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Apartheid's environmental toll

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: Environmental Racism and Nuclear Development

(March 28, 1993) The following is excerpted from a booklet of the same name published by the US-based Worldwatch Institute as part of its "Worldwatch Paper Series". Though written in 1990, before many of the negotiated transformations of South Africa began to take place, the information is still highly relevant. For one thing, what the booklet's author calls the "super-structure of apartheid" is still largely in place.

by Alan B. Durning

Modern history is all too full of societies that have squandered their patrimonies, fouled their nests, and poisoned their people. What is exceptional in South Africa's assault on its natural inheritance, however, is the factor of apartheid; the network of racist policies, and the extraordinary means to which the state has resorted in maintaining them, have doomed the nation's ecology to suffer great insults. Apartheid cannot be blamed for all of the country's ecological traumas, but it must take the blame, in part or in whole, for many. Its environment has been degraded far more than would have occurred if racial separatism had never been institutionalized. In this respect, South Africa stands alone.

Directly and indirectly, the set of policies and institutions called apartheid has exacerbated a long list of ecological ills. The bits and pieces of South Africa reserved by government fiat for the region's original inhabitants, and then packed with black people not wanted in the white economy, are today among the world's most degraded lands.

All societies are stratified, to a greater or lesser degree, along lines of wealth, race, and sex: South Africa is unique in the degree of its inequality and in the way the government in Pretoria enforces inequality through the law. Apartheid, as an extreme form of the social injustices found so pervasively, reveals with exceptional clarity the way unfairness within the human estate extends its damage into the natural estate as well. Today, apartheid's grip on the nation is weakening, and a spirit of reconciliation has begun to take hold among leaders of both races...At this crucial juncture, a full ecological reckoning of apartheid's past may help point the way to a future in which black and white live together in a greener land.

Homelands or Wastelands?

In 1652, Dutch settlers put ashore at the Cape of Good Hope to build a way station on the trade route to the Orient. Foreshadowing all that was to follow, they planted a hedge around their encampment and forbade the region's aboriginal people, the Khoisan, from remaining inside. The colonists and their descendants have been pushing that hedge out in larger circles ever since.

With the Land Act of 1913, the Dutch, by then known as Afrikaners, completed their appropriation of the 1.25-million-square-kilometer region today called the Republic of South Africa. The act divided the national territory between whites and blacks, marking off 87 percent of the land for the whites, and relegating the vastly more numerous black population to the so-called Native Reserves it established on the remaining 13 percent.

Since the advent of apartheid in 1948, four of the 10 reserves have been pushed into a hollow sort of independence. Theoretically, they are autonomous nations with full self-rule. In fact, they have either puppet regimes or well-intentioned leaders with little effective power because the regions they govern are remote, barren, overcrowded, and entirely dependent on the republic for economic survival. In effect, Pretoria first guaranteed itself an army of low-paid workers by denying blacks land and then absolved itself of responsibility for those workers by declaring them citizens of "independent" internal nations.

The ecological results of this policy of "separate development" are written all over the topography of the reserves, or, as they are euphemistically called, "homelands" or "bantustans". Poor land, crowding, a shortage of labor, and dire poverty, all flowing from apartheid, have been disastrous for these regions. As one US Agency of International Development official in the neighboring Swaziland said, "Many of the homelands bear more resemblance to the face of the moon than to the commercial farms and game pre-serves that cover the rest of the country."

Few comprehensive surveys of land degradation exist for the reserves, but what data do exist show a dismal picture. When the government's Ciskei Commission gave its report a decade ago, 46 percent of the land in the Ciskei reserve was already moderately or severely eroded and 39 percent of its pastures overgrazed.

Similar land degradation is apparent in most homelands. In the Msinga district of the kwaZulu reserve, erosion gullies called dongas have grown into small valleys and topsoil is scarce. KwaZulu farmer Creina Bond Alcock reported that "old fields have vanished completely in some parts of Msinga, opening up extraordinary expanses of stone." Sunduza village in the Transkei homeland is scarred with dongas 20 meters deep, and in the once-fertile Lebowa reserve boulders occasionally roll down denuded mountain slopes and crush the huts below.

