Internationally-known environmental activist Sajida Khan passed away on Sunday night, July 15, in her Durban home. Aged 55, she was suffering her second bout of debilitating cancer, and chemotherapy had evacuated her beautiful long hair.
Before slipping into a coma last Thursday, she watched out her window, seeing – just a few dozen meters away – the interminable crawl of dumptrucks unloading heaps of stinking rubbish, as dust carried the smells and chemicals into her yard and home.
Khan’s last painful weeks were spent coming to peace with her failed struggle to close the Bisasar Road dump, a task that successive, dishonest municipal governments had promised to fulfill as early as 1987.
Now the vibrant, uncompromising activist has died, while the dump is thriving and in search of international investors.
We don’t need Belgian detective Hercule Poirot to learn why, for the answer is found in Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express, in the Calais night coach where a man is found dead of 13 stab wounds.
Meet the suspects and consider their motives:
1) Bisasar Road’s original design team of apartheid bureaucrats who in 1980 dumped what became Africa’s largest formal garbage heap into the middle of a nature reserve in the mixed-race residential neighbourhood of Clare Estate.
2) Operators of the illegal medical waste incinerator parked at Bisasar during the 1990s, sprinkling toxins onto Khan and her neighbours until its belated closure.
3) Durban Solid Waste for not terminating the dump as repeatedly promised, and instead trying to cover up its crime through perfume rods which give off a smell just as noxious as the rotting garbage and methane fumes they are meant to disguise.
4) The methane incineration system that spews yet more cancerous ingredients – dioxins, lead, cadmium – into the toxic soup around Bisasar.
5) The World Bank team who met Durban officials in 2002, persuading them that for seven to twenty more years, the dumpsite should remain open.
The reason? To capture carbon credits by selling investments in Bisasar methane-to-electricity operations to global polluters, who in turn will face less pressure to cut their own emissions.
6) The Kyoto Protocol – meant to turn the corner on climate change – is thus also a suspect. In 1997 when the protocol was drafted, the United States government was (and remains) utterly irresponsible, so Bill Clinton and Al Gore insisted that even to consider signing on, a ‘free market’ had to be established in carbon credits. That would permit polluters in the North to purchase shares in ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ projects like Bisasar, instead of reducing their own greenhouse gases.
7) Major international polluters ranging from Big Oil to the Dutch government, who are the buyers of this ‘privatised air’, according to critics in the Durban Group for Climate Justice, an international campaigning network associated with Sweden’s Dag Hammarksjold Foundation, which Khan’s struggle helped inspire the founding of in 2004.
8) Other landfill sites in Durban’s Marianhill and La Mercy suburbs are suspects too. The World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund invested in these minor projects three months ago, with the hope of getting the camel’s nose under the tent. The bigger prize would have been a $15 million Bisasar investment, but Khan’s 90-page Environmental Impact Assessment submission initially frightened off the Bank. Now extra vigilance is needed so that they don’t come back to a Bisasar project whose main watchdog was buried yesterday.
9) Who can forget the role of the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism? What Khan termed ‘carbon colonialism’ is its official policy, according to the National Climate Change Response
Strategy: citizens must understand ‘up-front’ how the ‘Clean Development Mechanism primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities, both big and small. This could be a very important source of foreign direct investment’. Khan and her Durban Group comrades considered this position a form of eco-prostitution equivalent to accepting toxic waste for a pittance.
10) KwaZulu-Natal provincial environmental authorities were also asleep at the regulatory wheel, and gave the dump approval for permits, as did the national Department of Water Affairs.
11) Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe visited Khan at home last year, but refused to negotiate: no compensation for her illnesses, or reparations for the damage done, or adequate funding for her and neighbours – including shackdwellers – to move to a safe spot.
12) Then there’s the South African economy itself, addicted to fossil fuels and the world’s cheapest energy. The US is the world’s largest CO2 emitter in absolute terms, but in relative terms SA emits 20 times more of that gas than the US, measured by each unit of output per person.
