Status of air quality in South Africa & roadmap for asbestos waste disposal: Department of Environmental Affairs briefing; with Minister

Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment

13 September 2019
Chairperson: Mr F Xasa (ANC)
Share this page:

Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on South Africa’s efforts to improve air quality and implement an asbestos remediation plan, both of which had a major impact on peoples’ health.

The Department described the legally prescribed standards for ambient air quality and the mechanisms to achieve them. While one of the biggest achievements could be seen in the compliance by all new industries to these standards, the key challenge remained the transformation of old plants, despite a postponement period having been granted. The greatest share of responsibility for the implementation of air quality management and monitoring was at the local government level, but a lack of capacity and resources prevented rapid implementation. The quality of air was measured by 136 monitoring stations across the country, especially in the identified priority areas -- the Mpumalanga Highveld, Limpopo and the Vaal Triangle -- and areas with dense low-income communities. Regular power failures and increasing vandalism posed a threat to the maintenance of the government monitoring network. Overall, air quality management was an expensive exercise.

In discussion, Members of the Committee raised their concerns about the postponement period for old plants and about the lack of a timeframe for the transformation process. They said that Eskom in particular, as one of the biggest polluters, had to ensure compliance. They demanded rigorous enforcement and serious consequences for non-compliance, including fining and jailing of responsible officials. The granting of Eskom’s compliance extension was questioned, and more details were required about the public participation process.

On the status of air quality, Members doubted the availability and reliability of data. The South Durban Basin and Khayelitsha were mentioned as problem areas that should be closely monitored and assisted. Poor communities were affected by coal-fired stoves within their houses, and more awareness campaigns were required to educate the population about the health effects of air pollution. The issue of retro-fitting old coal-fired power plants ready for retirement also needed more attention. The Committee felt that municipalities should not be solely responsible for the implementation and enforcement of regulations, and called on the DEA to increase its efforts in capacity building, training and the provision of resources.

The Minister highlighted South Africa’s legacy of asbestos contamination, and said the management of asbestos remediation was complex due to the variety of involved stakeholders and government departments. The Department outlined the chronology of government remediation activities. Limpopo and the Northern Cape were the areas with the highest levels of contamination. The biggest challenges were insufficient funding and the lack of coordination between the various government departments.

Members were disappointed by the presentation, as they had expected more substance and details. Important information on funding was missing. They criticised the Department for dragging its feet on the issue. The Chairperson repeatedly stressed the Committee’s expectation that a decision taken by the Cabinet had to be implemented. The Minister and the Committee agreed that a comprehensive and credible asbestos remediation plan would be presented to the Committee within three months.

Meeting report

Minister’s opening remarks

Ms Barbara Creecy, Minister of Environmental Affairs, Forestry and Fisheries, stressed the importance of the agenda topic to the public representatives and to the public domain in general. Due to the detailed nature of the presentation slides, presenters of the Department had been asked to summarise and highlight areas of special interest. These priority air quality areas included the Mpumalanga Highveld, Limpopo and the Vaal Triangle in Gauteng.

She commented that the matter of air quality, particularly on the Mpumalanga Highveld, was currently in court. Civil society demanded that the Minister prescribe regulations under Section 20 of the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act (2004) and to implement these regulations for the enforcement of the Highveld priority area air quality management plan. The Minister had no objection to bringing in the regulations. It was not correct to be in court over a matter that was already required by the regulatory environment. It was important to settle this at the outset, as it was in the interests of representatives of civil society.

Air Quality Management

Mr Vumile Senene, Director: Air Quality Management Services, Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), gave a legislative overview of air quality management in South Africa. The Constitution enshrined the right to an environment that was not harmful to people’s health or well-being, and an obligation for the government to protect the environment. The Air Quality Act of 2004 for the first time prescribed standards for ambient air quality and created mechanisms to achieve these standards. Previously, owing to a lack of monitoring and reporting, South Africans were not aware of the harmful air they were breathing in. The poor legislation and planning of the past created challenges, which are still relevant today, whereby low-income settlements are located in very close proximity to air pollution hotspots. As a result of the transition towards the Air Quality Act, the Department had managed to increase transparency and to significantly improve the measurement and reporting of emissions.

