Cebile Faith Mkhwanazi with her daughter Sinakhokonke, 3, and son Melokuhle, 5, at their home in Emalahleni, Mpumalanga. Both the children are asthmatic. Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - It’s early evening and a thick haze of acrid, metallic smoke blankets Vosman township in Emalahleni.

Inside her small, neat home, Cebile Faith Mkhwanazi’s three-year-old daughter, Sinakhokonke, lays quietly curled on her lap. Her five-year-old son, Melokuhle, keeps warm playing on the floor next to the family’s electric heater.

Mkhwanazi’s husband, Jabulane, speaks little. He doesn’t feel well - his eyes are an irritated, angry red. 

“The doctor told me it’s because of all the pollution here,” he says, simply.

The family’s home is surrounded by two open-cast coal mines, which spew dust, while thick black smoke billows from a nearby steel plant every afternoon.

Both the couple’s children are asthmatic and Mkwanazi has developed a firm rule - they have to be inside the house by 4pm.

“The air that we’re breathing, that we’re inhaling, it’s so dirty. We have to close the windows and take our kids inside our houses because of all the dust and smoke.

“The kids struggle to breathe. My children were born without asthma, but one of the doctors told me they have it now because the air is not clean for them. Their eyes are always red and there’s a yellow discharge.”

Nights are the worst. 

“I don’t sleep because my children are sick and coughing all the time. I sleep with them to take care of them. They need oxygen to sleep but I can’t afford to buy a machine. Sometimes when they are sick, I feel like I can lose them, because they become so ill,” she says, her eyes welling with tears.

She recently deposed an affidavit, along with two other residents of Emalahleni, Mapule Granny Mdhuli and Lifa Mnisi, detailing how they struggle to cope with the high levels of pollution.

These were lodged as part of the landmark “Deadly air” litigation launched by environmental justice organisation groundWork and community group Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action.

Citing President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy, national air quality officer Dr Thuli Khumalo, and the MECs of Gauteng and Mpumalanga as respondents, the groups demand that the government clean up the dirty air in the Mpumalanga Highveld.

In their papers, groundWork and Vukani, represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) detail how the government has violated the Constitutional right to a healthy environment for those living and working in the Highveld Priority Area (HPA), by “failing to improve the deadly levels of air pollution”.

The environmental justice groups are asking the court to declare the current levels of air pollution on the Highveld a violation of constitutional rights, and to force the government to take meaningful action to implement and enforce the HPA Air Quality Management Plan (AQMP).

In November 2007, the then minister of environmental affairs, Marthinus van Schalwkyk, designated the HPA because of its poor air quality, which spans 31000km², including Ekurhuleni, three districts and nine local municipalities in Mpumalanga.

Five years later, the department of environmental affairs published an air quality management plan to clean up the HPA, but little has improved. The groups argue they were forced to launch the case because of the repeated failure of government to enforce air quality laws.

Mpumalanga accounts for about 83% of South Africa’s coal production. The HPA is home to 12 of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants, Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda and the NatRef refinery in Sasolburg, all of which are “contributing large amounts of pollution”.

The court papers quote Dr Andy Gray, an expert in air and health risk modelling, who said emissions from the 14 facilities caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in and around the HPA in 2016.

His research found thousands of children, the elderly and the sick are being exposed to acute pollution concentrations that can cause asthma attacks and permanent lung damage.

In his founding affidavit, Bobby Peek, groundWork director, writes how human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by the coal plants, such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, cause chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and premature death.

An October 2017 CER report, Broken Promises: Failure of the Highveld Priority Area, in collaboration with groundWork and the Highveld Environmental Justice Network, outlined the failure of the government to achieve the HPA’s goals, and the steps necessary for the comprehensive clean-up of the region’s air.

In May this year, former environmental affairs minister Nomvula Mokonyane finally responded to it, noting that although air quality was not at acceptable levels in the HPA, “desired improvements will not happen over a short period of time, but rather progressively over time”.

It was not necessary to make regulations to implement and enforce the HPA AQMP, as the plan is one of several tools to address air pollution and “was never meant to be a regulation but instead a plan that seeks to promote collaboration between stakeholder(s) and articulate shared vision and goals”.

But the unemployed Mkhwanazi says the government is doing too little. “I had to take my daughter out of crèche this winter. It’s too polluted outside. From May to August, I have to visit the doctor all the time.”

Every month, she and her husband, who has secured part-time work at a coal laboratory, have to find R1400 to pay for their children’s medicine. At times, they borrow money from loan sharks just to get a car to go to hospital at night.

“Sometimes you go to the hospital and stay there for three hours without help.

“They will tell you there is no medication for asthma. I have to borrow money to get my children to private doctors who are open for 24 hours.

“The doctor confirmed we must move away. But we don’t have money. If the government can help us to clean the air, or ask each and every owner of the mine, to have something that will help us to inhale clean air, at least that will help. But they don’t care.”

Her neighbour, Mbali Mathebula, a till packer, tells how her eight-month-old daughter, Asenahle and her five-year-old Princess, both suffer from asthma. “When she has flu, she breathes hard. It’s like something is stuck here,” she says, pointing to Asenahle’s chest as she breastfeeds.

“It’s very hard living here as I can’t afford the medicine or to even get help for my children.”

While Creecy, in a statement, agrees there are air quality challenges in the Highveld Area, her preference is “that there is further engagement outside of a court process to find ways to satisfy the needs of citizens living in these areas for better quality air.”

But a resolute Vusi Mabaso, the chairperson of Vukani, says there’s no other option. “I think we stand a good chance in court. After all, it’s the government who declared this place a priority area.”

Timothy Lloyd, an attorney at the CER, says the State attorney has requested an extension to file all the information and documentation that Mokonyane considered in deciding that there is no breach of Section 24 (a) of the Constitution and that no implementation regulations are required in the HPA.

“Our view is that another 1.5 months is unreasonable in the circumstances. The State attorney has only received instructions from the minister, the National Air Quality Officer and the Gauteng MEC.

“No word from the president or Mpumalanga MEC. Our sense is that the president will likely follow the minister’s lead. The State attorney has confirmed that the Gauteng MEC will abide by the High Court’s decision ie. comply with what the court orders.”

Effects of pollutants

A variety of hazardous pollutants are emitted from industrial processes and activities on the Highveld Priority Area, including sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, particulate matter and mercury.

In addition, sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen can chemically react in the atmosphere with sunlight and other compounds to form additional particulate matter and smog or ground-level ozone. These pollutants are separately and cumulatively harmful to human health.

Human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by the coal plants, such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, results in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and premature death. Source: Bobby Peek, groundWork.

The Saturday Star