Chapter 3 : South Africa

South Africa’s landfill CDM, fraud, community division and environmental racism
By Khadija Sharife and Patrick Bond

3.1Bisasar Road seen from above



South African corporations and government agencies have had a recent history of attempted – and in the case of the Bisasar Road landfill, successful – abuse of the Clean Development Mechanism. In April 2010, after a long debate about the merits of constructing the world’s fourth-largest coal-fired energy facility, the Medupi power plant was proposed by Eskom officials as a potential CDM project, but by early 2012 had not been taken to formal application stage.[1] In the same spirit, in 2009, an attempt by Sasol to claim that a gas pipeline investment was ‘additional’ to pre-existing plans (hence deserving emissions reductions credits) was ridiculed by the Johannesburg activist group Earthlife Africa based on an admission by a company official, and did not pass muster in the UN vetting process.[2]

But the most controversial CDM project is the country’s leading pilot: a methane-electricity conversion at Bisasar Road dump in Durban’s Clare Estate residential neighborhood, celebrated by everyone in power from the municipality to the UNFCCC. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. It escapes from landfills. Through burning, it turns to carbon dioxide whose potential as greenhouse gas is lower than that of methane. Following introductory information, the subsequent pages detail environmental racism, intra-community conflict, municipal fraud, United Nations incompetence, and a failure of the methane extraction system even on its own terms.

For John Parkin, deputy head of engineering at the municipal agency Durban Solid Waste, ‘What makes (the Bisasar Road CDM project) worthwhile is the revenue that can be earned from carbon credits, estimated at 3.1 million certified emissions reduction credits, worth about $15 million, along with some 6-8 megaWatts of electricity over a 20 year lifespan.’[3] In late 2006, the French Development Agency pledged long-term loans of $8 million to Durban’s landfill gas projects (Bisasar is by far the largest of three), alongside $1.3 million extended by South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry.

The landfill is Africa’s largest. One of three fully permitted landfill sites in Durban, Bisasar was opened for business in 1980 by the apartheid regime. The Group Areas Act, a crucial pillar of the apartheid government’s segregation agenda, meant that Bisasar Road would ‘import’ waste from privileged white areas to impoverished and working-class black areas deprived of basic human rights. Bisasar was emblematic of 4000 disposal dumps created across the country (of which, the government acknowledged, only 200 met minimum environmental standards). Residents of Clare Estate – classified as an ‘Indian’ and ‘coloured’ area but with a large African shack settlement from the mid-1980s – lacked access to political, economic and legal recourse. Their attempts at mobilising dissent against the regime were ignored, although the African National Congress pledged in 1994 that the new democratic municipal government would close the racist dump.

Despite ongoing opposition to the dump from residents, and promises by the government to close and rehabilitate the dump, Durban Solid Waste supported the continued use of the dump, as two other sites – in wealthy Umhlanga and impoverished Umlazi township – were shut instead. Described by the municipality as ‘favourably placed with respect to central Durban, close to a major artery connecting the city to the West, North and South,’[4] the dump processes 3000 to 5000 tonnes of waste daily, including hazardous waste such as sewage sludge and medical waste. In spite of vehement calls for closure, of the dump’s significant leachate and of respiratory problems in the community, the national Department of Water Affairs and Forestry extended the landfill’s life cycle in 1996.

Although the permit issued was for general waste only, a meeting between the municipality and national water officials in 1995 resulted in the site’s operators being ‘granted a permit without a buffer zone’ even though (as Condition 5.7 of the permit put it), ‘the permit holder shall accept obnoxious sewage sludge.’ Hosting 19 million cubic metres of waste, the dump was described by Carl Albrecht, research director of the Cancer Association of South Africa, as a toxic ‘cancer hotspot’ where residents ‘are like animals involved in a biological experiment.’[5] Bisasar holds a further four million ‘available’ cubic metres of fully permitted landfill space before critical mass is reached, hence there is potentially another decade and a half of dumping in the black neighbourhood.

3.2 Bisasar Road CDM entrance

Source: Jason Hinkle


3.3 Bisasar Road CDM turbines  

Source: Jason Hinkle


Municipal racism and community conflict cemented by global climate finance

Bisasar was opened for business in May 1980 by South Africa’s apartheid regime. The primary factor informing the site’s selection process, situated in Clare Estate’s nature valley, was the Group Areas Act, a crucial pillar of the apartheid government’s agenda to legally segregate races through the specific allocation of residential areas determined by race. The systematic exclusion and dehumanization of the majority included gross environmental racism. The politics of waste was taken up by the African National Congress (ANC), the liberation movement that would later come into state power, following the country’s first non-racial democratic elections in 1994. But their well-advertised promise to close the landfill after liberation was broken.

The struggle against this project was mainly led by Sajida Khan (1952-2007), a self-taught ecologist. Attempting to shut the dump that ultimately killed her, Khan dedicated half her life to a contest with municipal bureaucrats and the World Bank.[6] Khan was raised in what was the traditionally Indian neighbourhood within Clare Estate, astride a nature reserve that spanned a small valley. In 1980, when Khan was 28,  her  surroundings were suddenly destroyed by apartheid officials. The peaceful reserve became an unending, stinking heap of rubbish, which until the late 1990s also included a medical waste incinerator. Khan believed that the neighborhood’s involuntary receipt of wealthy white Durbanites’ droppings was the root cause of her two cancer cases, the latter of which was fatal. The reason that Bisasar Road dump was not closed in the early 2000s notwithstanding a very substantial pressure campaign by Khan and 6000 residents, was a commitment by the World Bank to invest a potential $14.4 million grant to convert landfill methane emissions into electricity.[7]

Community opposition to the Bank’s CDM and demands for Bisasar Road’s closure were not universal. The Khan family built their middle-class house in the 1950s on Clare Road. Some members of the family still reside in the house overlooking (to the west) the dump, directly in the path of prevailing winds which continually coat the area with light landfill dust and disease-carrying flies. As logical as her closure demand was, given the history of environmental racism, there were nevertheless conflicting opinions about how to handle this menacing neighbor.

Starting in early 2005, the Abahlali baseMjondolo shackdwellers’ movement of Kennedy Road – also directly adjoining the landfill, to the north – did an extraordinary job struggling against adverse conditions and police repression (until in September 2009 many of the leaders were driven away after violent attacks). But throughout the 2000s, the Kennedy Road shackdwellers welcomed the opportunity to have several dozen of their members pick rubbish and informally recycle it while on the dump. Scores more shackdwellers once informally picked materials from the dump, until the municipality’s Durban Solid Waste (DSW) limited access due to safety and health dangers.

Kennedy Road leaders accused Khan of threatening livelihoods and sabotaging the city’s offer of a handful of jobs and bursaries in the event the CDM project got off the ground.[8] Khan had used the word ‘informals’ to describe the shack settlement residents and once advocated that they be compensated and moved to areas nearby (as she herself desired for her family), sufficiently far from the dump (she recommended a buffer for all residents of 800 meters) to be safe from the windswept dust. At the nearby clinic, health workers confirmed that Kennedy Road residents suffer severely from asthma, sinusitis, pneumonia and even tuberculosis. The toxic body load is unknown, but heavy metals and other dangerous substances penetrate the water, air and shifting soils. Khan had a profound empathy for people in the same proximity as cancer-causing and respiratory disease particulates, as she noted in an interview: ‘Recently a woman was buried alive. She died on the site [picking rubbish, killed by a dump truck offloading]. I could have saved her life.’[9]

3.4 Sajida Khan, 1952-2007


The leader of Abahlali baseMjondolo, S’bu Zikode, later argued that Durban municipal officials manipulated these socio-racial divisions: ‘We were used. They even offered us free busses to protest in favour of this project … to damage those who oppose this project.’[10] The promised jobs and bursaries that justified the group’s earlier support for the CDM never materialized. The leading KwaZulu-Natal based environmental NGO, GroundWork, argued against the municipality’s divide-and-conquer politics in a 2008 report, Wasting the Nation: Making trash of People and Nations:

Closing down illegal picking was not possible without their cooperation. But in return for that cooperation they wanted to secure the recycling and site cleaning jobs exclusively for people from Kennedy Road and take over the labour-broking contract with DSW for site cleaners. There are not, in fact, many of these jobs left at Bisasar Road. The commercial recyclers employ 15 people on piece rates at the recycling pad established by DSW, while there are 25 people employed as site cleaners.[11]

In spite of the project’s environmentally racist past and present, Ken Newcombe declared Bisasar to be ‘operated and maintained on a world-class level.’[12] Replied Sajida Khan, ‘Unlike me, he does not live across the road from Bisasar.’ As Khan argued, ‘The community would not have marched and demonstrated; blocked the entrance to the site; handed a petition with 600 signatures to the mayor; written press articles and voiced our dismay on national television if we had accepted the Bisasar dumpsite.’ The World Bank was apparently intimidated, and it pulled out of the Bisasar Road project, although two other much smaller methane-electricity CDM projects were funded at the same time. But by July 2007, having been twice struck by the cancer she believed came from particulates that floated across the road into her life-long home, Khan had died.

Was the CDM necessary ‘additional’ finance – or part of a multifaceted fraud?