Mr Senene explained that air quality management was complex due to several sources of emission polluting the environment, and thus required a holistic approach. This included a stricter limitation of emissions for industries. The Department had introduced a staged process through which industries would move from one point of emissions to the next stricter level until they would reach compliance with the prescribed threshold by 2020. Every new industry entering the country had to comply directly with the set standards. The challenge remained with the old plants and the requirement to rapidly transform. Therefore, the law provided for a postponement period to allow old industries to put necessary interventions into place. This transformation process was still on-going at the moment. The Minister had published minimum emission standards that set out the least requirements industries needed to comply with.

Mr Senene pointed out that the setting of benchmarks for all new industries was one of the biggest achievements of the Air Quality Act. All new plants were in compliance with the new standards. The DEA had improved the management of emissions as well as monitoring and reporting on the state of air quality to the public.

The ambient air standards defined the targets for quality management, and established the permissible amount of a particular substance in air. Special focus was placed on the pollutants -- sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, benzene and lead -- in areas with the highest density of people. Especially dense low-income settlements were monitored. Pollution was also more actively managed in the three before-mentioned priority areas.

Mr Senene declared that South Africa was still within the process of transformation. It was an on-going process, but the government was clear about its objective to improve air quality in the country. Each level of government had its own tasks and responsibilities. The national government set national norms and standards, and the provincial level was responsible for monitoring the performance of local government. The local level played the most important part by ensuring implementation. However, capacity constraints existed, most notably in the fields of monitoring and licensing. Through capacity-building, staff numbers at municipalities had been increased, leading to a significant improvement of quality management.

State of Air Quality

Dr Patience Gwaze, Special Technical Advisor: DEA, provided an overview on air quality in the country between 2007 and 2018. It was a legal requirement for the government to manage air quality, assess compliance with the standards and offer information to the public. There were 136 ambient air quality monitoring stations in place since 2005. Most of the monitoring stations, located mainly in metro and high priority areas, were government owned, but an increasing number of private stations complemented the government network. They all reported to the South African Air Quality Information System (SAAQIS), which was established in 2009 as a partnership between the DEA and the South African Weather Service (SAWS) to provide details about air quality.

Dr Gwaze described the typical model, design, equipment and costs (R2.5 to 3 million) of the government stations. The instruments inside the stations analysed the air and transmitted the data to the SAAQIS data base. She encouraged the Members of the Committee to download the SAAQUIS App to have the air quality information directly available on their phones. Another software update allowed the Department now to have online access to the analysing instruments, rather than having to be on-site. This improved data recovery, as it reduced the down-time of the instruments. At the beginning of this year, some stations did not meet the requirement of 75% data quality due to the recurring power failures.

With regard to current air quality, she went into detail of the analysis of three pollutants -- Particulate Matter (PM10), Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2). She illustrated the monitoring trend of the PM10 concentration on the example of Cape Town over the last 12 years. Khayelitsha was presented as a case of non-compliance to the set threshold, while the Foreshore depicted a constant improvement. The analysis on SO2 showed compliance across the country in the annual average. The City of Tshwane especially showed significant improvement since the start of monitoring.

Special attention was paid to the three priority areas, with consistent data available. The Vaal Triangle, Highveld and Waterberg-Bojanala were areas of concern regarding PM10, and PM2.5, even though constant improvements were visible. The analysis also considered seasonal variations, with winter indicating the highest concentrations. Across the day, peak times of pollution were in the morning and late afternoon.

A primary challenge could be seen in power failures. Monitoring stations could work only with Eskom power, since generators on-site would cause too much pollution, corrupting the measurements, and solar panels not being able to generate sufficient power. Power failures reduced data recovery and damaged the technical equipment. Besides, there was an increased security risk because of growing vandalism in the last three months. A lack of capacity and funds to manage and maintain the monitoring stations had resulted in non-operational stations, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. To counteract these challenges, interventions had been put in place. The Department had installed uninterrupted power supply systems to reduce equipment damage during power failures. To strengthen security, armed responses were added and cameras were installed. Capacity-building was on-going within municipalities to ensure monitoring at the local level by 2022. The priority areas were covered by additional stations of the SAWS to ensure a constant data supply.

Dr Gwaze concluded by emphasising the high costs of the monitoring network. The set-up costs had been significant, so maintenance needed to be a priority in order to reap the rewards of the investment. For the future, the DEA considered the procurement of low-cost devices with lower maintenance costs. However, it should be noted that air quality management was an expensive exercise.


