More Deadly than Covid-19: The Silent Killer

South Africa’s economy is dominated by the minerals-energy complex. This has made a highly concentrated economy; one in which wealth and the power to direct development is held by a very few large corporations. The concentration of economic power in South Africa has led to one of the most unequal economies in the world and also one of the most energy, carbon and pollution intensive. 

Apartheid produced the building blocks for  environmental racism in South Africa, but it was not only in 1948, with the coming to power of the National Party government,  that apartheid was born. The segregated city was established way before, during British colonial rule.The British established the template for environmental racism which was later used by the apartheid state. Durban has a reputation for being the first city in South Africa to establish apartheid principles to govern industrial expansion.

The  dirty industry and the toxic pollution that came from it was officially placed in areas where black people lived. The blueprint for a black neighbourhood was a waste dump-site, where waste from rich white neighbourhoods and dirty industry was dumped, a sewage plant, and dirty industry that provided toxic jobs for an expendable black workforce.

Till this day the dirty industry and toxic pollution is still affecting black communities across South Africa. Your race is the single biggest factor that determines whether you live near a hazardous waste facility.

A study published in Environmental Research Letters found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and Black people live.”

“In fact, places that are already disproportionately populated by majorities , and where their numbers are growing, have the best chances of being selected,” Paul Mohai, a professor and the founder of the environmental justice program at the University of Michigan who coauthored the paper, wrote in an email.

Living near a hazardous-waste landfill is not just a gross nuisance; it makes you sicker. Air pollution from these sites can lead to a range of health problems.

Black people are also exposed to a 38% higher level of nitrogen dioxide, on average, than white people. Nitrogen dioxide is pumped out of power plants and exhaust pipes on cars and trucks, and is linked to asthma, bronchitis, and a host of other respiratory problems. And when a power plant emits nitrogen dioxide, it likely also emits sulfur dioxide, another respiratory irritant.

Chronic respiratory diseases make daily life harder and shorten life spans. Children are especially susceptible; air pollution exposure has been shown to cause cognitive delays in children, and when expecting mothers are subjected to air pollution, it increases their child’s risk for early birth and low birth weight, both of which risk for impaired brain development down the road.

According to the team, led by Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) principal researcher Professor Rebecca Garland, Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and heavy industry are South Africa’s main sources of sulphur dioxide emissions, while sources of nitrogen oxide pollution are vehicle exhaust fumes, mining, fuel refineries and Eskom power stations.

Air pollution is not just a health risk but also a drag on development. By causing illness and premature death, air pollution reduces the quality of life. By causing loss of productive labour, it also reduces incomes. 

The WHO data showed that Gauteng is  the most polluted province in the country. The health body ranked Tshwane and Johannesburg  in positions 63 and 85 respectively, out of 3 000 monitored locations. 

The very same province now contributes for 47% of South Africa’s current active cases of Covid 19, with the province leading in Covid 19 cases totaling just under 55 000 active cases. 

A Harvard study in the United States suggests that air pollution has significantly worsened the Covid-19 outbreak and led to more deaths than if pollution-free skies were the norm. 

As well as predisposing the people who have lived with polluted air for decades, scientists have also suggested that air pollution particles may be acting as vehicles for viral transmission.

These new findings could have a significant impact on how governments choose to ease lockdowns in the coming months, as scientists say that improving air quality could play an important role in overcoming the pandemic.

The evidence we have is pretty clear that people who have been living in places that are more polluted over time, that they are more likely to die from coronavirus. 

Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth.

South Africa’s legal limits on  matter pollution also allow pollution levels to be at double the levels that the WHO says are safe for human health. And large industrial polluters, including Eskom, have been consistently given exemption from complying with even these unsafe levels.

Section 24 of South Africa’s Constitution  says that “everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being, and to have the environment protected through reasonable measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”


Contributor: Orthalia Kunene

Orthalia Kunene is a mother, activist, feminist and writer based in Soweto. 


Her journey started as a activist fighting for service delivery issues in Soweto, with an Organisation called Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee/Operation Khanyisa Movement. Her writing  gave her strength to not shy away from the truth, it gave her strength to hold local government accountable and to advocate for access to information and  transparency through addressing socio-economic issues; inequalities around gender-based violence and climate change.

She is currently volunteering for an Organisation called keep left, as a working group member, keep left is a revolutionary socialist organisation that believes in workers control of society and the means of production. She is also a volunteer at an Organization called Extinction Rebellion, a climate change Organisation that seeks to fight the climate crisis. Her main focus is on Climate change issues, gender inequality and addressing issues of capitalism and how it feeds on inequality – particularly in South Africa.