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International Women’s Day: Meet the women fighting against #DeadlyAir 

8 March 2022 at 9:37 am

17 May 2021: NGO's, civil society and concerned citizens from affected areas protest outside the Pretoria High Court at the commencement of the Deadly Air hearings regarding the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area.  Photograph by Daylin Paul
17 May 2021: NGO's, civil society and concerned citizens from affected areas protest outside the Pretoria High Court at the commencement of the Deadly Air hearings regarding the poor air quality in the Highveld Priority Area. Photograph by Daylin Paul

Global air pollution now causes seven million deaths around the world each year, with over 90% of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries. In South Africa, home to the worst sulphur dioxide emitting power company in the world, a 2017 expert report estimated that ambient air pollution causes 2,200 premature deaths annually.  

For these activist, women and mothers, living in air pollution hotspots in the Mpumalanga Highveld region means that these are not just statistics but the damaging reality that they and their children face every day. Human exposure to toxic chemical compounds emitted by coal plants, and other coal-based sources in the area, such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, results in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and premature death. 

It is also the reason they joined the #DeadlyAir case, a landmark constitutional challenge brought by two environmental activist organisations – groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (VEJMA) – represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights.  

The #DeadlyAir case, which aims to protect residents’ constitutional rights and to hold the South African government accountable for the poor air quality in the region, was heard last year in the Pretoria High Court. To date no judgment has been handed down

“It’s unfair for any mother to lose their child because the government and private companies refuse to do the right thing. The gases affect babies and pregnant mothers. I had a baby in 2018 and he seemed fine and one morning a month after he was born, he passed on” Sharon, Embalenhle, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa 

“Pfulu has had asthma since he was a few months old. He breathes loudly and sometimes you can see he is struggling. I don’t have money to take him to doctors because they ask for R700 per session and he gets sick often. I just want him to be like other children” Winnie, Phola, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa

“When they [the mines] blast, they don’t let the community know so that they can keep the children indoors – we just see the dust, and have to run and find the children and take them inside the house. My children’s (health) issues are so serious that sometimes they both get sick on the same day, so I have to be with them for 24 hours – even at night I have to sleep with them because they are not well” Cebile, Emalahleni, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa 

“When they blast the air blows our way and we are affected because our children are always sick. If you look inside my fridge, it is full of medicine. I am a single parent with no money to always be taking my children to a doctor. It is better for these mines to leave because they never consulted us in the first place before they mined and not that we are getting sick they are not helping us” Prudence, Ogies, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa 

“When my four-year-old child was born, he was underweight and had a bronchitis problem.  I had to move him from here to another place, but since he has moved from here, he’s a bit better. He does not suffer as he was suffering before. And I think the problem was the dust and the air that we’re breathing” Ntombi, Ogies, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa 

“I’m an activist! I joined this case because it was too hard looking at my son suffering with his coughing. Must we now relocate from our area because of air pollution? No. We have to do something” Promise, Emalahleni, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa 

 

These women activists are fighting for their children’s constitutional right to breathe clean air.

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