Mr N Singh (IFP) declared that the greatest challenge would be monitoring, compliance and evaluation. Most deaths were caused by the air one breathed and the food one ate. Despite excellent existing laws, implementation remained a problem. The presentation lacked any reference to the South Durban Basin, even though many petrochemical industries were located in that area. A lot of complaints had been filed and studies conducted to investigate the high rate of cancer, especially among children. He asked to what extent the multi-point plan between the Durban metro, the KwaZulu-Natal province and the DEA was working? On a site-inspection a few weeks ago with a civil society organisation, he had learned about the deep concerns of the local community. On the monitoring of emissions, he appreciated the monitoring stations, but how did the public know when it was dangerous? Why could the Department not advertise the air pollution statistics on the TV channels? He referred to Indian TV channels announcing air quality data for Mumbai or Delhi in order to raise public awareness. An increased public awareness put more pressure on the government to address local air pollution.

He asked what the Department was doing to ensure a departure from coal-fired power stations. Most of the air quality problems in Mpumalanga arose from the coal industry, where Eskom was one of the biggest culprits. Eskom could not just get away with its status of being a state-owned enterprise. It needed to comply. Anywhere else in the world, there would be more industries but less pollution because industries were obliged to comply with the legislation. Was there a timeframe for the old industries to transform in accordance to the new standards? How strong was the relationship between the national, provincial and local governments? Did the Department have resources to capacitate the local level, as municipalities could not even provide basic services to citizens? It was not realistic that local governments had to assume the greatest responsibility for the monitoring process.

Ms A Weber (DA) asked who was responsible for the compliance extension given to Eskom until 2025? Would Eskom adhere to it? She had recently read in an article that Eskom’s inability to comply had been known since 2010, yet nothing had been done. Eskom had now requested R300bn for the transformation. What had Eskom done with the funds already provided from 2010 until now? Had Eskom given up on the transformation process? What would the consequences be of the Department either fining or jailing the responsible Eskom officials? Eskom did not comply with its own air quality programme and zero-harm policies. The fine for this was either R10 million or ten years in jail.

She referred to the meeting on Tuesday, where members of the DEA had reported that monitoring stations were being vandalised and were thus not useful. Were they operational? Last year, the previous Minister had applied for an increase in the threshold for SO2 emissions. The request had been stopped by public participation. The same request had been repeated this year. Was it still open or closed? What type of public participation was taking place? When? Where? Why did the Minister apply for an increase when Eskom had to reduce its SO2 emissions by about 18% to meet the actual requirements? The Kriel area in Mpumalanga, where Eskom power plants were located, was the world’s second-largest hotspot for SO2 emissions.

South Africa was ranked seventh overall for global SO2 emissions. Why was the greatest share of responsibility for air quality management and monitoring assigned to local government? From her experience of living in the Highveld priority area, despite capacity-building and training, local officials were not qualified to hand out emission licences. Why was that responsibility not with the national Department, since it was such an important decision to make? Were the local officials being trained and did they have sufficient experience?

Ms H Winkler (DA) referred to the meeting on Tuesday, where the Department had announced that only 53 of the 98 monitoring stations met the minimum standards of 70% for data recovery on SO2, and 31 of 87 monitoring stations met the minimum standards of 70% for data recovery on PM10. This meant that the government did not get reliable data on national air quality. On the monitoring data of the eThekwini Municipality, there was a huge problem in the South Durban Basin. Many monitoring stations that were located within the Basin were either not producing any data, or the data seemed to be unreliable. The University of KwaZulu-Natal had conducted studies on the high incidence of cancer and respiratory illnesses. Where were the monitoring stations in the Basin? Where was the data going? Who was collecting the data? How was the data being used and communicated to the local communities? Was the municipality collaborating with the petrochemical industries in the area? Who was enforcing compliance? What were the legal consequences for non-compliance with emission standards? Had there been a precedent on how to deal with companies that did not comply, or was the local industry allowed to act unfettered, without any compliance, at the expense of local communities? How long had these monitoring stations not been working and providing reliable data? What was the Department doing about the lack of capacity at the local level? She said that people were dying, and the government’s action was just not good enough any more. The Department needed a solid plan of action. The required intervention needed to be addressed with a sense of urgency. Regarding the pollution within the hot spot areas, who were the polluters? Was it only Eskom, or also private polluters, and what were their shares of emissions? What were the most serious pollutants?

