BRICS lessons in (un)sustainable urbanization

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Patrick Bond says the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) economies are increasingly polluted and deadly. Much more damage will be done, and multifaceted resistance must likewise strengthen.

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Patrick Bond is a frequent contributor to Climate & Capitalism. He directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.

What is to be done, in the wake of Warsaw climate summit’s conclusive failure to cap emissions last weekend? The answer: walk out of the United Nations process when it needs delegitimation, and work much harder to curtail pollution in your home sites of struggle, everyone in civil society agreed.

For the 40 percent of the world suffering in the increasingly desperate Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) economies, this self-mandate is ever more vital, the more that both irresponsible multinational corporates and homegrown firms abuse the environment and societies, with nods of approval from corrupted, subimperialist local rulers.

It is this crew that our Durban elites are again (as in March this year) hosting in the International Convention Centre: the BRICS ministerial conference ironically entitled “Towards Sustainable Urbanisation.”

Tragically, on everyone’s mind is the explosion in one of China’s largest cities last Friday morning. What spin-doctoring should BRICS delegates believe, regarding Sinopec Corporation’s oil pipeline leak and deadly blast in Durban’s sister city of Qingdao?

With an estimated 60 lives lost, 130 injured and 18,000 evacuated, China’s State Administration of Work Safety quickly announced the culprits: “poor designs of the pipeline and local drainage networks, negligence on the part of safety officials, bad maintenance of the oil pipeline, as well as officials’ failure to seal off the affected area and evacuate residents after they detected the leak, seven hours before the explosions.”

As seven of  its officials were arrested just as president Xi Jinping visited the site, Sinopec responded by blaming Qingdao municipal officials. Here in Durban that would indeed be a plausible line of argument, given the city’s decades-long failure to come up with an emergency evacuation plan notwithstanding repeated pipeline leaks and refinery explosions in South Durban.

The politician responsible for city government in our province, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, sent condolences , acknowledging that “Qingdao’s delegation is set to make a presentation on building productive and sustainable urban economies at the Urbanisation Forum.”

Will that presentation concede that China’s cities epitomize unsustainability, what with massive real estate speculation, extreme pollution, a migrant labour system akin to Apartheid’s, and prolific social protests?

If you take advice from Qingdao on sustainable urbanisation, well then why not ask Russia for help with nuclear technology post-Chernobyl, or beg the Pentagon to train SA National Defence Force against terrorism after the brutalising US troops were kicked out of Iraq and Afghanistan? Oh damn it, we do!

Durban, a major port with nearly 4 million residents, is certainly in desperate need of sustainable urbanization, given its history of racial apartheid since 1994 and worsening class apartheid ever since. For one, the city is strewn with white-elephant projects, including the money-losing, elite-magnet Convention Centre itself.

And just before the Qingdao delegation landed in Durban, their airplane flew above a newly-crumpled shopping mall, easily visible, as it lies in the suburb of Tongaat near the King Shaka “international” airport. That mainly empty barn is our most recent poster-child for unsustainable economics: a money-wasting “aerotropolis”-wannabe hub, just a 45-minute flight from Africa’s busiest airport, OR Tambo in Johannesburg.

Since the old South Durban airport was perfectly functional for many more years, the $1 billion spent on King Shaka International could have been put to use in bottom-up development – were it not for seven games of the unsustainable 2010 World Cup here that catalysed its too-early construction, as well as the empty albeit world-class Moses Mabhida Stadium next door to our existing mostly-empty world-class rugby stadium.

Popular anger for the dramatic collapse of the mall – which was still under construction when the collapse killed two people last week – now centres on one Jay Singh, a notorious tenderpreneur-builder who wrecked so much of the nearby Phoenix community’s low-cost (and upon rebuilding, high-cost) housing, not to mention the city’s public bus service (privatised and soon ruined), and therefore also on former city manager Mike Sutcliffe, who egged on Singh and similar cronies from 2002-11 before growing outcries contributed to his unwilling departure.

Holding a BRICS urban conference here is terribly bad timing, at both ends of the sister-city relationship. “As we extend our condolences to our partners from Qingdao, we also hope to exchange with them our own insights from the rescue operation in Tongaat,” said Dube-Ncube on Monday.

Rescue? What about sharing insights about the causes, in Durban’s systematic malgovernance? Much more information about Singh and Sutcliffe can be drawn from the “Manase Report” that Dube-Ncube had herself commissioned in 2011 and then tried to keep secret. It’s a vast 7051-page report, documenting patronage-based, parasitical class formation (the type of study all our BRICS cities need).

Feeling, therefore, right at home, the Chinese delegates might share Sinopec’s insights into expanding oil transport through these cities’ dense-packed residential areas. Sinopec seems to have no qualms about pollution, in a context, in many Chinese cities, where it is unsafe to breathe if you are outside air-conditioned buildings. Sinopec is so irresponsible that in late August, the Chinese state suspended the huge firm from engaging in any new refining and chemical projects because it didn’t meet 2012 emissions targets.

