Politics of Nature: The Environmental Impact of Protest, A View from South Africa

This post is part of a series on Politics of Nature, in which contributors explore the diverse and complex relationships of humans and their nonhuman environments, as they are framed by politics, broadly construed. The series showcases the ways in which thinking about, writing about, and acting within nature has affected these relationships.

On July 13 and 14, 2021, protestors set two factories in Umlhanga, South Africa on fire, releasing plumes of chemical smoke and flows of polluted fluid into the surrounding areas. The fires were part of a larger explosion of uprisings across the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng provinces, formally beginning on Monday, June 12 and carrying through the end of the week.

As a resident of Durban, the capitol city of KZN directly south of Umlhanga, I was simply consumed with basic necessities at first. With my grocery store looted, where would I get food when my shelves ran out? With the petrol stations looted, when would I be able to get gas again? If they cut off the water supply, would I have stocked up enough until it was back?

Yet by the evening of July 13, environmental effects of the protests began unavoidably affecting everyday life. Umlhanga’s factories were only two of the centers, warehouses and factories in Durban consumed by protestors’ fire. Each night, I went to bed with smoke seeping through our windows and doors, never quite knowing what was burning or where it was. Every morning, I woke to an almost opaque haze hanging over the city and harbor.

Perhaps the scariest night was July 15, when delayed news about the Umlhanga factory fires reached my neighborhood: Glenwood, Berea. “Not sure if related but heard that a factory in Cornubia is burning,” read the post on my neighborhood group. “It stores sulphur which is also burning […] please close windows, vents, and doors. If outside protect eyes and use masks. This affects everyone.” Even though those factories had burned on the 13 and 14th, more smoke than usual indeed wafted through my flat that night. I closed my curtains as tightly as possible, turned on the fan to circulate the smoke out of my bedroom, and tucked my head under two layers of blankets. 

These protests were a burst of anger from some of the most socioeconomically depressed communities in South Africa.[1] The underlying economic and political issues fuelling these protests covered problems ranging from unemployment to racial discrimination.[2] What is undeniable is that mass looting broke out across the provinces to express anger at the country’s worsening economic state and political fracturing. While few, if any, private residences were affected, over 200 shopping centers and businesses were wrecked, showing frustration at the country’s unstable economic situation. But it wasn’t just looting—factory and shopping mall fires, racial vigilantism, and disrupted supply chains escalated the crisis in unimaginable ways. One of these ways was the influence on the surrounding environment, exposing the need for urban spaces and infrastructures to prepare for the unexpected.

Life gradually went back to normal starting Saturday the 17th, but the environmental devastation still hung in the air, on the ground, and across the beaches. The protests’ environmental impact manifested most visibly on the beaches. In Umlhanga, the chemical sludge from the factory fires was suspected to have flowed into nearby stormwater sewers, which delivered them onto the beaches and into tidal pools. In the days following, fish, crabs, crayfish, even some octopi littered the beaches from Umhlanga to Umdloti. Umhlanga Lagoon turned an eerie turquoise blue. Because the sewers’ outfalls are located in the walls of beach promenades to lead stormwater out of the town into the ocean, this means that other fluids can escape the town the same way, leaving behind a trail of ecological devastation.

A few miles south, the City of Durban closed its beaches as well. I went to the beachfront on Saturday. Although the beach itself looked fine, the signs hammered into the sand banned sea bathing, indicating bigger issues than the eye could see. Furthermore, I wore my mask while walking, not because of COVID but because an odd-smelling haze still lay heavy in the atmosphere. Even to in early August, some beaches like Westbrook’s remain closed to swimmers. All along the KZN coast, then, the warning was clear: stay out of the water until deemed safe again. And do not touch or eat the dead animals.

At the beach near Umhlanga Rocks, a resort town north of Durban on the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Photo by author.
[Image description: A sign is posted between two horizontal railings above a sidewalk. Behind the sign is an expanse of beach sand and then the ocean. In the upper left background, a man in pink shirt and white shorts is fishing. The sign reads “Umlhanga Rocks / Exercise Caution / This is a storm water drain! / Water outflow may not be clean” Then an emergency response number is listed.]