Mr G Hendricks (Al Jama-ah) described Al Jama-ah as an environmental political party that had been very active in addressing air pollution in Khayelitsha and Masiphumelele. He declared war on the Department of Environmental Affairs, as it had let the country down and had not carried out its mandate. He argued that the horrific findings in Khayelitsha were the result of the Department’s neglect. Khayelitsha should be a priority area. Al Jama-ah worked together with the environmental departments of the three universities in Cape Town and received satellite images from a partner in Argentina. The party was therefore well informed about air pollution.

The Department’s neglect on air quality management had resulted in poorly treated sewage running through communities and polluting the air with poisonous toxins. The presented data showed that Khayelitsha was non-compliant with air quality standards, causing millions of residents to die a slow death from cancer and respiratory illnesses. Municipalities hid behind the fact that there were no regulations. He demanded to start jailing officials of the Department of Environmental Affairs and local officials of the municipalities for their neglect. They should rot in jail for ten years. Al Jama-ah was not impressed with the urgency of the Department. Air pollution had an effect on the national health of the country, as people needed to see doctors weekly to get antibiotics and eventually built up resistances. This in turn affected the national health insurances. In December last year, the concentration of pollution was nearly poisonous. Al Jama-ah took the stance that the national Parliament should not delegate air quality management to the provinces or municipalities. It should be dealt with by the Parliament itself. As an example, he mentioned the meetings with the Green Scorpions and Blue Scorpions. He hoped that Parliament could play its role to help to save the nation, to save this part of the planet. There were Green Scorpions and Blue Scorpions, but the officials responsible for addressing air pollution were lame ducks.

Ms S Mbatha (ANC) congratulated the Department for the excellent presentation and its work on all three levels of government. On the issue of air pollution, she asked what the Department’s interventions were to ensure that pollution from industries did not affect the nearby residents. Companies were obliged by Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) policies to protect their employees and visitors from any pollution that was emitted from the work environment. Did the Department work together with OHS labour inspectors? Companies could be closed down for a certain period until they complied. The Department of Environmental Affairs needed to cooperate with other departments to achieve its objectives. How far was the progress with awareness campaigns? It was very important that people needed to know facts about the quality of the air instead of relying on assumptions. Besides, did the DEA collaborate with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) and the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) to get assistance at the local level?

Another issue was the problem of coal being one of the main pollutants. Did the Department provide gas-stoves to low-income communities, who otherwise relied on the burning of coal? She mentioned the example of Pretoria West, where the ANC administration had initiated this programme to reduce coal usage. She suggested utilizing the Department of Health to include awareness campaigns within health promotion programmes to minimise effects on health. There should also be more focus on rural areas, since industries affected communities in remote areas, who needed assistance. Lastly, she acknowledged that the monitoring equipment was modernised. How did the Department assist municipalities with monitoring air quality? Could the number of staff at the local level be increased?

Ms N Gantsho (ANC) said that Sasol was one of the biggest companies adding to air pollution. Did Sasol comply? If not, what was the Department doing about it? She argued that the focus should not be only on Eskom, but that private companies should also be taken into account. On the issue of public awareness, communities close to polluting hot spots needed to be further assisted and educated about the health effects.

Minister’s response

Minister Creecy pointed to the Constitution as a starting point for answering the questions. The Constitution assigned the responsibility for enforcement and implementation to the municipalities and it also provided resources. For instance, municipalities received payments from the companies that required licences. She therefore recommended that the Committee should contact the municipalities directly in order to find out why there were struggling to enforce the regulations. Afterwards, the Committee could either advise the Department to provide more capacity-building, or beat up the municipalities for their con-compliance. The Portfolio Committee had this important function. When placing the emphasis and increasing the pressure on municipalities, improvements were visible, so the Committee should undertake its work and call upon municipalities to explain what they were doing to implement their constitutional power. It was not the power of the Minister, and it was not allocated by laws, but by the constitution. As it was, only Parliament could try to get a two-thirds majority to change the Constitution and assign the power of enforcement to the Minister. The Committee must hold those accountable that hold the power of enforcement and implementation.

Furthermore, the Committee should summon those who it perceived to be the biggest polluters to question their non-compliance and inquire about their plans of action to comply in the future. It was important that the Committee use its mandate to call in polluting industries from the South Durban Basin, Cape Town, the Mpumalanga Highveld - or whoever it perceived to be responsible - to allow them to explain their particular problems.

