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Transnet dig-out port proposal in Durban, South Africa


In May 2010, the Durban International Airport was decommissioned after King Shaka International Airport opened. In 2012, Transnet bought the land for $108 million with the intention to build a dig-out port terminal expanding the Port of Durban (also called Durban Harbour) that would accommodate 16 container berths, five automotive berths and four liquid bulk berths [3, 4]. This would be South Africa’s biggest single location-specific investment project ($25 billion) expanding the port eight-fold over the next three decades [5]. The government backed the project, promising it would create 20,000 direct and 47,000 indirect jobs during construction [3]. The government and various investors were also interested in using the port to transport oil from Durban to Johannesburg. A new pipeline Durban to Johannesburg has been built already.  One such outside stakeholder was the Chinese Development Bank, which invested $5 billion in Transnet during the Durban BRICS summit in March 2013 for extending infrastructure for coal exports to China and India [8].

However, small-scale tenant farmers, fishers, small local business owners, and residents of the nearby Wema, Jacons, Dalton, and Glebelelands hostels as well as informal settlements in the surrounding area would be displaced by the project and lose their livelihoods [1, 3]. 187 hectares farmed by 16 small-scale farms could be lost [5, 13]. “We have been farming here since 1988. Transnet wants us off the land by 2015, but they have offered us no alternative land for farming,” said Siga Govender, chairperson of the Airport Farmers’ Association. The farmers employ 100 workers and grow a range of crops, including cabbage, spinach, coriander, marigolds and maize, which are sold to local street markets and larger supermarkets. “This land is my livelihood. Over the years we’ve lost subsidies for diesel, fertiliser and seeds, as well as flood and drought relief. We used to have fully-qualified extension officers and we lost them too. Now we are going to lose our land” [6].

The neighborhoods surrounding the petrochemical industrial complex have also been long plagued by environmental racism. The area, including the “Indian” Merebank and Clairwood and “colored” Wentworth and Umlazi township, have been historically segregated since Apartheid, and today are where many environmental consequences are concentrated owing to port and petrochemical activities, earning the nickname “Africa’s armpit” for the noxious smell. Concerning accidents, freight drivers shipping to and from the port killed 70 people in 2012 alone and cause 7,000 crashes annually. The worst single case occurred in September 2013, when 23 people were killed by a runaway freight truck [5]. Social issues also already make the population vulnerable to what is called port creep; or the arrival of crime, smuggling, prostitution, trucks, pollution and logistics companies in the neighbourhood, because of the suburb's proximity to the back of a port [13].

Transnet released a controversial environmental impact assessment (EIA) in 2013, claiming that larger ships in the new port would allegedly lower emissions per container [5]. Many environmental groups countered, however. BirdLife SA argued that Durban Bay is one of only three estuarine bays in South Africa, providing critical ecosystem services such as being aheat and carbon sink, biodiversity, marine life, filtering, and storm protection. The project would also violate bird migration and repitale/amphibian protection protocol from the Bonn Convention [5]. The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) performed its own EIA indicating, among other consequences, serious damage to flood plains that would contribute to significant sea level rise, which officials ignored. The Department of Environmental Affairs rejected the Transnet EIA in October 2013

Socioenvironmental concerns about the project are related to its nature as a petro-chemical industrial hub contributing to global climate change. Durban Bay, the contested port site, has already been heavily polluted from ongoing harbor and associated activities, contaminated riverine and storm-water inflows. The expansion would further destroy the Bay’s ecosystem, which would reduce the estuary’s capacity to recover [5]. Aside from other major ecological consequences for the estuarine bay, health-related climate change consequences would increase owing to added pollution from increased trucking, converting the Clairwood racecourse into a logistics park and container depot, and building massive roads and railroad lines [1, 5].  Logistically, digging the port is also dangerous because it would release toxic chemicals from the petrochemical complex that have accumulated in the ground over decades, such chemicals having already coated nearby neighborhoods with oil-related sulfur and soot showers and causing world-leading asthma rates [5].

In response to the potential consequences of the port proposal, Desmond D’Sa, coordinator of the SDCEA, among many others, began planning mass protest actions. As SDCEA member Priya Pillay explained, "We're looking at ways we can move this campaign forward and be part of the development on the planning process more than just to sit back and allow industry and government to bully us out of our own homes” [2]. Activists also attended public hearings on the matter since 2012, where they used the meetings as rallying points [5]. On April 27, 2012, 300 fishermen from the KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fishermen Association occupied one of the piers in protest as well as organized to pursue legal action [13].

On November 14, 2013, activists from groundWork and SDCEA  marched from the local Reunion beach to the contested site against the project, which would “be owned by the conglomerate and would do nothing to improve the lives of our people,” according to groundWork head Bobby Peek [3]. Afterward, the organizing groups also held the People’s Climate Camp (PCC) in Durban resisting projects contributing to climate change, environmental damage, and social injustice [6]. The PCC was held in solidarity with the local farmers on their farmland, joined by local groups such as the South African Waste Pickers’ Association (SAWPA) and international groups such as Friends of the Earth. Two workshops were held to understand the politics of the port struggle and on how to encourage sustainable living at the camp and at home, as well as a press conference. The camp culminated in a petition signed by 30 civil society groups, faith-based organizations, NGOs, and other types of collectives [7]. 

On March 29, 2014, over 800 of community and NGO members, led by D’Sa and the SDCEA, marched to Durban City Hall to submit a memorandum of concerns against the port expansion, demanding an answer within 14 days [11]. As D’Sa stated, “. Last year the municipality promised to consult broadly with the community, and this has not happened until today … This project has ignored significant social and environmental considerations in favour of the kind of neo-liberal economic policy that will not benefit these communities but rather governments and corporations invested in this project” [1]. Transnet’s response, however, was to assert that the project would provide “much needed financial support to the region, as well as provide jobs for the local market,” and that another EIA is expected to have “very positive impacts for the South Durban Basin and eThekwini as a whole” [12].

On April 27, 2016, Freedom Day, Earthlife Africa and the SDCEA held a public meeting informing residents about developments as well as a protest blockade at the Durban Port entrance to the container terminals. “Freedom day marks the day we gained democracy and the right to express our views and opinions with considerations. However, as the years progressed, democracy seems more far-fetched than tangible in all aspects of this country … Instead of being people centred, Transnet’s programmes and projects have disregarded people and their rights and insulted the definition of democracy in this country,” said D’Sa [9]. Over 2,500 attendees joined the demonstration [10].

On February 14, 2017, stakeholder meetings resulted in Transnet announcing that the dig-out port plans would be suspended at least until 2030 [4]. The forced delay was because of flat shipping demands and sky-high costs owing to project mismanagement, corruption and fund embezzlement, and other controversies [8]. Regarldless, the project did not completely stop. In July 2018, the Brics New Development Bank loaned $200 million to Transnet to expand the port without adequate consultation or analysis.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Transnet dig-out port proposal in Durban, South Africa
Country:South Africa
State or province:KwaZulu-Natal
Location of conflict:Durban
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Ports and airport projects
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Durban’s annual 350 millions tons of cargo accounts for 60% of SA imports that arrive in order of percentage from the European Union, China, USA, Nigeria, India, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Thailand, Angola and United Arab Emirates. The top 10 export destinations in order of percentage are listed as the European Union, China, USA, Namibia, Japan, India, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong. Durban Harbour retains the number one position as the busiest harbour in sub Saharan Africa and fourth in the Southern Hemisphere. While Transnet envisages an accumulative contribution of R137-billion to the GDP by 2033, the harbour’s existing pier one is being extended to accommodate an annual additional one million containers. Existing berths closer to the terminals are being widened and deepened to accommodate larger ships, at an envisaged cost of R14.4-billion by 2022/3, as opposed to the inception of the dig-out port off the Prospecton coast [4].

Project area:1,854
Level of Investment:25,000,000,000
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:11/04/2012
Company names or state enterprises:Transnet from South Africa
International and Finance InstitutionsChinese Development Bank from China
Brics New Development Bank
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Airport Farmers’ Association, BirdLife SA, The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, KwaZulu-Natal Subsistence Fishermen Association, groundWork, Earthlife Africa, Friends of the Earth, South African Waste Pickers’ Association

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Religious groups
Local ejos
Social movements
Fisher people
Local government/political parties
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Wastepickers, recyclers
Industrial workers
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Fires, Global warming, Noise pollution
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Oil spills, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..)
Potential: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood


Project StatusPlanned (decision to go ahead eg EIA undertaken, etc)
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (undecided)
Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Project temporarily suspended
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:The project is suspended for now, but investors are still funding the project.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[5] Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Durban’s contested port-petrochemical complex (Bond 2016)

[1] News24. Community members protest displacement by Durban’s dig-out port (Ndaliso 2014)

[2] East Coast Radio. Environmental group opposes plans for Durban dig-out port (Lutchman 2016)

[3] Business Day. South Durban residents march against erection of dug-out port (Mkhize 2013)

[6] Farmer’s weekly. Multi-billion rand dig-out port to displace small-scale farmers (Joubert 2013)

[9] Bereamail. Massive protest action against dug-out port plan (2016)

[10] Southland’s Sun. Protesters plan Freedom Day port blockade (2016)

[4] South Coast Sun. Dig-out port a ‘no-go’ until 2030 (2017)

[7] Friends of the Earth. The real people’s climate talks were in Durban (2013)

[8] AIDC. Odious Brics loan for Durban port project will not go unopposed (D’Sa & Bond 2018)

[11] IOL. Protest against Durban dig-out port (Cole 2014)

[12] Southland’s Sun. Transnet responds to dig out port protestors (2014)

[13] Mail&Guardian. Durban communities face harbour ‘creep’ (Gedye 2012)

Meta information

Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA-UAB, [email protected]
Last update10/08/2020



Transnet protest

Photo: Southlands Sun

Desmond D'Sa

Photo: Goldman Environmental Foundation

Patrick Bond, Counterpunch, 4 Sept 2019