Business owners in the Jacob’s area in Durban are sounding the alarm over what is believed to be “manganese poisoning” that has recently plagued the precinct.
All the buildings in Laguna Crescent, which is a business precinct, are covered in black dust and the streets are covered with it.
Grass and trees that used to be green have now turned black, blocked manholes are filled with black water and black mud.
One business owner described the precinct as a scene from Peaky Blinders, a television series which is set in the working class coal-mining town of Birmingham, England, during the early 20th century.
However, what is turning this area black is not coal but manganese. Manganese is a chemical element that is silver and brittle. It has many industrial uses, including as an ingredient in creating stainless steel.
Manganese is found in sedimentary rocks and is one of the most mined minerals in South Africa. According to the Department of Mineral Resources website, “South Africa hosts about 75% of the world’s identified manganese resources and about 24% of the world’s reserves”.
There are several trucking companies in the Jacob’s area that store and transport manganese.
“This black dust is everywhere, it has taken over our entire businesses,” said Sharmaine Peters, a business owner in the precinct.
Sharmaine has been running her car repair business with her husband for over 20 years in the area.
“It has only started getting really bad in the last four months,” she said.
Sharmaine said on rainy days, the black dust fuses with the water and becomes “like a paste”, making it a mission to clean up.
This also causes the storm water drains to clog up. Terrence Peters, Sharmaine’s husband and a mechanic at their shop, said businesses in the area have had to set aside an hour every morning to clean up the black dust.
“From a health point of view, we are also breathing in this harmful dust,” he said.
“During the lockdown I used a mask that had a white layer inside it and at the end of the day, that layer would be covered in black spots. Even when I go home after work and shower, these small black particles fall out of my hair.”
Dana Gumede, another business owner in the precinct, said she and her employees have stopped eating at the store.
“Those days of having your lunch in the store are gone because this dust is everywhere,” she said.
“Even when people get sick it is hard to pinpoint what is making them sick whether it’s the dust or other things.”
Desmond D’sa, an environmental activist and director of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, visited the area and described what was happening in the precinct as “manganese poisoning”.
D’sa said many communities in Durban and in Richards Bay which live closer to the mines or depots have been suffering from this.
“The medical literature on manganese is that it creates serious health problems.” D’sa said the SDCEA will be writing to eThekwini Municipality and national government to find out why it was not doing anything to stop the prevalence of manganese dust in the area.
Francois Rodgers MPL and leader of the Democratic Alliance in KwaZulu-Natal, said industrialisation should not come at the expense of human, environment and marine health.
Rodgers said it was concerning that the “black water” from the area was running into the nearby rivers and onto the beach.
Rodgers said he would be putting together a dossier of information regarding the issue and escalating it to the provincial legislature and parliament “so that companies who are dealing with compounds like manganese are forced to comply with the legislation otherwise there need to be consequences”.