In regard to public awareness, the Minister supported the idea of more public education around the issue of air quality. However, she would be the last person to blame poor communities for using coal-fired stoves for heating and cooking. The Department knew that these coal-fired devices caused PM-pollution, not only in the outside air but especially within the houses. Public education was helpful, but it always needed to come along with solutions. The Committee was asked to come up with solutions. The Minister reminded the Members that the fiscus was under strain and that the public had to pay for these solutions. Leaving no doubt that part of the PM pollution was a domestic problem, interventions must assist communities in dire economic conditions to understand the situation and to mitigate the problem.

Commenting that the Director General would discuss the matter of public participation in detail later, the Minister declared that the Department had not yet made a decision.

Another question that Committee Members should explore further was the issue of Eskom power stations, particularly the fleet which was due for retirement. The existing commission of inquiry had looked in detail into Eskom and the wrongdoings within state-owned enterprises, so there was no further need to discuss the matter here, but what needed to be considered was the issue of retrofitting power stations. What should they be retrofitted with, and was the taxpayer prepared to pay for it, because in the end, the retrofitting would become the responsibility of those who purchase electricity? Any capital expenditure would ultimately affect the electricity price. Through the Green Fund, the Department had raised money for the retrofitting of the Medupi Power Station with flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) equipment. FDG ensured an emission limit of SO2 below 500mg/Nm³, and a similar process was needed for the Kusile Power Station. The question remained what to do with the other power stations, as the retrofitting technology was expensive. The Minister doubted the circulating amount of R300bn -- that would be an exaggeration. The FDG at Medupi definitely did not cost R300bn. That number needed to be taken off the table -- the DG would provide further details later. The question that needed to be addressed was, whether the government could further burden the taxpayer by retrofitting the old power stations. The Committee needed to have a discussion on that and should advise the Department. In the end, it came down to the acceptable level of sulphuric emissions. According to a Greenpeace study, the sulphur levels in the high priority areas approached 3 500. A considerable improvement would be already a limit of 1 000 and rigorous enforcement. The problem was the set standard of a 500mg/Nm3 limit, without the necessary technology to reduce the current emissions. The Members should discuss this issue and advise the Minister whether to retrofit the old power stations with FDG or not.

Answering Mr Singh’s question on coal-fired power stations, she said 88% of South Africa’s energy mix came from coal-fired power stations. The Department looked forward to the new Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to set better benchmarks for renewable energies. The plan would be guiding on the way forward. The key issue that had to be addressed was carbon gas. There was no burning of coal without carbon gas -- the carbon gas could not be reduced. It all depended on a just transition from an 88% dependency on coal to a different energy mix, while the employment of the current workers in the coal sector had to be ensured by an alternative form of employment. The Job Summit last year suggested setting up a Climate Change Commission, which would oversee a just transition to a new energy mix without throwing thousands of people on to the street.

Director General’s response

Ms Nosipho Ngcaba, Director General: DEA, clarified the statistics on data recovery from the previous meeting on Tuesday. The Department had a standard target of 75% of data recovery from each monitoring station. Yellow blocks in the statistics referred to a data recovery standard below 75%, but those stations were still operational and the data was still useful. The Department was not misleading the Committee. It was a status report, and the challenges that led to the lower data recovery, including vandalism and power supply, had been mentioned. Only the white blocks referred to stations not producing any data, due to lack of maintenance. These stations were not on stream.

On SO2 emissions, the ambient air quality standard was set at 500. All new plants, like Medupi, were able to meet that standard. The postponement provision was applicable only to old plants. The Department wanted to find out whether the plants were technologically able to achieve the new standards. Engineers on site had now confirmed that it was possible. To clarify, the Department wanted to give old plants approaching retirement the option of flexibility for other technologies. In order to reach the 500 threshold, expensive FDG was required. The postponement provision had been set aside and withdrawn because the appropriate public participation process had not been fully followed. The postponement application had now been republished. The Minister would make a decision based on the outcome of the public participation process.   

The Department avoided talking about prices of technology, as it was not the producer, promoter or seller. It had had negotiations with Eskom and brought the demands down from the initial R600bn to R300bn. In the DEA’s assessment, the exact amount that was paid for Medupi had been stated. The DG did not have the full information with her today. If all the old power stations were to be retrofitted to be operating beyond 2025, Eskom would work out the average costs.

There were regulations and interventions concerning public awareness and indoor pollution that were supposed to protect communities, especially in high priority areas. Studies confirmed that the issue was not only about industrial emissions, but that there was a lot to do to address indoor pollution. Eskom had a rebate programme to remove coal-fired stoves in households, but the programme had been suspended. The Ministry of Energy should be addressed to inquire if the programme could be continued.

