By Paddy Harper
First published on Mail & Guardian

South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) co-ordinator Desmond D’Sa was a child when the Durban Corporation’s municipal police, the blackjacks, bulldozed his family home at Cato Manor in terms of apartheid’s Group Areas Act in 1966. They were dumped in Wentworth, a new township in South Durban’s industrial wasteland, where D’Sa is still fighting for a decent living environment for its residents, half a century later. In the process, his fight earned him the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Nobel peace prize of the environmental world, in 2014. It also cost the 64-year-old his job and left him scarred, after his house was petrol-bombed at the height of the refinery strike in Durban he led in 2001.

How did being forcibly removed as a child affect who you are now?

I was still a young boy. When my parents’ home was bulldozed, they came with the blackjacks, what are the Red Ants today. They were sjambokking people and throwing our furniture into trucks. That was very heartsore for me. It taught me never to be quiet again. It taught me to work together with people. Because we were divided, it was simple for them to move us to Wentworth. We came to red sand and concrete blocks in Wentworth. We had to rebuild what we left behind: lovely gardens, fruit trees, water, toilets, space. That was the beginning of my journey to fight for what we were meant to have. People had to rebuild in Wentworth that was the murder capital of South Africa. 

You’ve been working to hold big business to account in South Durban for decades. Has it worked?

There are some responsible business people. A lot of our government has been captured by the big corporations, which have continued to capture our political elite. The refineries continue to violate their permit conditions, but nothing is done, because of the lack of political will. The officials can’t do their jobs, because of the politicians. We will continue to expose them. We have to do our monitoring (of emission levels from the refineries) and send samples for testing. They (the politicians) want people who will sit and eat their food and keep quiet about the pollution and the high levels of cancer and leukaemia in South Durban.

You won the Goldman Environmental Prize. What has that meant to you?

It’s given me a stronger voice. It’s given us a means of keeping the work we’ve done for the past 25 years going, of protecting it in the future. It’s given us the means to work better and smarter and to reach further. Everything is in trust, so this means the work we have done will continue, that the resources are there. It hasn’t made me stop working. It’s made me more relentless. It’s given me the ability to be a voice for a lot of people. It’s allowed me to work with like-minded people from all over the world who want us all to be able to enjoy that world.

“We need to build a strong civil society movement … involving hundreds of thousands of people, and nobody will be able to stop us. An active citizenry on the streets can force change.”

– Desmond D’Sa

You were also a leader of the refinery strike in 2001. How did that happen?

In 1998 I lost my job at Sasol. I’d been outspoken about the environment, so they offered me a raise and a car to keep me quiet. (He turned down the offer and eventually got fired) I was part of the chemical workers union, one of the most militant in the country. In 2001, people turned up at my door from Engen, five casual workers. They told me they wanted my help. Eight thousand workers weren’t getting danger pay or allowances. We took Engen on. They eventually paid them all their back pay, danger pay for nine months, and all their bonuses. We won the battle. The labour brokers were kicked off, and the workers were employed directly. We stayed in court for two years. I had seven interdicts against me. I was arrested, 12 workers, myself and Ashwin Desai, and it took us two years. Engen tried to convince the community to get rid of me, but people refused and stood by me. They learnt first-hand that their power had no meaning to ordinary people.

For that, your house was petrol-bombed.

Yeah, the labour brokers and the company sent people to petrol-bomb my house. I still have the scars. They came around midnight. My family was traumatised. My daughter ended up in the hospital. So did I, but I walked out of there the same morning.

You’re an intensely political person with a constituency, but you’ve never even stood as a ward councillor. How come?

Once you join a political party, you then have to toe their line. They manage you; they control your mind. When you are free, you owe nobody any favours. If you’re in a political party, they’re going to say, ‘Comrades, that’s not how we do things’. 

That’s not to say I won’t work with a councillor or MPs. I’m willing to work with anybody willing to listen. I just can’t see any person I know of in the council who is committed, with passion and heart, to fight for poor people and ensure they get the same services as everybody else. That’s my dilemma with council. There are no open spaces for independent minds.

What have been the major lessons for you as a community activist from Covid-19? 

It starts with your own life and work. You have to be able to keep being accessible to people. If somebody’s lights and water is cut and they need help, you need to be available to help them. You can’t let Covid be an excuse. You have to adapt. I’m used to the old style of public meetings. I had to move to webinars, and Facebook and Twitter and other social media now. I’d always seen it as a hindrance, but I’ve come to see how useful it is. I could be at my daughter’s house or the farm and still talk to people anywhere.

During the lockdown, you were central to the successful fight to lift the ban on subsistence fishing. How did you manage that, being locked down?

We started going online about the situation of the fisherfolk. It was very successful. People in the Eastern Cape and on the West Coast picked up on what we were doing, and we were able to focus the whole country in terms of getting people fishing again. We were representing about 80 000 people who had been locked out of their livelihood. Eventually, Barbara Creecy didn’t have a choice and had to open up fishing because we were able to prove that it was essential for people’s survival. It showed that no matter who you are in this world, you can reach any corner. 

You are part of the Coalition of the Poor. What’s that?

We’ve been working with Abahlali baseMjondolo, the street traders, the market users and the people from the hostels. We formed it with one objective to raise our voices together. When we raise our voices collectively, they can’t pick us off, one by one—people who are living in hostels, who are living in shacks, who are poor. We add our voices to everyone’s, the fisherfolk, the hostel dwellers and the street traders.  

The lockdown has seen restrictions on the right to mobilise. Is this a threat to the future?

We’ve gone back to a security state. The powers that be think they can hide their wrongdoings and expect us to stand aside. They have it all wrong. It’s just a matter of time before the reaction comes. People have had enough. Billions have been stolen that could have provided the necessary services. We are still mobilising, but have to be more creative about it now. We are part of the active citizen’s campaign. We need to build a strong civil society movement, like the United Democratic Front, involving hundreds of thousands of people, and nobody will be able to stop us. An active citizenry on the streets can force change.

You’re no teenager. Retirement?
I don’t know. Maybe I’ll cut down because there are so many capable young people who can do this. I’ll cut down, but I don’t think I can stop entirely. I’d have to find something else to do.