South Africa's forests, too, are overburdened. Two-thirds of South Africans use wood for fuel, but because of the extreme population pressures in the homelands, wood is increasingly difficult to come by. Professor Anton Eberhard of the University of Cape Town surveyed fuel-wood gathering in four reserves and found that women typically make treks of six to nine kilometers every other day, collecting loads each time that weigh about 30 kilograms. Similar situations exist in other countries in the developing world, but nowhere else are they a consequence of national policies aimed at subjugating the majority of the inhabitants.

With per capita consumption of fuelwood at 200-800 kilograms annually, forests in the homelands don't stand a chance. Twenty years was all it took for fuelwood gathering to strip the forests from the isolated slopes of Lebowa's Leolo Mountain, and kwaZulu's complement of distinct woodlands fell from 250 to 50 in the last half century. A century ago, Cetshwayo - the Zulu warrior who led his tribe against white troops set on subjugating them - was buried in the heart of the Nkandla forest. The forest's receding edge is now visible from his grave. In the Qwa Qwa reserve, forests exist only in history.

Environmental deterioration in the homelands has four interlocking causes, and all of them trace their roots to apartheid: poor land, politically enforced overpopulation, labor shortage, and poverty. First, the 10 homelands are situated in fragile environments n regions best suited as rangeland. From the very beginning, blacks were given land where topsoil is thin, rainfall scarce and unpredictable, and the ground sloping and rocky. Borders were carefully drawn, and sometimes redrawn, to exclude anything of value: industrial sites, transport lines, mineral resources, and fertile land. The geographic result is that the reserves are landlocked archipelagos, scattered across the map of South Africa.

Second, apartheid forces the land to support an astronomical number of people. Of South Africa's nearly 40 million inhabitants, 29 million are black, five million are white, and the remainder are classified as either "colored" or "Indian". Perhaps slightly more than half of the black population is crowded into the reserves by apartheid, and most of the remainder lives in segregated urban townships and illegal squatter settlements.

Overwhelmed by population growth and land degradation in the reserves, per capita food production has fallen dramatically, so much so that the homelands are now net importers of food. In the late forties, Bophuthatswana's farmers were harvesting around 110 kilograms of maize and sorghum for each resident of the reserve. In the late fifties, they were taking in 80 kilograms per person, and in the early seventies only 50 kilograms. Today, the harvest is undoubtedly spread even thinner.

Third, the homelands suffer a labor shortage. Seemingly paradoxical, this problem is a result of the fact that few of those present are in their peak working years. In South Africa's peculiar migrant labor system, these destitute lands provide the white economy with reservoirs of cheap black labor. Some 70 percent of homeland income is earned in the white economy by unskilled wage earners who cram buses and mini-buses for hundred-kilometer daily or weekly commutes, or who spend most of their lives working thousands of kilometers from their families.

The homelands, then, are home mostly to children, the old, and the infirm. In the sixties, when "removals" were near their peak, many elderly blacks were consigned to these areas because the government considered them, in the words of one cabinet minister, "surplus appendages". A detailed survey in one region of kwaZulu found that most inhabitants were children or elderly, and that 81 percent of working age inhabitants were women, mostly mothers who could not leave their children to work far away. These women, struggling to provide for so many youngsters and elders, are too pressed to undertake land-conserving projects.

Finally, poverty itself makes land conservation difficult. Cut out of the prosperous South African economy by law, and living hand to mouth, homeland farmers lack the cash to make long-term investments in protecting their land. With average disposable income of around US$150 a year, one-sixteenth of the white average, they simply cannot afford to buy fencing supplies to control grazing, hire laborers to help terrace sloping fields, or invest in tree planting to conserve soil and water.

These four elements n fragile land, overpopulation, labor scarcity, and poverty n combine to form a trap of economic and environmental impoverishment. The poor get poorer, and the land is worn down to bedrock. In South Africa, blacks are disenfranchised not only politically but ecologically.

Pillaging the Earth's Crust

Today, South Africa is the Saudi Arabia of minerals. The country's thousand-odd mines and quarries scrape the earth's crust and burrow deep into it, putting the nation high on the list of major mineral producers. It is first among countries in production of gold, chromate, and platinum, second in manganese, third in uranium, fourth in antimony, fifth in diamonds, sixth in asbestos, seventh in nickel, eighth in iron ore, ninth in coal, and eleventh in silver.

