New Internationalist

Welcome to Jo’burg

Issue 348

Earth Summit location a microcosm of unsustainability

As thousands of delegates arrive in the South African city of Johannesburg for the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) at the end of August, the post-apartheid geography of the city – a microcosm of unsustainability – hints at why the summit will fail.]

You fly into Africa’s richest city through a thick brown cloud. Concentrated industrial pollution hangs over the east-west factory strip and power plants while gold-mine dumps to the south of the city perpetually blow sand and dust. Smoke rises from periodic bush fires and the burning of coal and fuelwood in black townships like Soweto and Alexandra (where electricity privatization is the cause of supply cut-offs to tens of thousands of households who cannot afford price increases). The air also carries tuberculosis and rampant respiratory infections that threaten the lives of South Africa’s five million hiv-positive people.

Below, you notice the silvery glinting of tiny metal-roofed shacks in the bright sun, like cauterized wounds on the yellowish skin of a wintry Africa. That’s where the township slums stretch to the horizon and house the majority of Gauteng Province’s ten million inhabitants. Because of a stingy government policy based on World Bank advice, Johannesburg’s post-apartheid squatter camps are worse served with community amenities, schools and clinics than even apartheid-era ghettoes.

Your eyes are drawn away to the contrasting bright green of well-watered English gardens and thick alien trees that shade mostly white suburbs broken by sky-blue swimming pools. To achieve the striking green effect requires a lot of water in a city that, in 1886 when gold was discovered, became the planet’s largest metropolis with no natural water source.

Water waste occurs not only here in the residential zones sprawling north and east of the city centre, but in the southern mining belt, the corporate-dominated farms and the electricity plants. South Africa brags about supplying the world’s cheapest energy for industrial use. It doesn’t price in the damage to the environment, including the world’s worst greenhouse-gas emissions (corrected for population size and income).

Apartheid-era engineers and World Bank project officers have tried to solve looming water shortages with an eight-billion-dollar dam and water-tunnel scheme that draws water several hundred kilometres from across a mountain range in the small and perpetually impoverished nation of Lesotho. Africa’s largest infrastructure project, it is now less than half finished but has already displaced tens of thousands of Basotho peasants, inundated sacred land and threatened ecosystems.

Who pays the bills? Johannesburg water prices went up by 35 per cent during the late 1990s, but township residents with the lowest consumption rates found themselves paying 55-per-cent more because of the cost of the Lesotho dams. The Government has rejected demands by campaigners from Alexandra, Soweto and Lesotho that water-users in the mines, factories and mansions be responsible for paying the dam’s bills and conserving water so as to avoid future dam construction. Such ‘demand-side management’ would also have included repair of perpetual leaks in the apartheid-era township infrastructure; half of Soweto’s water is lost in this way.

The Johannesburg landscape is also being defaced by other greed-driven processes. One reason is ongoing ‘crime and grime’ downtown. The old Central Business District spent the 1990s being virtually emptied of white professionals.

Much of the smart money fled just 15 kilometres northeast of the old business district to the edge-city of Sandton. The area, back to back with the poor black township of Soweto, has attracted billions of dollars worth of world-class commercial property investment, traffic jams and conspicuous consumption. Only the world’s least socially conscious financial speculators would trash their ex-headquarters downtown to build a new city while draining South Africa of capital. Only the most aesthetically barren rich would build their little Tuscanies on Africa’s beautiful highveld (prairies), behind three-metre-high walls adorned with barbed wire to keep out the criminals.

Sandton, then, is the location of the conference centre that will host the WSSD. A Social Forum, or people’s alternative to the official meeting, is a necessity – not least to challenge those local and global rulers who have made such a mess of Africa’s wealthiest city.

Patrick Bond

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