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Human Rights Day 2015: Local activism + law = justice

23 March 2015 at 7:24 am

On Saturday, Human Rights Day 2015, Centre for Environmental Rights attorneys participated in the launch of a photographic exhibition by photographer Eva-Lotta Jansson entitled “An Acid River Runs Through It”. The exhibition featured images of acid mine drainage (AMD) in and around Johannesburg, and of the people affected by it. The exhibition took place in Davidsonville on the West Rand, where residents live within spitting distance of an abandoned gold mine tailings dump.

For many years, the Davidsonville community has struggled to get mining companies, the Department of Mineral Resources and the City of Johannesburg to assist them with the impacts of AMD in their community. Just recently the City of Johannesburg has finally started to put in place remediation measures that include repairing a retainer wall for the dump, reinstating paddocks, resloping the mine dump close to residential flats, clearing stormwater drains, and procuring an air quality monitoring station. Local activists have been advised and assisted over the years by both the CER and the Legal Resources Centre.

Below is a brief address written by CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie for Human Rights Day 2015 and the launch of the outdoor exhibition. The launch of the exhibition was supported by the Ford Foundation. CER attorneys also spent some time with local children discussing the environment and their rights to a healthy environment under the Constitution.

“In most parts of our country, South Africans live with violations of environmental rights every day – mostly without even realising it.

“Here in Davidsonville, residents live right next to a long-abandoned gold mine tailings dump. For many years, in summer, polluted water has rushed from the dump through the streets, and acidic and dangerous water has been seeping from the ground. In winter, winds have blown fine dust from the dump all over Davidsonville, making it hard for people to breathe. Children, particularly, have suffered disproportionately from the effects of pollution like this.

“The Constitution of South Africa says that everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing. Here in Davidsonville, have those rights been  protected, respected and realised? Environmental rights are about having air and water that don’t make us sick, safe places for children to play, and quality of life – not only for us, but also for our children and their children. Environmental rights are about life, and about quality of life.

“And yet Davidsonville is really a microcosm of all the problems we have with the after-effects of a century of exploitative gold mining, corporate greed, and the disregard by mining companies and by the state for the rights of people – people who were simultaneously disempowered and impoverished by the legacy of apartheid. All over the West Rand, we have points where millions of litres of water are decanting every day into our watercourses. At best, some of this water is treated by decreasing the acidity – increasing the pH – which still leaves the water full of salts and heavy metals. At worst, and this is unfortunately the case for much of this water, it is discharged completely untreated into our rivers and streams.

“We also know that, in many parts of the West Rand with all its mine dumps – and lately also re-mining of old mine dumps – air pollution levels exceed the national ambient air quality standards set to protect our health.

“How do we change this, and achieve environmental and social justice? Our courts can help us, and they have helped us in the past. But every important court case needs activists, communities, parents and children who stand together and say “enough is enough”. This community activism is also what has brought change here in Davidsonville.

“Today is Human Rights Day, where we stop to think about what the Constitution and the Bill of Rights really mean for us. Former Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs said “When we breathe the air of freedom, we do not wish to choke on hidden fumes”. Until our people can breathe clean air, drink clean water, have safe places for our children to play, and have our natural heritage protected for future generations, we will not have realised environmental rights in South Africa. Let us stand together and demand that our right to a healthy environment is protected, respected and realised.

“Thank you.”