Apartheid is linked to mining's environmental toll in three ways. First, the enormous costs to the white government and economy of maintaining apartheid have made Pretoria financially dependent on mining. Consequently, the state has given great freedom to the minerals industry, allowing it to endanger black miners and the environment while protecting it from public scrutiny. Second, as occurs all too commonly around the world, the environmental costs of mining fall onto the poor, who are, in the apartheid state of South Africa, almost exclusively dark skinned. Third, the political powerlessness of South African blacks has left them unable to counter the industry's irresponsibility.

In these circumstances, Pretoria has been loathe to touch the mining industry. The Chamber of Mines, a confederation of major mining corporations, keeps a tight lid on information about environmental impacts, and the government shields it from criticism.

Excavating minerals always entails environmental risks. In South Africa the extent of ecological damage from minerals extraction is massive, from poisoned streams to strip-mined hillsides, and it is overwhelmingly blacks who must live with the consequences. Their townships and squatter settlements are downwind and downstream from the mines. Riverlea, a typical "colored" township near Johannesburg, for example, is centered on a massive yellow gold mine dump. Much mining is now located on the peripheries of large urban areas n just where squatter settlements have been springing up as blacks illegally flee overcrowded homelands and townships. Because South African gold mines extract large quantities of uranium as a secondary product, the nearby black communities may also be exposed to the cancer-causing radium and radon that commonly leak from uranium mine wastes.

Blacks suffer underground as well. The mines, controlled by six major corporations, employ 750,000 workers, mostly black, who labor in conditions that are among the most hazardous anywhere. The risks of gold mining are so great that the all-black National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg with a report called "A Thousand Ways to Die". Half a million men descend into the gold mines each morning; on a typical day, two of them are carried out dead. Since the beginning of the century, some 46,000 workers have died underground. For every ton of gold South Africa extracts, a black miner dies in an accident that probably would not have happened in another country.

Although the extreme depth and heat of South African gold mines make them perilous in themselves, sociologist Jean Leger of the University of Witwatersrand attributes their high death rates more to what he terms "racial despotism". White supervisors underground, who rarely venture into the risky areas where blacks work, are paid bonuses to boost output. As a result, black miners who slow production to point out safety hazards are more likely to be punished than praised.

A State of Siege Energy Policy

The geologic luck of South Africa's whites is to possess both precious minerals and abundant coal reserves to power their mining efforts. But this economic foundation of apartheid would not stand were it not for the strength of the republic's legion of captive laborers. A unique political creation, this dispossessed work force has little choice but to toil for the wages offered.

Apartheid has distorted the nation's pattern of energy use as dramatically as its pattern of land ownership. Suppressed wages for miners keep coal inexpensive and so promote wasteful use and, therefore, excessive pollution. International censure of apartheid has led the government into a quest for energy independence with dire costs for the environment: coal-based electricity is used wherever possible, the state has created the world's largest coal-to-oil synthetic fuels program, oil imports are assured by linking them to coal exports, and nuclear power has been pursued for both energy independence and military security reasons.

South Africa's extreme degree of coal reliance is only necessary because of apartheid. Confronted with oil-exporting nations in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere that are vehemently opposed to the white government's policies, South Africa has based its energy economy almost exclusively on coal. One environmental result has been accelerated exploitation of coal seams through strip mining.

In addition to apartheid's tendency to increase South African reliance on coal, the republic's security concerns have led it into the nuclear realm. South Africa has the continent's only uranium conversion and enrichment facilities, its only two nuclear plants (along with plans for a third), and its only atomic weapons. The power stations are part of South Africa's effort to build an energy fortress, invulnerable to black labor unrest in the coalfields. The reactors may also have been part of a strategy to gain sufficient knowledge for weapons construction, something Pretoria achieved the capacity to do in 1981, according to US intelligence agencies.

South Africa's overreliance on coal, and resort to nuclear power, stand in contrast to the likely pattern of energy development had the nation not sought to separate the races. With a major oil exporter just up the coast in Angola, and another further on in Nigeria, the country would have been expected to use more petroleum and less coal. A more balanced mix of fossil fuels would still have created environmental problems, but not in the extreme forms now evident in South Africa.

Source: Exerpted from Worldwatch Paper 95: Apartheid's Environmental Toll, by Alan B. Durning, May 1990.

Contact: The full 50-page study can be obtained from: Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036 USA. Cost: US$4.00.