Victory for Environmental Justice in South Africa

November 2001

Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa`s capital, Cape Town

On the outskirts of Cape Town lie the Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain townships. The apartheid regime relocated thousands of families to these South African townships in the early 1980s. Today, more than one-half million residents struggle to make ends meet.

Companies looking to establish industries in the townships expect little opposition to their plans. But residents of Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain surprised an international weapons manufacturer, Swartklip Products, earlier this year by mobilizing against the company`s proposed hazardous waste incinerator. The incinerator would have spewed toxic dioxins, furans and other heavy metals over the townships.

A coalition of residents, environmental NGOs and citizen activists looked to ELAW advocate Angela Andrews, of the Legal Resources Centre in Cape Town, for help. With critical legal and scientific support from the ELAW network, Angela and local residents launched an education campaign and testified at public hearings and demonstrations.

In the U.S. and Europe, incineration is on the decline. Burning plastics and metal waste has been linked to severe public health threats such as the release of dioxins, cancer causing agents that disrupt vital endocrine function, reproduction, development and the immune system.

ELAW provided the latest scientific studies describing the health effects of dioxins and the public health impacts of incinerating metals. ELAW reviewed the environmental impact assessment scoping report and a report on the incinerator design. This helped Angela understand the technical components of the proposed incinerator. ELAW identified experts to assess alternative waste disposal options and participate in a panel to make decisions about proposed incinerator sites. Angela used information about the decline of incineration in the U.S. and the new Clean Air Act in the Philippines (which prohibits incineration) to show that both developed and developing countries are closely regulating incineration.

Three years after learning about the proposed incinerator, Angela and the coalition had cause for celebration: The public outcry convinced local authorities to withhold permission to build the incinerator and encourage the company and the community to work together to resolve their differences. Hard work and perseverence from local residents stopped an internationally powerful company from poisoning the community. Through the ELAW network, advocates around the world have celebrated this remarkable victory, which brings environmental justice to low-income communities that typically bear a disproportionate burden of the impacts of polluting industries.

For more information about this ELAW Impact or LRC, contact the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide at elawus@elaw.org.