That in turn has made Pretoria aware of the need for even rotten offset projects like Bisasar, so as to market SA’s feeble attempts to cut back on greenhouse emissions.
13) The final suspects are we Durban residents: for the governments we elect, for the rubbish we generate each day – most going to Bisasar – which we never think about, and for the greenhouse gas emissions created through overconsumption, waste and air travel (especially we two).
Taking us all on, Khan equipped herself with a detailed knowledge of chemistry, public health and landfill economics. A decade ago she organised a closure petition campaign with 6000 signatures as well as a mass march.
With Khan, Muna Lakhani of the Institute for Zero Waste in Africa worked out an alternative to keeping Bisasar open. Hundreds of reliable jobs in recycling could be created with a zero waste approach, and the simultaneous termination and rehabilitation of the Bisasar dump could begin alongside the job of safely removing its methane, preferably through piping it out of the area to a nearby gas main via a cleansing filter.
As a Muslim woman, Khan waged her campaign at a time, as Durban sociologist Ashwin Desai puts it, ‘when religious gate-keepers were reasserting authority over the family. This involved the assertion of male dominance.’
She resisted, Desai testifies: ‘Sajida Khan was breaking another mould of politics. During apartheid, opposition in her community was channelled through the male-dominated Natal Indian Congress and Durban Housing Action Committee. But these were bureaucratised struggles with the leaders at some distance from the rough-and-tumble of local politics. She eschewed that.’
‘In contrast to Sajida’, says Desai, ‘her political peers in the Congress tradition have built an impressive electoral machine, but ended up merely with votes for party candidates rather than a movement to confront global apartheid and its local manifestations.’ High-profile heroines have led such struggles: for example, Lois Gibbs against toxins at Love Canal, New York; Wangari Maathei fighting for Kenyan greenbelts; Erin Brokovich campaigning for clean water in Hinkley, California; Medha Patkar opposing big dams in India; etc, etc.
Others have written eloquently of Chipko tree huggers (Vandana Shiva) and the Niger Delta’s women activists (Terisa Turner).
Khan’s reach was also international. According to Javier Baltodano and Isaac Rojas of Friends of the Earth Costa Rico, ‘Sajida received some of us in her house and with delicate food introduced us to South African-Indian hospitality and solidarity. She also introduced us to how carbon credits were used to justify the racist scheme of the dump in the middle of a neighbourhood. But overall she showed us her strong willingness to resist over the sickness, the dump and the racism.’
The legendary leader of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Desmond D’Sa, recalls ‘visiting her on many occasions at her home and how no matter how sick she was we were always welcomed and she was able to impart her tremendous knowledge to all of us present. She had the strength and the courage to challenge power, no matter who you were.’
As Lakhani put it, ‘We have lost a sister, a stalwart, a spirit that I have known well for over 30 years. I miss her, but am glad that her suffering is over. Please can we choose to live our lives just a little bit in her memory, so that our consumption of our planet’s resources does not lead to more Sajidas?’
Desai muses: ‘Sometimes when lives are judged by visual victories, we see failures, and after all, the dump remains right outside Sajida’s front door after her 14 year fight.’
‘But on the other hand, if a life is judged by a legacy that endures and is built upon, hers is one of multiple larger victories: of a woman standing against male domination of nationalist politics, of knowledge about global capitalist ecology over amnesia, of ordinary people harnessing the most incredible forms of expertise so as to enter forums usually dominated by people with multiple degrees, and of a political ecology that is a politics of all the people.
‘Whatever you might say about her race and class privilege, the final denominator is that this was not a death of privilege, it was murder.’
So who killed Sajida? *We all did!*
(Patrick Bond and Rehana Dada of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society coedited a just-released book for UKZN Press: *Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society: Negative Returns on South African Investments*. For more on Sajida’s life and death see http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs)