Apartheid Devastating South African Environment

Apartheid has been as disastrous for South Africa's environment as for its people, according to a new study by the Worldwatch Institute.

"Institutionalized racism has polluted the air and water, pillaged the bedrock, and ripped away the earth in wide regions of South Africa," said Alan B. Durning, author of Apartheid's Environmental Toll and a Senior Researcher at Worldwatch, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

Apartheid has turned the "homelands"--where half the black population is forced to live--into ecological wastelands, according to Durning.

To generate the funds the white minority needs to enforce apartheid, Pretoria has allowed mines to ignore common safety and pollution precautions.

A pariah to most oil exporters, South Africa has developed an energy policy that makes it among the most polluting nations of its size.

Last, its wars against neighbors opposed to minority rule have devastated endangered plant and animal species.

"Today, with apartheid's grip on the nation weakening, it is time for a full reckoning of its ecological toll," Durning said.

Under apartheid, half of South Africa's 29 million blacks--primarily women, children, and the elderly--have been pushed onto 13 percent of the national territory euphemistically called "homelands."

"By design, these areas are remote, their topsoil is thin, rainfall scarce and unreliable, and the ground sloping and rocky. Suffering under politically enforced overpopulation--ten times the population density of white rural areas--the homelands are among the world's most degraded regions."

Enormous erosion gullies criss-cross the topography, and in some areas the topsoil has been worn down to bedrock. In 1980, 46 percent of the Ciskei homeland, for instance, was already moderately to severely eroded.

Forests are disappearing rapidly too. The kwaZulu homeland has lost 200 of its 250 distinct tracts of woodland in the past half century. In the homelands as a group, fuelwood gathering outpaced regeneration in the early eighties and will strip the land bare within 30 years-unless apartheid ends.

"South Africa is the Saudi Arabia of minerals," according to Durning. "But, because mining is the backbone of the embattled apartheid economy, the industry is little regulated. Black townships and squatter settlements bear the brunt of mining's environmental ills, drinking contaminated water and breathing polluted air.

"Blacks also suffer underground. For every ton of gold South Africa extracts, a black miner dies in an accident that would have been unlikely in other countries. Asbestos miners labor in similarly perilous conditions."

South Africa's energy policy too is motivated and made possible by apartheid. Isolated by oil-exporting nations that are vehemently opposed to apartheid, South Africa has turned to heavily polluting domestic coal. -

The nation now gets more of its commercial energy from coal than any country but North Korea. Suppressed mine wages keep coal inexpensive and promote wasteful use, with the result that South Africa is the world's most energy-intensive free-market country outside the oil exporters.

"In the coal fields east of Johannesburg, annual emissions of sulfur dioxide total 31 tons per square kilometer--higher than the level in East Germany, infamous for its polluted air. Acid rain and air pollution threaten forests, crops, and aquatic ecosystems in the region and beyond, while the thick coal smoke in black townships has undermined residents' health."

In its search for liquid fuels, especially diesel to power military vehicles and the fleet of buses that carry black migrant laborers from the remote townships, the state has created an ecologically disastrous coal-to-oil synthetic fuels program. Likewise, it has secured oil imports by linking them to cheap coal exports, augmenting energy waste overseas, Durning said.

South Africa's coal consumption makes it a disproportionately large contributor to global climate change. White South Africans are the world's worst greenhouse offenders, emitting more than 9 tons of carbon apiece during 1987. The world average was 1 ton, and Americans released 5 tons each.

Since the seventies, South Africa has defended apartheid through a military and economic campaign to "destabilize" countries to the north, the report said. The core of this policy has been large-scale support for brutal surrogate armies in Angola and Mozambique.

"The ecological effects of these wars have gone unnoticed," Durning said. "Yet they have laid waste to vast areas and filled refugee camps with at least 4 million people, who strip the land bare for fuel and shelter."

Recent revelations from within the South African military, moreover, detail how rebels in Angola have financed their forces by decimating elephant herds for ivory and forests for hardwoods--with the full knowledge and assistance of the South African military.

An environmental awakening is under way in South Africa among both blacks and whites, raising hopes for a greener future, according to Durning.

"Ending apartheid will quickly resolve some ecological curses.

"It will end the migrant labor system, with its profligate energy waste, allowing abandonment of the polluting and wasteful synthetic fuels program. It will boost the wages of miners and the price of coal, thereby initiating a shift to less-polluting energy sources. It will empower black communities and workers to force ecological and safety precautions on South African industry. And it will halt support for the guerrilla forces in neighboring lands.

"Yet an end to apartheid will leave other ecological problems, including the volatile issue of land redistribution, to a new government."

Durning concluded by showing how the ecological problems forced by inequity in South Africa apply to other societies as well. "Apartheid, as an extreme form of the social injustices found so pervasively around the world, reveals with exceptional clarity the way unfairness within the human estate extends its damage into the natural estate as well."

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