The looting also affected the urban infrastructure. Clean-up efforts began almost as soon as the majority of looting had ended.[3] Trashed goods and packaging were piled in open manholes and near stormwater sewer street outlets, and scattered across grassy areas and up in trees. While helping with clean-up efforts in Durban’s Central Business District, I found the trash heaps—and their smells—overwhelming. When mixed with the effluent from burst sewage pipes, the litter was more than volunteers’ brooms, trash bags, and gloves alone could handle.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the protests also impacted Durban’s blue vervet monkeys. They access human food through trash bins in parks or refuse bags put out for pick-up. Since the looting forced parks and eateries to close, the monkeys had limited access to their usual food outlets. They already seem to scheme against the city’s human residents, but they were even more forceful with their efforts during the protesting. Someone I know witnessed a group of at least 30 monkeys gather on the street and follow the protestors down the street. Additionally, I had a couple monkeys try to get into my kitchen to grab food off my shelf. They usually sit in the trees and do not dare to come near my cracked door or window when I’m home. This time, though, desperation was in their eyes.

These protests have thus forced me as an environmental historian to think more deeply about the entanglements between political-economic protests, and where and how they take place. As we try to rectify the underlying structural issues that lead to this kind of violence, how do we acknowledge protesters’ concerns while protecting the environment? More specifically, how can we better prepare our urban infrastructure to handle disruptions like arson or mass looting? The speed with which local communities organized and attended clean-up activities displays a spirit of economic and environmental recovery.[4] However, municipal and national infrastructure will take longer to recover, as they took little preparation for an event like this.

Uprisings like the July 2021 protests in South Africa will only escalate globally as climate change and growing wealth disparities affect an increasing number of communities. Scholars and journalists have covered protests about the environment.[5] Now we need to start discussing how protests more generally impact the environment while recognizing the very real concerns they manifest. So many of us live in a world where these issues are abstractions, things to analyze and write about. Yet for millions more, the need to locate food and water each day trumps concerns about littering or chemicals on beaches.

As one of my Durban friends reflected: “This stuff happens all the time in a lot of parts of the world […] it’s good to actually experience these things so you sympathize with people who live it so much.”As the global environmental movement has noted repeatedly—and July’s South African protests exposed on a smaller scale—we need to prepare for unexpected outcomes from both human actions and non-human developments. It’s not just about educating people on how their individual choices affect the environment around them. It’s also about creating systemic and infrastructural change, about building spaces that can withstand sudden demonstrations and activities. Ultimately, it’s about addressing systemic poverty while creating a healthier environment for all.

[1] The three cities most affected were Johannesburg (Gauteng), Pietermaritzburg (KZN), and Durban (KZN).

[2] The Daily Maverick has been a particularly good source of news, as it features a number of perspectives on the situation. This op-ed has a good timeline for how events unfolded.

[3] Two significant clean-up efforts posted their updates and photos via Facebook: Clean up Durban and Rebuild SA

[4] In Durban, the eThekwini municipality has organized the larger environmental clean-ups, while community and business groups have performed the majority of local recovery.

[5] For more on this subject, see e.g. Roger Gocking, “Ghana’s Bui Dam and the Contestation over Hydro Power in Africa,” African Studies Review 64, 2 (June 2021): 339-362; Christopher Rootes (ed.), Environmental Protest in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003); Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).

*Cover image description: A yellow sign on a wooden stake is stuck into a sandy beach with the ocean behind it. There is a logo with a crossed-out swimmer at the top of the sign, followed by the words “No Bathing on this beach area.” There is more text below, although not in english.

[Cover image description: A yellow sign on a wooden stake is stuck into a sandy beach with the ocean behind it. There is a logo with a crossed-out swimmer at the top of the sign, followed by the words “No Bathing on this beach area.” There is more text below, although not in english.]

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