Bracing for the Back of Port

South Durban’s residents fight back against corruption, destruction and neglect

Colleen steps gingerly out of her home in Clairwood, Durban. A large truck is stuck in the narrow residential road just outside her house; crumbling Colleen’s brick wall as it attempts to back out. Colleen runs out onto the muddy street, wading to her knees in rubbish as she berates the driver. “This is the third time this week!” she yells angrily. “These are homes, you cannot be here!” The driver ignores her and keeps moving, throwing a coke bottle out of the window as the truck leaves clouds of exhaust fumes in its wake. “Oh well,” says Colleen, “at least he didn’t hit anybody this time.”

Colleen is just one of many Clairwood residents forced to live with the effects of illegal trucking and the activities of mining businesses that are taking hold of the area in preparation for the Durban’s back of port development. Despite being zoned for residential use, over 150 illegal businesses have set up shop in the Clairwood community and nothing is being done to stop them. They are polluting the air and water, causing constant accidents, destroying property, killing children and making it impossible for residents to safely get to and from their homes. Rather than assisting residents, the eThekwini Municipality has continued to exacerbate the problem by failing to enforce zoning laws, withholding delivery of services such as rubbish collection, policing and infrastructure development, and allowing the community to fall into decay.

Accident scene
A traffic accident in Clairwood

A History of Exploitation

This is not the first time Clairwood residents has been a victims of the government’s purposful neglect. At the beginning of the 20th century, Clairwood was developed to house indentured labourers working under racial segregation laws. Many had been forcefully evicted from their homes and settled into the community without a cent to their names. Nonetheless, the ingenuity and passion of Clairwoods’ residents led to the creation of a diverse, culturally rich and vibrant community; with market gardens to serve local food needs, religious institutions and schools.

In 1956, the Apartheid government decided to convert the land in South Durban for industrial use. Unable to rezone the residential area entirely, the government neglected the area, removed informal structures unilaterally and cited the deterioration caused by its own neglect as an excuse to repossess formal structures and homes. During the Apartheid years, over 40,000 people were forced to move out, and those who did not move were forced to suffer from the effects of increased pollution from nearby industrial parks, causing illness and health concerns. Despite the forced depopulation and pollution, the greater Clairwood area remains the cultural heart of the Indian community in Durban; home to approximately half a million people, thriving markets, and multitudes of small businesses.

The Current Port Development

The communities of South Durban are again embroiled in a battle to ensure that the rights of residents are protected. In 2004, the South Durban Basin Area Based Management office released the South Durban Spatial Development Framework, a plan that facilitated further industrialisation, expanded the South Durban port and rerouted logistics operations through South Durban’s mainly residential areas. In 2012, the Municipality began discussions on new zoning changes required to accommodate a “back of port” development at the former Durban airport site, which had since been used by Clairwood farmers to supply produce to local markets.

These plans were developed without regard for public participation and research; or consideration of the communities they affect. To date, residents struggle to obtain full information about what is planned, with only partial information provided. While the eThekwini Municipality claims that there will be no forced removals, the increase in pollution, traffic, crime and decay caused by the port expansion project will amount to constructive eviction of South Durban residents. While the Municipality cites deterioration of these neighbourhoods as a justification for development, much of this deterioration was caused, and continues to be caused, by the Municipality’s own failure to provide services.

Pollution in the Clairwood area, cause by trucks and businesses

Corruption in Action?

Both historical and recent evidence points to a long term plan to turn this area into an industrial centre. Since 2000, a plethora of land purchases have cropped up at prices over 20 times the current market value. Additionally, over 150 Clairwood properties have been identified as illegal businesses, with most operating as trucking or logistics hubs. These businesses, although not legally permitted, are able to take advantage of the lack of enforcement of the Municipality. The presence of these businesses further contributes to the pollution, deterioration and decay of Clairwood.

Recent evidence also points to the presence of illegal sand-mining operations on the property of the former Durban airport. According to the Airport Farmers Association, heavy machinery such as trucks and land-movers, has been carrying out large amounts of sand from the site. There have also been indications that some of the trucks are dumping hazardous waste into the resulting holes. The Municipality requires that any property owner who wishes to engage in sand-mining must obtain proper zoning and environmental permits before any activity is conducted. No permits or licenses have been acquired for this land.

Fighting for Clairwood’s Rights

The Municipality’s neglect, coupled with the sheer mass of undeterred illegal activity in Clairwood, indicates the presence of larger forces spurring the back of port development.

The Legal Resources Centre seeks to hold the government and these businesses accountable for the fulfillment of their legal obligations and ensure that the rights of citizens’ in this area are protected and enforced and that proper consultation and inclusive, transparent governance is practiced.

While the people of Clairwood continue to suffer from municipal neglect, shortage of housing and extreme pollution, their commitment to preserving their homes and community remains absolute.

By Bethany Bengfort

Bethany interned at the Legal Resources Centre. She is currently studying law at Standford University


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The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest law clinic established in South Africa in 1979

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