Lastly, the Department had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with SALGA and the technical and ministerial committees within CoGTA. However, municipalities still did not have sufficient capacity, as the Department lacked the resources to support all of them, so hot spot areas had been prioritised.

Ms Weber asked whether the schedule for the public participation processes could be circulated to inform citizens where and when they could participate.

The Director General assured her that information on the public participation process would be provided.

Asbestos Remediation: Minister’s introduction

Minister Creecy said asbestos had been outlawed as a building material. South Africa was a signatory to a variety of international conventions. The last asbestos mines had been closed in the 1990s, but the country had been left with a legacy of asbestos pollution -- for instance, in the form of former mines.

The Minister asked for the issue of the rehabilitation of asbestos mines to be left off the agenda, as it fell within the responsibility of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). Besides that, asbestos remained within many private and public buildings. Many roofs still contained asbestos fibres. Schools and clinics were constructed with asbestos, and even roads had been paved with asbestos, so the Cabinet had decided that there was a need for remediation.

Today, the presentation would deal with the progress of remediation. The difficulty was the fact that asbestos remediation involved several different departments, which needed to remediate in their own space. The Minister advised the Committee to direct questions of implementation and the lack thereof straight to the specific departments. The present panel should rather be questioned with coordination problems. She stressed at the outset that it would not be happy presentation.

Asbestos Remediation

Ms Mishelle Govender, Chief Director: Hazardous Waste Management and Waste Licensing, DEA, explained that asbestos was a naturally occurring mineral. South Africa had an abundance of asbestos across the country, which had been exposed through mining operations mainly in four provinces --Mpumalanga, Limpopo, the Northern Cape and North-West. It was a popular material as it could be widely used in a variety of products, such as cement and bricks.

Commercial mining started in 1910 and ended in 1997, when the public became aware of the health effects of asbestos. The last mine was shut down in 2002. The first rehabilitation programmes dealt only with the former mines rather than with the affected communities nearby. Primary contamination affected the miners, while secondary contamination occurred in the villages where the asbestos fibres were processed. The DEA had focused on these affected communities.

In 2006, a study had been conducted to assess the extent of secondary asbestos contamination. The study revealed two particularly contaminated areas -- Ga-Mopedi in the Northern Cape and Mshushu in Limpopo. Based on this, the Department had developed a remediation plan in 2006 and a costing model in 2008, which had been approved by the Cabinet in 2013. The National Environmental Management Waste Act of 2008 made provision for the remediation of contaminated land. The Department could test areas, confirm the contamination and make provisions for the specific land to be remediated. However, the implementation of the asbestos remediation plan required a lot of money. The provided funds had been used to remediate streets and schools in Limpopo, but a large number of roads and buildings still required immediate action.
The major departments involved in the remediation process were the Departments of Basic Education, Labour, Agriculture, Human Settlements and Transport. The biggest challenge remained the lack of funding, although specific departments had committed finances for remediation programmes. For instance, the Department of Basic Education had rebuilt the Khiba School in the Northern Cape. In the future, the existing remediation plan and already undertaken activities would be reviewed to address the prevailing funding problem.

Another challenge could be seen in the safe disposal of asbestos fibres, as they were classified as a highly hazardous material which could be disposed only at specific areas. Besides, barriers to asbestos management laws had to be identified and a more coordinated approach among all stakeholders was needed.


The Chairperson highlighted Parliament’s expectation that a Cabinet decision had to be implemented. Given that the Cabinet had taken a decision in 2013, who was accountable for the collapse of the remediation plan? There was consensus that asbestos was dangerous to the public, so the lack of funding could not prevent the implementation of the Cabinet’s decision. People were dying, but one could only go to their funerals and offer condolences, because there was no plan of action. If the Cabinet took a decision without any implementation, then there must be consequences, otherwise there was no purpose for the government. He quoted Nelson Mandela’s statement: “People can give you explanations, but they will not remove the challenges.” He sent a clear message that when the Cabinet took a decision, it was expected to be implemented. There needed to be action by the Minister.

Mr Singh agreed with the Chairperson on holding the Cabinet accountable through the member of the executive present today. The Portfolio Committee took this seriously. The announcement of the remediation plan had been made in 2008, either because it was a few months before elections or because the Cabinet really wanted to protect the lives of communities. He expected a report from the Minister after consulting with the Cabinet.

