The Aloes Community of Port Elizabeth, South Africa
(All images and text copyright Skip Schiel, 2001)
By Skip Schiel
Poverty reigns in South Africa. Among several factors, poverty determines where dump sites are placed, how they're managed, and who lives near or on them.
Racism is a second prime factor. Dump sites, along with industries generating toxic wastes, are often situated in places where people of color live. Environmental racism is the notion.
And thirdly, almost a pun on "dump." Garbage is dumped, discarded, rejected-dump sites are filled with something formerly of value like food, homes, and the end results of industrial processes. While people are forced by poverty into marginal housing.
My mission in South Africa was to volunteer my photography to community-based organizations. In the words of the South African Development Fund (SADF), one of my prime sources of contacts (and a worthy organization for your financial contributions to a truly free and democratic South Africa), I do the photographic bidding of non-governmental agencies helping "to ensure that South Africans have the ability to fully participate in the democratic process, the right to a safe and healthy environment and the opportunity to pursue education and employment." Or more specifically, again drawing from the SADF, I attempt to concentrate my photography on "community and economic development, children, education, elderly services, environmental issues, health, empowerment of women, and human rights and democracy building."
The photos I tried to make, usually hurriedly, attempt to show young people dying of cancer, children with the tell-tale (in this case) runny nose of tuberculosis, the widow of an environmental activist who recently succumbed to what many feel were toxins in his water and air. His name: Nelson Fezi, leading the community struggle to close the medical waste incinerator and the Aloes toxic waste sites. The odor from the Aloes waste sites reeks of sulfur and other noxious chemicals generated by a substance called "leachate"-a conglomeration of waste products leaching thru the soil. Some 60% of this foul substance emanates from the local tanneries. Another irony: "aloes" is a plant with healing qualities, indigenous to South Africa.
On the first of our 3 days touring, Joan; Daniel, an elderly man hobbling with a cane and the new head of the Fezi community; and I snuck along the Aloes waste site fence for me to make photos and experience the odor. I couldn't bear more than several minutes of this putridity. The community is forced to tolerate hours and days of the suffocating atmosphere. From outside the fence I tried to show the unlined, earlier-made pit, some 200 meters deep, holding highly dangerous leachate. And next to it, the later-constructed, properly lined and protected pit, equally deep. On my last day photographing, the site manager, a young vibrant Dutch man, Wotter de Lange, graciously showed us inside the site. But said: "No photos." Joan explained how responsive he's been, trying to keep out boys who sneak under the fence to salvage rotting food, and how accommodating he's trying to be toward the community-within the parameters of the company's profit margin.
From Essay #73 from the Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage, originally written on July 19/23, 1999 in Bloemfontein/Cape Town, South Africa, exerpted and revised on January 27, 2001.
For a selection of earlier essays, see www.brightworks.com/quaker/midpas.html and for general information about the Pilgrimage, see www.peacepagoda.org.
For a good analysis of current social and political conditions in South Africa, see the website of the weekly newspaper, Mail and Guardian, www.mg.co.za.
Some useful links:
South Africa Partners
Daily Mail and Guardian
African National Congress (ANC)
Other exhibits by Skip Schiel
Information about renting the exhibit or buying photographs
About Skip Schiel
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(revised May 2001)