Tipping over a rusted barrel of liquid resembling paint, Ernest Ndwandwe says his squatter home in an abandoned waste disposal factory has attracted “worried-looking white men.”
Red Cross doctors and environmentalists flock to the factory, where 200 homeless people have moved in and built shacks. Environmentalists warn of more such scenes if South Africa does not act strongly to regulate the handling of toxic materials.
President Nelson Mandela rates the environment as a top priority. But his environmental chief, Dawie de Villiers, is pushing practices repugnant to the West and Mandela’s African National Congress.
De Villiers, a minister in the former white minority government, found a place in Mandela’s Cabinet under a power-sharing compromise that opened the way to South Africa’s first all-race election a year ago.
The ANC supports a ban on the trade of toxic wastes within Africa, which would keep other countries from shipping harmful byproducts to South Africa for disposal. But De Villiers opposes a flat ban.
“Things are not always in black and white,” he said. “We have excellent facilities to dispose of old waste oil and other toxic wastes and should be realistic enough to render service.”
A ban, still being debated by the government, could force less developed countries like neighboring Lesotho and Zimbabwe to dump their wastes and damage shared water sources instead of sending or selling the material to South Africa for disposal, De Villiers said.
The government would not use its facilities for capital gain or cater to big business interests, he said.
The Organization of African Unity and other groups say South Africa could set a bad example to other African countries by making money off toxic waste.
“South Africa is back in the good graces of the West,” said Peter Lukey of Earthlife, Africa’s equivalent to the international environmental group Greenpeace. “We’re seen as stable, and, in terms of leadership, African nations are looking to us now to decide policy. But we still have these old skeletons in our closet.”
During white-minority rule, South Africa was crippled by economic embargoes designed to pressure officials to end apartheid. The government fought back by luring investors with loose environmental standards.
The dangers were underlined in 1986, when U.S.-based Borden Chemical and Plastic Inc. sent 10,000 barrels of highly toxic mercury to a South African plant run by Thor Chemical of Britain. A botched recycling effort resulted in three workers dying of mercury poisoning and 26 others suffering ill health.
The 200 squatters at the abandoned Uluna waste disposal factory in Germiston, just outside Johannesburg, are just some of the thousands who set aside health concerns in favor of shelter and jobs.
Red Cross doctors say people living at the factory have health problems such as respiratory ills and skin disorders.
“But it will take years to prove to them or other people that their living conditions are to blame. And more importantly that they should give up their homes,” said Dipak Gopal, a Red Cross development officer.
Ndwandwe, the squatter, illustrates the problem. “Maybe these barrels will make me die some day,” he said. “Maybe we will have to move someplace that is worse.”