Coal in Black and White

by Rebecca Levenson:

South Africa’s Zamdela township is a bleak place to live. Many of its inhabitants— predominantly black Africans—work in a nearby factory, owned by South African energy giant Sasol, that converts coal to liquid fuel. Designated a “black” town under the now-defunct policy of apartheid, Zamdela continues to suffer from the pollution emitted by the Sasol plant—a plant many consider to be part of apartheid’s enduring legacy.

Dump site in South Africa.

Indeed, today Zamdela is one of the many black South African towns that are bearing the brunt of the problems associated with the country’s coal industry, and, with South Africa being more dependent on its coal than ever before, Zamdela’s residents face an uphill battle in restoring the health of their town.

According to Desmond D’Sa, chair of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, these environmental costs are due to the industry’s disregard for the black Africans who live near factories like those in Zamdela. Under a policy he calls “environmental racism,” black Africans are left to use only the more harmful, low-quality coal for their energy needs while Sasol converts the more valuable coal to liquid gasoline for wealthier buyers. “While Sasol makes gas and fuel, its suffering neighbors are forced to use dirty coal in their homes for heating and power. This is what we refer to as a double standard.”

Environmental Apartheid

Sasol—which supplies South Africa with 77 percent of its energy today—began making fuel from coal in 1955, capitalizing on generous government subsidies, the abundance of South African coal, and the cheap labor it found among the black African population, who fell outside South African labor laws. In later years, the coal-to-liquid process became an even more viable alternative to oil when, in the 1980s, an international embargo meant that the country could not purchase oil from abroad.

The situation is not unique. Throughout South Africa’s coal industry, pre-democracy policies have proven too profitable to repeal. Since coal is one of the country’s main energy resources and export products, the government continues to support Sasol and the coal mining industry. It no longer provides subsidies, but it does little to enforce crucial environmental protection laws that would limit Sasol’s productivity. According to Sunita Dubey, a coordinator for the environmental monitoring NGO groundWork, “The government does not want too much environmental monitoring because it doesn’t want to stifle development.”

Tristen Taylor, of the NGO Earthlife Africa, added that coal industry enjoys a huge advantage in South Africa. “South Africa generates the vast majority of its electricity from low-grade coal,” she said. “This has resulted in the cheapest electricity in the world, designated not to service citizens, but large industry and mines that receive electricity at very cheap rates.” For Sasol, this cheap coal is used to maximize profit. And, as its needs for coal increase, the coal mining industry must continue keeping mining costs down, which it achieves by mining low-grade coal, paying its workers poorly, and taking little action to limit environmental damage.

Health problems are the most poignant indicators of coal’s impact on the local communities. D’Sa believes that use of low-grade coal has resulted in a significant rise in lethal respiratory illnesses among South African communities. He showed the Globalist medical prescriptions—penned in scrawled handwriting—that cited sulfur emissions from refineries as a cause of aggravated forms of respiratory diseases. Many people, he claimed, have become sick. “From the evidence it is clear that respiratory diseases have increased,” he said, explaining that asthma, leukemia, and other forms of cancer are all on the rise.

Entrenched Inequality

The poor conditions in low-income black neighborhoods can be traced back to laws as old as the Native Lands Act of 1913, passed to restrict black Africans to reserves and away from white towns. Although the laws have been repealed, their effects remain. Many black Africans continue to live along the lines drawn by apartheid, resulting in the continuation of environmental and health degradation in historically black communities. These conditions persist, groundWork expert Sunita Dubey explained, because the low-income black communities affected continue to have “little political voice.”

Similarly, landfills piled high with ash from burnt coal, containing poisonous materials such as arsenic and barium, are not an uncommon sight near black communities. Factories and refineries are found across the street from playgrounds. And D’Sa has series of pictures of the children who have died from their illnesses.

The harm has extended to even larger environmental systems and threatens to damage communities not directly linked to the factories themselves. According to Angela Andrews of the Legal Resources Centre, which represents poor individuals in South Africa, coal mining has compromised water quality for black African communities downstream from the mines. These communities have had difficulty growing crops, and, in the Orange and Vaal river systems—the area surrounding the Zamdela township—a crisis is brewing over access to diminishing water supplies.

But Sasol and other energy corporations are urging the government to weaken current environmental legislation even more. They are afraid that, if enforced, the laws now on the books will allow the government to exact fines and other penalties for the environmental damage done. “There has been a push to water down some of the environmental legislation by corporations who fear being held accountable for the atrocities they caused that have harmed people over the years,” said D’Sa.

For its part, the government does not strictly enforce laws because the Sasol and the coal industry are crucial to South Africa’s economy. As Dubey said, “The government will agree with Sasol’s demands for low environmental and health monitoring because this is a question of oil security.” Sasol can produce fuel from coal for about $40 per barrel, Dubey explained. In the face of rising oil prices, the deal is hard to beat.

Sasol’s proponents argue that it provides cheap energy for everyone in South Africa. With the prospect of dwindling oil supplies, South Africa has achieved an unrivalled degree of energy independence. Yet many would contest that the coal industry provides South Africa with a necessary service, props up the economy, provides a significant export good, or creates jobs for those who would otherwise have few opportunities—at least to the extent that the government claims they do. When contacted by the Globalist, Sasol did not respond to requests for comments.

According to Dubey, there are no programs that hold corporations responsible for the environmental problems they create for their workers and for the communities who live around their factories. Moreover, there are no programs establishing any standard of corporate responsibility and no legal avenues available to poor black citizens. Unfortunately, the unaccountability enjoyed by the industry continues to stand in the way of reform.

It is unlikely that basic environmental and health standards would fatally harm South Africa’s coal industry or even impair operations at its important coal-to-liquid plants. Instead, as NGO activists like Dubey and Taylor argue, corporations like Sasol have the means available to sacrifice profit and invest in ensuring the safety of surrounding towns and the health of their inhabitants. If the coal companies themselves refuse to take action, the government itself ought to step in.

A Healthier Future?

It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved despite the legacy of apartheid and the desire to maximize corporate profit without oversight. Taylor does not believe that this process can be substantially changed: “The question is, can this structural arrangement be altered significantly with reforms? Yes and no. Workers’ lives can be improved through increased safety measures, but the structural system that forces generations of workers into the mines in the first place won’t be changed.”

As South Africa sheds its history and tries to take its place among developed countries, its economic ambitions and dependence on coal risk overshadowing the need for basic regulations taken for granted in Europe and North America, a need felt especially among the black African population. This is an area in which the goals of encouraging development and reducing inequality clash vividly, so it is difficult to know whether there will soon be significant structural change. International pressure to curb carbon emissions and improve environmental regulation may speed the government along. However, given the coal industry’s preeminence, change will be slow, if it happens at all.