CAMPAIGN HERO: Bongani Mthembu of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance

Bongani Mthembu
Bongani Mthembu of South Durban Community Environmental Alliance
Bongani Mthembu talks to the Ecologist about the struggles and successes in achieving environmental justice in South Africa’s townships

What has been your most successful campaign to date?

In early 2000, we campaigned against the Malaysian owned Engen oil refinery which was emitting 80 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air every day. We worked closely with the local hospital and schools to collect data on the number of illnesses recorded in the area and found that the incidents of asthma, itchy eyes, coughing and fainting were so high in the local schools that we were able to force the government to act. They pressured Engen into introducing a technology which cut their emissions down to 20 tonnes a day.  

What has been your least successful campaign to date?

The Engen refinery used to belong to Mobil and when it was under their ownership they provided a 24 hour clinic for the local community, providing free treatment and care for anyone suffering with oil industry-related illnesses. Engen did away with the clinic and have been running away from the responsibility of care since. The Sapref refinery is adjacent (which is owned Shell) and we believe Engen don’t want to take the blame for the illnesses the Shell refinery is causing as well as their own. We have been trying for 9 years to get the clinic re-opened but Engen are not moving on their decision.  

What gets you out of bed when you're at your lowest?

My mother is asthmatic and was diagnosed at a tender age, so I know how people suffer with this condition. When I don’t want to wake up some days, I remember what is happening to her and to other people and my inspiration and motivation return.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

We have tried both. When working with them, we have seen a lack of will on their part of them wanting to work with us. They lack transparency, honesty and don’t keep their promises or take responsibility. It is a huge disappointment to a country with the most progressive constitution in the world that their protocols are not being supported by the government. It’s all written there in black and white but it’s not yet the reality. In his way, we have found working against corporations is the only solution. We have a close relationship with the local media through which we expose their dishonesty and false solutions – and will continue to do so.  

What is the best way to motivate people?

We start by explaining the problem and raising awareness. Then we show them our successes and inspire them to see the bright side of being involved in our campaigns and changing the society they live in. We believe change starts with the individuals. 

What is the best way of reaching politicians?

It’s difficult as those guys are always finding excuses. We’ve tried to involve them in changing our society for the better but it’s been a challenging journey. We’ve had several meetings with them but not with much success.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

You don’t solve a problem with another problem so we always avoid breaking the law. Our marches and pickets include elderly people so our primary concern is for their safety. As a result of our marches always being peaceful, we have a good reputation and relationship with the police who always allow our demonstrations to go ahead.

Most important thing the UN climate talks could achieve this year?

We are hoping for a positive outcome that will force developed countries to sign up to international treaties on the environment so that you don’t get countries like America being able to opt out like they did at Kyoto.  We would also like to see a common goal that the majority of countries reduce their greenhouse gases. In doing so, we believe there will be a positive reduction in third world poverty as we are seeing the links between environmental damage, climate change and how it’s causing people to lose their homes because of flooding or farmers having fewer crops due to drought.   

Most important thing individuals could do this year?

There’s a major role that can be played by people at the grassroots level which is the uniting and fighting for these common goals: first and foremost is the reduction of greenhouse gases; secondly, that developed countries pay compensation for the environmental damage they are causing in third world countries; and finally, that our government be forced to invest in green energy.  

What makes a good campaigner?

Self discipline, values, principles and perseverance.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

We were very inspired by the campaign to bring peace and change the system in Egypt. So much so that back in February I took part in the World Social Forum march in Dakar, Senegal which openly gave its support of the protesters and called for an end to authoritarian regimes. Through this campaign we witnessed that when people want and fight for a common goal they can achieve it. It’s one of the successes we can look up to.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

My hero is Dennis Brutus, the white South African poet and activist. He was a one of the professors who stood firm against apartheid and even though he was shot, jailed and beaten for his views he didn’t back down and persevered. I know that if he had been alive today he would be standing with us.  

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