With Khan gone and her personal lawsuit against the city null and void, the municipality then went to the markets, without the World Bank. The French Development Bank assisted with a US$8 million loan, and municipal officials soon constructed the full system of extracting methane, burning and flaring it (with associated incineration hazards given the GHGs and heavy metals that coexist with the methane, including nitrogen oxide, lead, cadmium and other toxics), powering the turbines, and connecting the generated electricity back into the municipal grid. According to Parkin, ‘What makes it worthwhile is the revenue that can be earned from carbon credits.’[13]

The World Bank had backed off in 2005 when Khan’s fame was at her height – e.g. the lead paragraph in the Washington Post’s analysis of the Kyoto Protocol when it came into effect that year: ‘[Sajida] Khan who has fought for years to close an apartheid-era dumpsite that she says has sickened many people in her predominantly brown and black community outside Durban, South Africa, was dismayed to learn recently that she faces a surprising new obstacle: the Kyoto global warming treaty.’[14] In 2008, the Bank was replaced by an investment company, Tradings Emissions, which acquired the right to purchase one million emissions reduction credits. The firm’s investment advisor Simon Shaw termed Bisasar and the other two landfills ‘an important project, it is operational, it has a long-term future and we anticipate registration shortly. These credits will be a useful addition to our portfolio.’[15]

In March 2009, the municipality registered it on the United Nations list of CDM projects, as active through at least 2014. The four million cubic meters of potential Bisasar Road rubbish that is today’s remaining capacity – on top of 19 million cubic meters in the dump that are already exuding methane – will allow extraction of methane and damaging on-site conversion of electricity for many years to come. Khan believed that the gas should indeed be removed, but through nearby gas pipes, not burned and flared on site. Khan’s goal of Bisasar Road’s immediate closure with conversion of the gas for industrial use a long way from residential areas could have been achieved were there better financing systems available than the unstable carbon market.

In contrast, Christiana Figueres, a leading carbon trading expert who in mid-2011 was named Executive Secretary of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, gave Durban’s electricity-from-landfill gas project accolades during the COP17.[16] She declared that the United Nations had selected the initiative as one of the world’s ‘top ten renewable energy projects’. Likewise, a World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund website claimed in 2004 that this project:

may be a first of its kind for Africa… ‘I think the example we are setting in Durban, working with the World Bank to deal with landfill, is a huge innovation. We are turning dirt and garbage into a raw material that we could grow wealth from. If you wanted to say to yourself, ‘we want to be the cleanest city in the world’, waste, in my view, is the best place to start,’ said Obed Mlaba, Mayor of Durban.[17]

At the time of writing, Mlaba – who served as mayor from 1995-2011 – is being investigated by the ‘Hawks’ national crime authorities for alleged hijack of a tender and preferential tendering treatment, given that his daughter’s company received a tender worth more than $70 million to operate a major incineration project at Bisasar Road. Describing it as his post-retirement ‘hobby’, Mlaba, along with his two daughters Thabiso and Thandeka, acted as directors of the newly created entity Own Environmental Waste Solutions, the company that allegedly hijacked the tender from the previous preferential bidder: Environmental Waste Solutions (EWS).

That company’s founder, Richard Wardrop, a Durban businessman who was initially the majority shareholder, found himself sidelined after Mlaba’s entity, incorporated in November 2009, allegedly stole the bid. (Thandeka resigned from being a listed director in EWS the following day, while Thabiso remained on board).[18] Indeed, prior to Mlaba’s alleged coup of EWS’s preferential status, Mlaba himself had acted as a sleeping partner in EWS. Wardrop explained, ‘Sixty percent of the company belonged to me, 20 percent to the Obed Mlaba Family Trust – Obed was one of our silent partners – and 20 percent to Bheki Mtolo, who was introduced to me by Mlaba.’[19]

This was a readily observable fraud, which because of a business professional’s objections, was followed in early 2011 by a South African police investigation, and which may lead to prosecution against the former mayor and if so, possibly conviction and jail time. But a deeper fraud appears to have been committed: the Bisasar Road project was known by key municipal officials to be ineligible for CDM status because it did not satisfy ‘additionality’ requirements, which specify that if the project does not need the additional CDM funds – if it would have gone ahead in any case without the funding – then it does not qualify.

