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Engen oil refinery pollution in Durban, South Africa


Durban has suffered from refinery pollution for decades owing to carcinogens and respiratory irritants such as benzene and sulfur dioxide produced during oil processing [6]. 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 [6]. 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 [3]. 

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 [8].

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” [5]. 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 [7].

On October 11, 2014, the SDCEA and Right2Know organized a cancer walk to Engen to submit a memorandum to the general manager [2]. 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” [13].

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 [10]. The banned protesters were not discouraged, however, and continued to reaching out to network and generate community support among other groups such as churches [14].

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 [7]. 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 [9]. 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 [11].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Engen oil refinery pollution in Durban, South Africa
Country:South Africa
State or province:KwaZulu-Natal
Location of conflict:Durban
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Engen oil refinery has a capacity of 135 000 barrels of crude oil a day and supplies 1 500 service stations in Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands [4]. It also produces 60 tons of sulfur dioxide each day. In the south Durban area alone, more than 100 smoke stacks belch out more than 54 million kilograms of sulfur dioxide each year. Meanwhile, toxic leachate runs into storm water drains and children in local schools have three times the rate of respiratory diseases as children living outside of the area as well as 24 times the rate of leukemia [3, 15].

In 2019 it was annoubced that Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas) and its South African partners plan to conduct an initial public offering (IPO) in their fuel retailer Engen to fund the upgrade of a refinery in the coastal city of Durban and to expand its network of gas stations.Engen’s 135,000-barrel-per-day refinery needs to be upgraded to meet more stringent laws aimed at curbing pollution.

Engen is 74% owned by Petronas, and 26% held by a group led by Phembani, a South African company founded by Phuthuma Nhleko, one of the country’s most successful black businessmen.

Engen, which was founded in 1881 and now operates in seven African countries, has an asset value of more than 40 billion rand (US$2.6bil). In its 2018 financial year it posted revenue of 82.5 billion rand and net income of 1.8 billion rand.[16]

Level of Investment for the conflictive project2,600,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:01/01/1993
Company names or state enterprises:Engen Petroleum from Malaysia
PETRONAS from Malaysia
Relevant government actors:eThekwini Municipality, KZN Police
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:South Durban Steering Committee for Environmental Management, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, groundWork, SDCEA, Right2Know, Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Michigan, South Durban Basin Community Development Trust, Engen Community Stakeholder Forum

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Industrial workers
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Property damage/arson
Public campaigns
Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Referendum other local consultations
Refusal of compensation
Boycotts of companies-products
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Objections to the EIA
Street protest/marches
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Development of a network/collective action
Official complaint letters and petitions


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Global warming, Noise pollution, Oil spills, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Potential: Genetic contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents
Potential: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Criminalization of activists
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Violent targeting of activists
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Engen has continued to pollute Durban and prevent protesters from mobilizing.

Sources & Materials

[1] News24. Protest demands oil refinery shutdown (Jantilal 2011)

[2] Right2Know. Engen refinery’s ‘National Key Points’ threat to community activists (2014)

[3] Goldman Environmental Foundation. Sven (Bobby) Peek (1998), of GroundWork.

[4] Mail&Guardian. Reparations row dogs petrol giant (Harper 2018)

[5] The Green Times. Crude oil haunts Durban community (Naidoo 2011)

[6] Global Policy. Durban’s poor fight for clean air (Clark 2004)

[7] SDCEA. Cancer ally: pollution maims and kills (2020)

[8] The New Humanitarian. Community takes on big polluters (2008)

[9] Mail&Guardian. Rights group wins court bid against Engen (Harper 2020)

[10] IOL. Protests outside refinery banned (Mngoma 2018)

[11] Mail&Guardian. Durban smokestacks back in court (Harper 2020)

[12] IOL. Engen refinery let us down (Newman 2018)

[13] Southlands Sun. Refinery responds to cancer protestors (2014)

[14] AF Truth. Wentworth residents continue their fight over contracts and shares in the company (Harper 2018)

[15] IOL. Wentworth community protests outside Engen Refinery (Newman 2018)

[16] The Star. 2 October 2019. Petronas-to-hold-ipo-for-south-africa-unit-engen-in-2020.

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA-UAB, [email protected]
Last update06/08/2020
Conflict ID:5136



Engen protest

Photo: The Green Times

Engen protest 2

Photo: The Green Times