Durban has suffered from refinery pollution for decades owing to carcinogens and respiratory irritants such as benzene and sulfur dioxide produced during oil processing . Malaysian-owned Engen is one of the worst petrochemical factories, and in 1993, former petroleum plant worker living near the Engen facility Desmond D’Sa founded the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) [5, 6]. The SDCEA carried out a community health survey resulting in high incidences of cancer and respiratory disease. Another study with the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine also showed that 52% of staff and students at a school next to Engen had asthma . The SDCEA subsequently started regular anti-pollution demonstrations against Engen and other major polluters along with other groups such as Sven “Bobby” Peek’s groundWork in a coalition called the South Durban Steering Committee for Environmental Management (SDSCEM) bringing together community organizations across racial divisions and causes before engaging with industry and government stakeholders .
In September 2008, the SDCEA started a class action lawsuit against Engen, Shell, and British Petroleum using nearly a decade of medical evidence linking their refineries to high cancer and asthma rates, as well as records of over 120 accidents and pollution incidents at Engen since 1998. For example, in November 2007, one of Engen’s storage tanks caught on fire in a lightning storm and burned for five days before fire fighters could extinguish the flames .
On October 10, 2011, over 100 schoolchildren were hospitalized for smoke and toxic fume poisoning as well as being burned by flying oil drops after a fire erupted at the Engen oil refinery [1, 7]. In retaliation, the SDCEA and the Centre for Civil Society organized residents of Merebank, Wentworth, and other south Durban neighborhoods, especially women and children, marching from Settler’s School to Engen on October 22 to demand the plant to shut down [1, 5]. Promising to intensify their protests until demands were met for a clean environment, the marchers delivered a memorandum asking for a 24-hour clinic, disaster management plan, and an independent investigation into the explosion. Protesting mother Marlene McClure explained that South Durban parents constantly need to seek medical attention for their children, and everyone has family that suffers from cancer. Moreover, mothers and grandmothers were outraged that although the memorandum was signed, Engen attempted to compensate for the explosion by offering victimized families a voucher for R30, or $1,80, which “won’t even buy washing powder” . In response, the provincial environment MEC Lydia Johnson told Engen that they were now under threat of closure due to negligence. The next day, she was fired .
On October 11, 2014, the SDCEA and Right2Know organized a cancer walk to Engen to submit a memorandum to the general manager . However, in response, the organizers received a threatening letter warning that the refinery is protected by the National Key Points Act, a law that mostly private companies use to prevent or discourage protesting and justify police brutality, and that any protest action would be “wrongful, unlawful, malicious, defamatory or damaging” .
In May 2018, police opened fire on protesters who had blocked access to the refinery to prevent trucks from entering and leaving, which has inflamed tensions and sparked several other protests. Then, Engen began pursuing legal action against the South Durban Basin Community Development Trust and various other civil society organizations for repeatedly protesting outside of their refinery for five days starting from June 1 demanding company shares, a training centre, local jobs, and other amenities as bare minimum reparations for 60 years of pollution, sometimes burning tires in front of the gates [4, 11, 12]. Activists had stoned an Engen truck, threatened drivers, blocked the gates, and put up signs calling out specific staff members. Police responded by attacking the protesters with stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets [10, 15]. Consequently, on June 26, the Durban High Court officially banned residents from protesting, which was now “illegal” disruption, harassment, and intimidation . The banned protesters were not discouraged, however, and continued to reaching out to network and generate community support among other groups such as churches .
On November 27, the SDCEA testified at the Parliament against the eThekwini Municipality and Engen for covering up or failing to acknowledge hundreds of dangerous industrial accidents that have occurred the past decades, bringing up years of ignored of letters, emails, media articles, complaints and protests . On March 23, 2020, various activist groups were approved to pursue a case against Engen in the high court declaring the Regulation of Gatherings Act, which Engen had been using to ban protests outside their refinery, constitutionally invalid . Their argument was that the Act violated their right to protest in terms of section 17 of the Bill of Rights and their labour rights in terms of section 23 of the Bill .