The same crime, ignoring air quality legislation, is daily committed by our own leading energy corporation, Eskom – which is up for the Davos ‘Public Eye’ awards for world’s worst corporation (vote!, please) – as well as by the huge South Durban oil refineries that give our city the reputation of  “Africa’s armpit”.

Yet all continue moving forward with multi-billion dollar expansions, including the doubling of capacity in the Durban-Joburg oil pipeline which – at more than double the advertised initial costing and way behind schedule – was recently rerouted from white through black residential areas due, it would appear, to the parastatal agency Transnet’s residual racism.

So if Sinopec is having trouble at home, no doubt filthy South Africa offers a welcoming business environment in which to invest. In March, during the BRICS summit at the same Convention Centre, Sinopec announced its partnership in the $8 billion Mthombo project at Port Elizabeth’s Coega zone, a deal which by 2015 will allegedly result in Africa’s single largest oil refinery.

In this context, all the BRICS local government ministers, urban officials and corporate allies meeting in Durban today must be pleased at the outcome of the Warsaw Conference of the Parties 19 to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change last weekend: “let the planet burn!” (Even if that means chunks of coastal cities like Durban and Qingdao sink a meter or two by 2100, including both cities’ ports.)

Already, Durban’s annual per person emissions are higher than even London’s and Beijing, at eight tonnes of CO2 equivalent, thanks to capital-intensive high-carbon industry and transport. The failure of Singh’s privatised bus service has a little bit to do with that.

But the main problem is the city’s economic development strategy, as endorsed in the country’s National Development Plan, based on sports tourism (maybe an Olympic bid for 2024), petrochemical expansion, and raising the port’s freight traffic from 2.5 million to 20 million containers per year.

This is outrage enough, given Durban’s thousands of truck crashes each year and especially the recent massacre of two dozen black minibus commuters by an out-of-control container truck on one of the hilly highways linking Durban to Johannesburg (Field’s Hill).

Just prior to Durban’s hosting the UN COP17 climate summit in 2011, a $25 billion plan for this extreme port-petrochemical expansion in South Durban was conjured secretly by Transnet and Sutcliffe, with public information flowing like water-drip torture. In 2012, it suddenly became the country’s second largest Strategic Infrastructure Project (after coal exports through Richards Bay).

Sadly, a former trade unionist who is now the minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, is trying to fast-track these mega-projects with minimalist Environmental Impact Assessments. The Centre for Environmental Rights remarked on Patel’s “disregard for the very notion of sustainable development and integrated environmental management and planning.”

In the same spirit, Transnet engaged in climate denialism when making application for a huge berth expansion in the existing harbour. But last month, in an unusual move by the national environment ministry, Transnet’s Environmental Impact Assessment was rejected. By way of disclosure, on several occasions I questioned the draft EIA’s climate-change denialism, alongside the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) which firmly opposes the port-petrochem mega-project for health, social, ecological and economic reasons.

There is more resistance coming. For example, SDCEA’s new six-minute YouTube videothreatens Transnet with a financial sanctions campaign against their overly-expensive international bond issues (investors get a 9.5% return in London) if attacks on South Durban residents by the parastatal and its allied oil companies persist:

  • In traditionally coloured (mixed-race) Wentworth township, Shell and BP (together using the Sapref refinery) will move the Single Buoy Mooring pipeline that brings in 80 percent of SA’s oil so as to accommodate the new port, probably disrupting one of the two main beaches traditionally used by South Durban’s black residents.
  • The Indian and African farmers on land next to the old airport – the site of the proposed $10 billion privatized “Dig Out Port” – were just given notice they will be evicted by Transnet, an announcement which brought many residents and the South Durban Climate Camp out to a solidarity protest last week.
  • A bit further southwards, Isipingo residents who will lose their main beach – also enjoyed by predominantly black visitors – are increasingly opposed to the Transnet expansion.
  • Indeed, concerned communities of all races, as far north and west as Queensburgh, Pinetown, Sarnia, the Bluff, Umbilo and Glenwood fighting the new trucking routes.

Durban’s other BRICS-twinned cities presenting at the ICC this week also have their hands full with protesters: tens of thousands of democrats who swarmed St Petersburg in late 2011; in Mumbai, a constant cat-and-mouse struggle by slum-dwellers to survive the increasingly mean streets; and millions who gathered in Rio de Janeiro several times in June this year, to fight public transport rate hikes and Sepp Blatter’s Zurich soccer World Cup mafia.

The most degenerate lessons in crowd control, though, are homegrown: cops at Cato Manor’s police station who decided to execute an estimated 50 suspects since 2003 instead of going to court, and top ruling-party politicians (including the mayor) who incitedan Abahlali baseMjondolo community leader’s assassination at a Cato Crest meeting five months ago, expanding Durban’s long-standing record of civil society activist hits.

BRICS from above will probably keep such lessons fresh for as long as they can. Perhaps in future years, a “brics-from-below” side event can link up protesters from Qingdao to South Durban (and in between) to really teach the elites about urban eco-social sustainability. In contrast to their unsustainable, crony-capitalist assassination-cities.

Meantime, much more damage will be done, and multifaceted resistance must likewise strengthen.