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Q&A with Desmond D’Sa

May 7, 2014

2014 Goldman Prize winner Desmond D’Sa answers our question about how he rallied south Durban’s diverse and disenfranchised communities to successfully shut down a toxic waste dump that was exposing nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and robbing them of their constitutionally protected right to a safe and clean environment.

How did you first get inspired to fight against the Bulbul Drive landfill?

Bulbul Drive had been in operation for over a decade, and I was called in to assist with negotiations when Wasteman began their campaign to expand the landfill. Much of our evidence-collecting to support our arguments happened at night, including going to the landfill to collect samples of different chemicals that were leaching into the soil and air. After many months of collecting evidence, I used the negotiating skills I had developed as a community organizer to showcase the facts, which ultimately led to the shutdown of the landfill. We sat in meetings on nights and weekends convincing Wasteman that it was in their best interest, and the interest of the community, to shut down the landfill.

What is the extent of the cancer issue in south Durban?

The cancer risk is quite high as many people have died from exposure to cyanide, mercury and other chemicals that have been dumped over the years. A 2002 study from the Nelson Mandela Medical School showed that the asthma rate at a local school in south Durban was 52 percent, the highest in world. There was also a study that confirmed leukemia rates and deaths among young children were very high because of the level of toxic waste in the air. Compounding the issue is a lack of medical resources—we have been unsuccessfully campaigning for years to have a 24-hour clinic in south Durban. The hospitals don’t have the necessary resources to deal with the cancer issue and when medical equipment breaks down, it doesn’t get replaced for months. We struggle with these issues constantly.

How did you become involved in the campaign to fight the port expansion?

Because there is so little room in South Africa for expansion, the proposed port would mean the largest removal of residents since apartheid. The majority of the community today have stable homes, stable schools, stable religious institutions, and stable businesses, but we are products of removal and the port expansion would be another forced move. The government has no plan for where they would send communities to make way for industry expansion. We have met with the minister of finance, the minister of economic development, the mayor of Durban and all have committed themselves to a stakeholder forum. But that has gone nowhere. We are already a year into the process but there has been no consultation and no discussion with the communities that will be most affected.

How has the late Nelson Mandela inspired your work?

I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela in 1995 when we were protesting a local refinery that was causing high levels of leukemia and asthma among children in the community. When Mandela heard our view, he called for the largest gathering in history of the captains of industry in Durban, over 600 representatives, to put in place a multipoint plan to analyze the extent of pollution levels in the local communities. Mandela was very crucial for us in Durban, in south Durban in particular, because he galvanized us, and made us focus and understand that to achieve anything you have to work hard, but more importantly, you have to have facts and figures because that’s what counts at the end of the day. Mandela is our inspiration as the man that made bridges and brought about reconciliation in our country. I wish he had been younger when he started because he had so much to offer the country and we would have benefited from more years of his leadership and uniting vision.


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