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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Apartheid's Environmental Legacy

Air Date: Week of

One year after the election of a majority government, black communities still bear the scars of minority rule. Maria Mbengashe, director of the Community Environmental Network, speaks with host, Steve Curwood about the water, soil, and waste problems that plague many communities in her country. She says average South Africans are still hopeful, but they're getting impatient for changes in their lives.


MBENGASHE: People originally think ah, South Africa is just going to be forgotten. Everything is well now that people have voted. But apartheid has left a lot of problems, one of them being environmental problems.

CURWOOD: A year after South Africa's first all-race elections, vast areas of the so-called black homelands still suffer from deforestation and soil erosion. Mining operations have left toxic wastes and thousands of people suffering from related illnesses. And huge urban shantytowns still have little or no sanitation. Maria Mbengashe is an environmental activist with the African National Congress, and director of the Community Environmental Network in the eastern Cape. She says some of the greatest challenges to South Africa's new government come from poverty and the burden that apartheid placed on the region's ecology.

MBENGASHE: On a daily basis, particularly for those people who are living in so-called shanty areas or shacks, it's hard. Most of them don't have access to tap water, don't have sanitation, I mean trailers and so on. And they just have to, like in terms of water sometimes, they have to walk long distances to get maybe a communal tap nearby.

CURWOOD: Is it clean water? Is it safe water?

MBENGASHE: It's clean water, yes. You know, especially in urban areas it's clean. But in rural areas, yes, it's sort of unsafe water. In terms of refuse collection, people actually dumped any place nearby; so that becomes a health hazard. Let alone the old practice of siting waste dumps, hazardous waste dumps, next to black townships; so this is a major problem people are facing. Despite the fact that they have voted.

CURWOOD: What kind of effect on people's health is this? Is there a lot of disease as a result?

MBENGASHE: Yes. In the eastern Cape, for example, we have the highest rate of asthma. We have the highest rate of gastroenteritis; we have the highest rate of TB.

CURWOOD: What about the rural areas? What's the environmental legacy of apartheid there?

MBENGASHE: In the rural areas, mainly because of the homeland policies, people who have literally dumped in desolate, dry areas which are not suitable for any form of agriculture, but to survive people have actually tilled the land and we have problems of soil erosion, land degradation. And poverty, out of all that.

CURWOOD: This is such a harrowing picture you paint in the townships. Are people getting angry or are they too sick to get angry and organized?

MBENGASHE: People I think, especially after election, they are sort of getting impatient that, you know, we want delivery. We want to see, you know, our quality of life changing. So you know, they are hopeful but actually they are getting impatient.

CURWOOD: Where does the environment stand on the priority list of the new government?

MBENGASHE: I think the new government has started to be aware that environment is important. And I think ANC, for example, just before the election, they called in a mission, [missionaries?] into South Africa, actually trying to look at priority areas with regard to environment. So I think there is a realization that environment needs to be put on the agenda.

CURWOOD: So far have there been any major changes? It's my understanding that the present Minister of the Environment is from the old guard.

MBENGASHE: Unfortunately, yes. But I think there is a positive move. The fact that there is this committee, which was nominated by Parliament, to restructure the Council, it's sort of a step forward. So we are hoping that through civil society pressure, through this committee suggesting a number of changes within the Ministry, we are hoping that things will improve.

CURWOOD: Where's the money for this going to come from? I mean, there's a critical need for housing in South Africa right now that could take up really, probably, every dollar or rand you could get your hands on. How are you going to pay for this?

MBENGASHE: Well, with the reconstruction and development program, we are hoping that some money, you know, coming from business, outside funding, we are hoping that the issue of finance will be alleviated. And of course, encouraging people to pay for services. Because with the legacy of apartheid, in the past people, as a measure of pressurizing government, people were discouraged to pay services. But what, you know, the move today is people must be encouraged services because at local level, we also have to pay for services so that the quality of life, it's improved.

CURWOOD: So in other words, the rent strikes and the refusal to pay for essentially taxes has to stop and people have to do this now.

MBENGASHE: Yes. But this has to come together with also signs of improvement and provision of services.

CURWOOD: Boy, it's a tricky set of steps to take.

MBENGASHE: It's a tricky, it's a tricky thing.

CURWOOD: These problems seem so huge and overwhelming. How do you feel about this? Do you have hope?

MBENGASHE: Yes. They are overwhelming mainly because in the past, people were not participating in any form of decision-making. But given the fact we have a new government now, and people are being involved, people are taking part in decision, one has hope that some of the problems will be addressed. Because environmental problems in South Africa are mainly legacies of apartheid in most instances.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Maria Mbengashe is Director of the Community Environmental Network in the Republic of South Africa. Thank you for coming.

MBENGASHE: Thank you.



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