Breathing Inequality: A Call to Action for Cleaner Air and Fairer Futures in the Face of Rapid Urbanisation

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Growing up in the hazy streets of Khayelitsha, I did not look at unhealthy and unbreathable spaces as factors that could potentially harm my health, let alone know that my human right to breathe clean air was being violated.

My name is Lihle Sabisa, a student from Stellenbosch University studying Masters of Philosophy in Environmental Management. I was born and raised in a township called Khayelitsha, on the Cape Flats. I am deeply passionate about social, economic and environmental justice. I strongly believe a holistic approach to sustainable development incorporates all three of these dimensions. In 2018, I was accepted to the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and that’s when I began to notice that I had been living in an unhealthy environment. Although the UWC is situated in a middle-income area, the difference in air quality compared to Khayelitsha is undeniable. Many socio-economic and infrastructural factors play a role such as basic service delivery, access to amenities, and the types of businesses surrounding the area.

In 2022, I participated in the #Cityzens4CleanAir campaign by UrbanBetter and that’s when I was introduced to the health effects caused by air pollution. This evoked serious concerns about air quality in Khayelitsha. I began to reflect on the lifestyle and business choices in the area and what could be the influence for such choices. Following that I started to see clean air as a privilege.

At UWC I had the privilege to breathe clean air. The institution has been crowned Africa’s Greenest Campus three times due to its large population of trees and being a nature reserve. The environment is clean, trash bins are collected at least once a week, and sewage pipes are maintained.

University of the Western Cape, image showcasing the lush greenery and clear blue skies.

However, the images of smoky and hazy Khayelitsha streets have never left my brain.  I would always make comparisons between the two areas in an effort to try and underpin the factors that contribute to the undeniably huge difference in air quality. On a surface level, these factors are wood burning, car emissions, sewage water, and waste. But there are deeper underlying factors such as extreme poverty, low income, job scarcity, rapid urbanisation and poor service delivery that are contributing to poor air quality in the area.

Upon unpacking the vast disparity between these two areas, I found myself increasingly conscientious about the quality of the air I breathe. It became evident that the level of wood burning in various parts of Cape Town differs significantly from that in the Cape Flats, extending beyond Khayelitsha. Small business owners in this area gravitate towards wood-burning businesses, primarily due to their affordability and rapid turnover. In the picture below, is a typical scene of wood-burning by small businesses in one of the neighbouring townships called Nyanga. Coupled with the car emissions from commuter minibus taxis, this makes for a heady concoction. 

1.) A busy scene near the Nyanga taxi rank, with informal traders using wood-burning to produce local street food while minibus taxis and cars whiz by.
2.) A bustling environment surrounds the Nyanga taxi rank, where informal vendors prepare local street food over wood fires as commuters weave through the area using various forms of transportation.

Wood-burning businesses contribute to air pollution, deforestation and negatively impact the well-being of those who live near these businesses. Smoke coming from wood burning compels individuals living nearby to close their windows and doors, or the inside of the house will be filled with smoke and leave the outside of their houses dark with smoke.  Attached is an image of a house opposite a wood-burning business in Nyanga. 

House opposite a wood-burning business in Nyanga.

This picture illustrates a violation of their constitutional and human rights. According to Section 24 (a) of the South African Constitution, “Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being”. This made me realise that clean air should not be a privilege but is a right.

Trees, often regarded as invaluable carbon sinks, are felled for combustion, resulting in the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This takes us a step further away from the global goal of reducing our carbon emissions and planting more trees.  On the other hand, we cannot turn a blind eye to the previously mentioned underlying factors that push marginalised communities, especially unskilled individuals into the informal economy, relying heavily on wood for fuel and business.

Leading the #Cityzens4CleanAir Campaign with fellow activists on UWC campus in November 2022 before COP27

My journey as a Citizen Scientist and a Run Leader has been and continues to be, full of discovery, realisation, and learning. However, most importantly, through this journey, I have gained empathy for marginalised communities and a will to be and amplify their voices. Empathy for them translated to these concerns: 

(i) How are the livelihoods of those with asthma affected by the wood-burning business, especially in summer, when it is sweltering? Does all that smoke and heat make it breathable? 

(ii) How much does wood burning contribute to deforestation and what impact will ending wood-burning businesses have on restoring the environment and reducing carbon emissions? 

(iii) What are the health effects of ambient air pollution and inhaling smoke every day? Can wood-burning business owners who have also experienced air pollution-related illnesses effectively advocate for cleaner air interventions while protecting their livelihoods??

My journey as a Run Leader did not end in Cape Town. In the same year, I was chosen to attend COP27 in Egypt and had the opportunity to learn about air pollution on a more global scale. There, the intricacies of air pollution are deeper than just wood-burning. I saw the tensions between the fossil fuel industry, climate and health activists, and businesses trying to meet their ESG goals with greenwashing. This experience broadened my thinking and I developed an interest in a just transition, sustainable development, and green economy.

Protesting with the Global health community on the 16th of November 2022 at Sharm El-Sheikh where we stated that the therapy for most of the health crises affecting the global South is reducing global warming. We called on world leaders not to accelerate patients' deaths and to do everything to keep the 1.5 °C goal above pre-industrial levels alive.

What motivated me to share my thoughts is learning about how big businesses are transitioning into more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of conducting themselves. For example, Golden Arrow Bus Services, the biggest bus transportation in Cape Town, is slowly transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy. They are aiming to produce 60 electric buses each year from 2024  and have created solar panels station to charge these buses. Alternatively, big supermarkets utilise solar panels on their roofs in an effort to reduce the pressure on the high carbon-intensive grid by using solar energy. My intention is not to draw a direct comparison between wood-burning businesses and large, thriving enterprises; rather, it serves as an illustrative means to underscore the apparent neglect of small-scale businesses in their transition toward sustainability. As climate predictions foretell rising temperatures and the United Nations has unequivocally declared a global climate crisis, one cannot help but wonder how proprietors of wood-burning businesses will endure the sweltering summer heat. In contemplating this matter, it becomes apparent that the 2023 City of Cape Town, Mayor Portfolio displays a notable lack of robust initiatives to facilitate the transition of small-scale township businesses, fortifying them against the impending challenges of climate change.

In conclusion, the inherent fragility of these wood-burning businesses underscores their inability to withstand the rigors of climate change without direct and purposeful government intervention and support. This situation imparts a sense of injustice and inequity to the transition process because it leaves behind those who lack the inherent capacity to navigate this transformative journey independently. Consequently, a palpable and troubling chasm widens, further estranging the informal economy and small-to-medium enterprises from their larger, more resource-endowed counterparts. The City of Cape Town cannot achieve SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) if there are still great levels of inequalities within the city. Sustainable cities need to be inclusive of poor communities. I call for the City of Cape Town to prioritise a holistic, inclusive, and equitable transition to a green economy. I encourage the local and national governments to adopt initiatives and development programs aimed at enhancing the climate resilience of vulnerable communities and businesses, especially those that lack the capacity to transition independently.

The critical query that lingers is this: Who truly benefits from the concept of the green economy, and for whom is its promise of sustainability and resilience meant to materialise?

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