Secondly, he suggested that the Committee should write to the DMRE to inquire about the progress of the rehabilitation programme and to engage with colleagues from the responsible Portfolio Committee. It was quite ironic that even in Cape Town, houses built of asbestos still existed. One of his party members had been complaining for a long time about an asbestos roof, so even Members were exposed to contamination. This needed to be checked. The ban on new buildings was not enough. What was being done about existing structures containing asbestos? The few examples mentioned in the presentation were good, but how much more needed to be done? A survey was needed to assess the extent of contamination and to make the public aware of the danger.

Mr P Modise (ANC) was not satisfied with the presentation. For the new Members, he had expected the Department to take the Committee through the matter step by step, explaining who was who, and who was doing what. The Department should not assume that the Members had interfaced with the reports of the previous Committee. He had expected a bit more. A child born in 1996 would be 23 years old and would have a degree by now. How far was the remediation plan? Had there been progress? Was it going forward? Was it stuck? On the funding issue, the Department had not mentioned how much it needed. A plan of action needed financial projections. How much had the Department received? How much had it used? What was the money used for? The presentation was lacking details about the finances and projects involved. The stakeholders had been identified, but what were their roles? The departments were just listed, without any further information. He asked the Department to take the Committee seriously.

Ms Mbatha recommended giving the Department a format of what to include in presentations. The format should include all the expectations of the Committee that the Department should report on. She commented that asbestos was a hazardous substance which had been occurring naturally in South Africa for years, so total remediation would take time and the programme needed to be long-term. The presentation showed the historic development of the undertaken activities so far, which needed to be continued until asbestos was fully eradicated. She asked why the mines and the miners were not involved. The Department was supposed to rehabilitate the former mines, but it was not its sole responsibility. All relevant stakeholders should take part in assisting remediation. She referred to a case in Limpopo, where people had gone to old mine dams and deliberately inhaled asbestos fibres to get infected in order to get compensation. The fibres were highly infectious. People had not been aware of the danger and had rather looked at the money instead of their health. If asbestos fibres were still in the environment, the mining companies had to pay.

Ms Mbatha expressed empathy for the Department, since it was the policy maker, not the implementer. However, it should ensure close cooperation with the implementers on the ground. It should use its policies to foster the implementation and work together with the OHS labour inspectors. She asked for statistics on how many people were affected by asbestos contamination. Mining companies should pay for awareness campaigns for these affected communities. Where were those activities? Until today, asbestos was everywhere, like in the roofing in black townships. The Department should use researchers and experts from the National Institute of Occupational Health in Johannesburg to assist in the remediation activities. She agreed that more information was needed in the presentation, even though it became clear that every year something had been done. In the next presentation, she expected more input from the other involved departments.

Ms T Tongwane (ANC) asked if the committed funding had actually been delivered. She was from the Northern Cape, less than ten kilometres from Ga-Mopedi. How did the activities of the Department - like building schools - assist the affected communities? In these areas, asbestos was visible on the ground and even in the water, which was then used in households and for livestock. Many villages were affected, not only Ga-Mopedi.

Ms N Gantsho (ANC) asked for a comprehensive report to be emailed to the Committee by Wednesday.

The Chairperson said there had been an implementation gap between 1996 and 2019. There must have been a plan, but it would be outdated by now. The Committee wanted to work together with the Department in the reviewing process.

Minister’s response

The Minister made clear that if there had been a plan, the Committee would have heard about it today.
She accepted that the Committee had given the DEA a beating. She suggested that the Department meet with its sister departments to develop a credible plan that could then be presented to the Committee. However, a report would not be available by Wednesday. That would be unrealistic, so the topic should be closed for now.

The Chairperson accepted the Minister’s proposal. The sensitive topic - given the personal experiences with asbestos contamination by some Members - should not be further discussed to avoid conflict between the Committee and the Department. He stressed again that a Cabinet decision needed to be implemented. All officials should take a Cabinet decision seriously. A credible plan would be expected to be presented by the Department, which then could be monitored by the Committee.

Ms Weber demanded that a reasonable time frame be set for the reception of the action plan.

Mr Singh suggested one month.

The Minister proposed three months, to allow for coordination with sister departments.

Ms Mbatha reminded the Department to include statistics of affected people and compensation payments. How much money had been spent on compensating communities, as some people had been illegally trying to get compensation?

The Chairperson closed the discussion.

Meeting was adjourned.

Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: