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Environmental Rights Blog: The story of Monwabisi Charlie, environmental rights activist

25 March 2014 at 12:51 pm

Aliwal North residents and activists - Monwabisi Charlie is on the left

Two Aliwal North residents and environmental rights activists – Monwabisi Charlie is on the left

Here at the Centre for Environmental Rights, we come across many activists across the country who are concerned about the environment and environmental rights. Most are ordinary people who worry about what’s happening to the environment, and how poor environmental quality affects their communities, and who take up the unglamorous task of trying to get authorities to fulfil their Constitutional and legal obligations. One of these is Monwabisi Stanley Charlie from Aliwal North.

Mr Charlie is an activist and a watchdog for the people who reside in his neighbourhood of Aliwal North. He has been grappling with waste issues in the area – the responsibility of the Maletswai Local Municipality, which forms part of the Joe Gqabi District Municipality – for about half a decade.

According to Mr Charlie, waste collection in the informal settlement areas such as Dukhatole, Hilton and Jameson within the Maletswai Local Municipality is done irregularly, if at all.  This means general waste spills over into the streets, resulting not only in an unhygienic and extremely unsightly situation, but it also causes environmental damage and negatively affects the health and well-being of the local residents – a scene that will be familiar to many South Africans across the country, particularly those living in informal settlements.

The Aliwal North landfill site is located adjacent to a fair-sized hill facing the informal settlements, and is poorly managed, untidy and neglected. During burning and incineration of some kinds of wastes, severe smoke emanates from the site, threatening the health of local residents, especially those in Dukhatole Township. The over-filled dumping sites become breeding grounds for rodents, snakes and insects, which can spread diseases and cause harm to the residents.

Extract from Mr Charlie's handwritten letter t the CER

Extract from one of Mr Charlie’s many handwritten letters from Aliwal North to the CER in Cape Town

Initially, Mr Charlie reported the matter to an official responsible for environmental and waste management in the Maletswai Local Municipality, with no response. He then took the matter to the local offices of the Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Eastern Cape Province (DEDEAT), but also received no response to this complaint. At the office of the Eastern Cape MEC for Environmental Affairs, he ran into yet another brick wall.

The CER received Mr Charlie’s complaint through our Environmental Rights Clinic in 2011. Since then, we have engaged with the Maletswai Local Municipality, the Green Scorpions, DEDEAT and the Eastern Cape MEC in an attempt to assist Mr Charlie and his community in their struggle.  CER used legal tools such as the Promotion of Access to information Act, 2000 (PAIA) to secure information from the Municipality to determine the root causes of the problem – not unexpectedly, it appeared from these documents that the Municipality lacks the necessary capacity, finances and resources to perform regular waste collection services at the aforementioned areas.

CER then formally requested the MEC, on behalf of Mr Charlie, to provide assistance to the Municipality, as it was in contravention of national legislation. The provision of such assistance by provincial government structures to local government structures is envisaged in the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. The MEC transferred the request to be dealt with by the Environmental Management office of DEDEAT. After several letters from the CER to DEDEAT, and an investigation conducted by the Green Scorpions between May and August 2013, DEDEAT met with officials from the Maletswai Local Municipality, and conducted inspections and investigations in the area over a period of three months.

What does the law require of municipalities?

Section 9 of National Environment Management: Waste Act, 2008 (Waste Act) provides that a municipality must exercise its executive authority to deliver waste management services, including waste removal, waste storage and waste disposal services, in a manner the does not conflict with the national and provincial norms and standards in terms set in terms of the Act. The National Domestic Waste Collection Standards, published in October 2010 provides that: “Equitable waste collection must be provided to all households within the jurisdiction of the municipality… ” .

Furthermore, the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act, 2000 obliges municipalities, within their financial and administrative capacity and having regard to practical considerations: strive to ensure that municipal services are provided to the local community in a financially and environmentally sustainable manner; consult the local community about the level, quality, range and impact of municipal services provided by the municipality, either directly or through another service provider; and the available options for service delivery; give members of the local community equitable access to the municipal services to which they are entitled; and promote a safe and healthy environment in the municipality.

In this case it is evident that the Municipality was not complying with these requirements, and that was also the finding of DEDEAT. DEDEAT ascribed this failure to comply by the Municipality to its limited capacity, resources and financial constraints. While recognising that the Municipality had taken some action to remedy the situation, DEDEAT found that these efforts were not sufficient. DEDEAT made the following recommendations:

  1. that quarterly monitoring meetings be held between the Department’s Regional Management and the  Municipality’s management;
  2. that the Municipality solicit  financial support, with the assistance of the Department where possible, to close the planning and operational gaps;
  3. that DEDEAT strengthen joint operations with the Municipality, especially around environmental education, and that DEDEAT also identify areas of co-operation that exist within legal provisions;
  4. that DEDEAT should provide assistance to the Municipality with the development of its Integrated Waste Management Plan; and
  5. that DEDEAT should assist them Municipality with training of enforcement personnel and designation of such persons to enforce by-laws as a priority.

Mr Charlie has indicated that there has subsequently been some improvement in waste collection, but some areas still pose health and environmental risks, and it is clear that the battle is not yet won. In particular, the DEDEAT does not commit to providing the Municipality with additional financial or other resources to ensure that the Municipality meets its waste collection obligations; instead, the provincial department only offers an oversight and monitoring role. This is unlikely to result in any real change on the ground.

South Africans have a Constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being. One of the objectives of the Waste Act is to give effect to this right.  Living with poor and irregular waste collection, in the vicinity of an inadequately managed waste disposal site, are not within the scope of that right.

Despite aspirational legislative provisions in the Waste Act and other environmental laws, citizens like Mr Charlie find themselves in a quandary. They are suffering great injustices and their elected and most immediate representatives at Municipal level are not answering their calls for help. At the same time, the laws that govern this country place obligations on municipalities to ensure that the people on the ground do not suffer such injustices. While frequently part of the problem, it is also true that some municipalities are frustrated by the fact that other tiers of government do not provide them with sufficient resources to fulfil their obligations.

This case paints a picture of almost every township in South Africa – characterised by high volumes of solid waste disposed in open spaces along the road verges, over-filled waste dumping sites and foul odours, both from the burning or decomposition of solid waste. Waste collection is one of the most essential and basic needs, mostly because it has a direct effect on the physical health and well-being of the people on the ground. When activists such as Mr Charlie step up and take all possible legal and civil routes to have this need fulfilled and no change results, affected people find themselves with no other option but to resort to protest – which often ends violently and sometimes with the loss of lives. To avoid this outcome for Aliwal North, the Maletswai Local Municipality, DEDEAT and all other responsible government authorities must answer Mr Charlie’s call.

Matome Kapa, Candidate Attorney