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Living in Durban's death zone

Published Sep 26, 2001


The chance of living somewhere else - anywhere else - must be a bright prospect for the residents of this appalling corner of Durban.

Yet, in many ways, it's a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea. If they stay, they could be squashed by a train, or burned to death in a fireball of petroleum and toxic chemicals.

And if they go, many will have to breathe in noxious industrial fumes 24 hours a day - and there's no guarantee they won't be affected by a major industrial accident in the "new place".

This is the dilemma facing 400 or so people from the Clairwood shack settlement, who have spent much of their lives in what is surely one of the most squalid and hazardous shacklands.

Cooped up like chickens, their homes are made of plastic, wood and scraps of metal. They have no toilets and their garden is a busy industrial railway line used for transporting a variety of deadly fuel and chemical products for the Engen and Sapref refineries, Mondi and Bayer.

With nowhere else to play, the children have to be shooed off the tracks every few minutes by their watchful mothers and a group of flag-waving security guards.

Eighteen-year-old Amanda Hadebe came here from Kokstad a few years ago, while old-timer Mr K G Mfenqe, from the Transkei, has lived here almost 10 years.

Like most of the shack people they don't have regular jobs, so they try to scratch a living in nearby Merebank or the Jacobs industrial area.

They don't want to stay, but they don't want to move too far from the little they have. Last year, the housing department approved subsidies for 230 new homes and industry agreed to donate R1,5 million towards moving Clairwood people into low-cost housing in Merebank.

Six sites were chosen, but at least three were rejected for various reasons, including proximity to major hazardous installations and flight paths at Durban international airport, and the high level of industrial air pollution.

Lyn Ploos van Amstel, one of several Durban Exco councillors who visited the six sites this week, said she had to use a nebuliser after the tour to relieve an asthma attack brought on by air pollution.

Couglan Pather, projects director for metro housing, agreed that some of the proposed housing sites were not "ideal", but said the dangerous situation at Clairwood could not continue.

But Bobby Peek, of the environmental justice group groundWork, questioned moving people from one dangerous site to one with other serious hazards.

"The city needs to consider all the alternatives before making a decision it could regret."

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