Desmond D'Sa is Wentworth's own environmental terrier. For 13 years
he has been a watchdog snapping at the heels of errant companies,
particularly major oil refineries, who have polluted their way through
decades of industrial expansion in south Durban.
Ironically, it was industry that made him what he is today. In the
early 1990s he was appointed safety officer at Durban Fibres, a move
that introduced him to "the horrors of chemicals", and subsequently set
him on the environmental warpath.
"When I started off with issues of community consciousness, I was
always told by industry bosses that they don't need people like me in
this world," says D'Sa. "But I pursued my convictions, often going
against a lot of advice, even my own family's. People said, 'You are
taking on a giant, you're not going to win and you're going to be
marginalised.' "But at the same time I've gained a lot of friends out
there who are also concerned like me. I can take pride in what I'm
doing. Together we can beat Goliath, and we can do it with a smile and
His tireless campaigning over the years, more recently as chairman
of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), has all
voluntary. He has been unemployed since 1999. "There have been times in
the last five or six years when I haven't had money at home. But our
tastes are simple, so we manage to survive," says the father of three
daughters. Born in 1956 in Cato Manor, he spent his early years happily
with his parents and 12 siblings on their 25-acre holding.
In 1966 they were forcibly removed to Wentworth, and it was only in
1974 that they were finally allocated an unsuitably sized council flat
in which D'Sa has lived to this day. He began his working career in
1971 and spent 17 years in the textile industry after joining the Frame
group in 1975. That was succeeded by his job at Durban Fibres before he
moved to Sasol's Isipingo plant (which has since closed) where he
remained until 1999.
In his last two jobs, D'Sa was a trade unionist and gained
first-hand knowledge of the dangers chemicals present to workers and
nearby residents. But D'Sa's real involvement in community affairs
began 18 years ago with the advent of gangs in Wentworth. "Wentworth
had a lot of social problems, especially with gangs, and it lacked
credibility of leadership in the area in the sense that people didn't
know who to go to, who to talk to. "We managed to turn that around by
creating the first public forum meetings through the Wentworth
Development Forum, where we had people coming to talk about their
problems and working together to try to resolve those problems."
In 1996, SDCEA - an alliance of 14 community organisations from the
Bluff, Isipingo, Umlazi, Wentworth and Merebank - was formed.
"SDCEA are the true democrats of the South African flag, because, since
forming, there has been more sharing of the bread among different race
groups in south Durban than anywhere else I have come across," says
The group, which addresses environmental and human rights issues,
has forged links in South Africa with organisations such as groundWork
Pietermaritzburg, SA Climate Action Network (fighting for cleaner
technology), SA Exchange Programme for Environmental Justice and
Earthlife Africa (dealing with water and nuclear issues). Its
international allies include the Global Monitoring Alliance and Global
Health Fund, both in the US, and Friends of the Earth in the UK.
D'Sa likens his work to a worldwide crusade, which in the last month
has seen him confront the boards of Anglo-American, of which Mondi is a
subsidiary, and Shell in London. Armed with a single share in each of
the multinational companies, he challenged board members at their
annual meetings of shareholders to address the "poor" environmental
standards practised by them in south Durban.
In a previous visit to the UK last year, D'Sa joined forces with
Friends of the Earth to protest outside Shell's London headquarters.
"That was my biggest challenge so far. It was my first time in England,
and it was raining and windy, and my umbrella ended up flying off into
the Thames. "Usually I'm protected here by thousands of people when we
protest, but only 15 of us were there, blocking employees inside the
building until we were allowed to speak to management."
Closer to home, SDCEA is grappling with decisions taken by the
KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs to
allow a R150-million expansion at Engen and the construction of what
D'Sa maintains is an incinerator at Mondi. He believes these two
developments will exacerbate already high levels of ambient air
pollution when other alternatives are available. "We are not
anti-development, but we are anti-air-pollution. We welcome sustainable
development," he says.
His extensive role in the community is evident from the number of
people who wave at him as he drives his workhorse - an ageing Volvo
reminiscent of Cuba's four-wheeled relics - from one meeting to
another. He offers a simple reason for his unstinting community work:
"I have a passion for the environment. I believe in a clean
environment. I believe in leaving something for the present generation
but more so for the future generation.
"These businessmen who exploit the environment are people who also
live in communities, people with their own families. What are they
thinking about leaving behind for their kids?"