalls Puseletso Matsepe Daniels, of her 87-year-old father. “Sadly, he died a poor man.
“He invested money to buy that plot, but it didn’t fulfil his dream because it could not produce anything. It was the land that made him sick.”
Tucked inside the collection of 600 smallholdings in Steel Valley, her father’s farm ran opposite the then-Iscor’s towering Vanderbijlpark steelworks. When his crops died, his animals perished or were born with deformities, Matsepe, who would develop kidney failure and then prostate cancer, mobilised his neighbours to challenge the firm for water pollution. Instead, out of court settlements divided the community.
For most of its existence, the Steel Valley community was a “racially segmented society”, explains Victor Munnik, a researcher at Wits University who has studied Steel Valley for years. But by 1990, black South Africans like Matsepe could buy land in “white areas”, and established themselves as smallholders.
But too quickly their hopes would fade. “For many decades, the Steel Valley community argued that the Steel Works was polluting air, soil and groundwater in the area. Iscor denied that it was responsible for the pollution in Vanderbijlpark. By 2002, the entire community of nearly 600 smallholdings, their houses, outbuildings and shops had disappeared.”
Working together to fight the pollution united the community, Munnik remarks.
“Resident Neville Felix, for example, who originally came from District Six in Cape Town, was very clear that white residents regarded him with suspicion, although working together against the pollution brought people closer together.”
Last week, Munnik presented a talk at Wits University on Steel Valley about “environmental justice activism, the politics of knowledge and the power to pollute”. It centred on how an “aggressive control over pollution knowledge was constitutive of the parastatal Iscor’s, and later the multinational ArcelorMittal’s power to pollute Steel Valley, and to escape the consequences.
In December 2014, after more than a decade of struggle, the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights, succeeded in forcing the steel giant to hand over its environmental Master Plan to local environmental activists. This contained a series of expert reports on the environmental and health impacts of the steel works compiled in 2003.
Munnik points out that corporate pollution operates on the assumption that some places, “some people’s environments”, need to be destroyed for the economy to grow. In other ways, there will be sacrifice 'zones'.
Today, just two landowners still live in Steel Valley - Johann Dewing and Johannes Mkwanazi, while a caretaker runs Matsepe’s withered farm.
“We will continue with my father’s fight, where he left off, for justice to be done in Steel Valley,” says Daniels.