This is a highly subjective area for CDM officials to evaluate, especially when an authority as familiar with the project as Parkin testified (on this occasion in 2008 just before going to the UN for certification), ‘What makes it worthwhile is the revenue that can be earned from carbon credits.’[20]

Yet Bisasar Road should not qualify as a CDM project. According to the chair of the CDM Executive Board, Lex de Jonge, ‘Additionality is the cornerstone of any credible CDM project.’[21] That is, without qualification as an additionality, the CDM shouldn’t be approved. And as Parkin revealed in late 2011, ‘We started the project prior to CDM. We were already down the road, (it) just made it come faster because the funding was there. If the funding wasn’t there, we may have had to delay the project until funding could be found through other means.’[22] He continued, ‘As the City, if we can make some money out of it, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done and the whole moral issue is separate from the project.’[23]

When asked to explain his statement, Parkin responded,

Just remember, it started off as an environmental project in 2003. The Kyoto Protocol was only signed up to 51 percent by 2005. We already started the project and we were going ahead no matter what, so whether CDM became a reality or not, the project was going to go ahead. I don’t see that there is a moral issue to make it a more beneficial project… I am a technocrat – I accept there are moral issues… (But) the objection to this project was that they said they will approve the project if you close the landfill site. That was the link. It wasn’t ‘we were against the project’, it was, ‘we’re against the landfill site’. There is no link to the project and the landfill site. In terms of the landfill site, it will continue for the city’s benefit until it is full. (emphasis added)[24]

In short, Parkin admitted that the project would have gone ahead, with or without CDM status – in theory, disqualifying it from CDM status – for the purposes of flaring gas in an economically ‘positive’ manner. When asked how CDM as justification facilitated the development of the project through City investment, Parkin revealed, ‘Because when you motivate to the city, you say this will eventually be an income source and won’t be a drain… We have 480,000 credits in the pipeline and issuances waiting for 65,000, so we already have half a million carbon credits at 7 euro.’[25]

Does Bisasar Road work as advertised?
Just as important as all the other criticisms of Bisasar Road is that the project was excessively hyped and, according to a December 2011 presentation by Parkin, the methane reduction was just half of that predicted at the small Marianhill landfill (Component 1) that had initially been approved by the World Bank, while Bisasar Road was only using gas at around 80 percent the rate anticipated (Component 2). The landfill at La Mercy was such a failure – due to low-pressure gas flow – that the World Bank methane-to-electricity generator constructed there was abandoned and the equipment moved to Bisasar. For Bisasar the CO2-equivalent tonnes reduced were predicted to be 270,000 while in reality only 218,000 were reduced in 2009 (the last available year for which data are available), according to Parkin.[26]

Would donors such as the French Development Agency (AFD) still have invested in the Bisasar initiative, knowing the facts on the ground? Denis Vassuer is a representative of the AFD, a public institution specializing in the financing of sustainable development projects. Asked about investment preferences and cost differentials, he responded that composting projects far outperformed landfill gas initiatives across the board as they facilitated greater complementary ecological, social and community benefits, and he stated that composting projects were ideally suited to countries in sub-Saharan African with humidity and high levels of organic waste in landfills.[27]

Beira in Mozambique, with 80 percent organic waste (currently being converted into fertilizer by Terra Nova), was identified by Vasseur as one successful project. Bisasar – with 59.9 percent methane richness (the product of decomposing waste) – was another. ‘We should invest in composting first,’ he stated, describing already functioning initiatives in Bangladesh. Given that AFD previously invested nearly $10 million in the project, Vassuer’s overall response, strongly leaning towards composting in similar circumstances, was revealing.

Others, like Cathy Lee of Lee International, a company specializing as Emissions Trading Consultants, strongly advocated in favor of Bisasar as a successful carbon trading project. ‘There is no way to close this dump, right now. If recycling, composting, waste avoidance programmes were extremely successful, it would be far less needed. But right now that is just not reality,’ she said.[28] Later, on the phone, she would concede that everything she knew about the Bisasar dump was learned from newspapers. When asked by a representative of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) whether recycling and other alternative methods such as waste diversion should be utilised, Lee stated vehemently, ‘The problem is those are rich countries. You can’t do here, what you can do in Europe.’[29] Similar problems arise in other countries, e.g. Egypt (see BOX 2).

In other words, a more climate-appropriate approach could have been considered, but was constrained by two factors: a CDM which locked in municipal environmental racism, intra-community conflict, fraud and ineligibility; and adequate financing to pursue a different route. It is because of this dual problem of CDMs – they amplify problems, and they forego alternative options – that this mechanism should be discontinued, especially if the pilot project for South Africa, even one lauded such as Bisasar, exhibits such extreme contradictions.

[1]. Jocelyn Newmarch, ‘Eskom seeks Medupi carbon credits,’ Business Day, April 28, 2010.

[2]. Earthlife Africa (2009), ‘Press Release: South Africa’s emissions offer,’ Johannesburg, 10 December.

[3]. Interview with Khadija Sharife, October 10, 2009.

[5]. Patrick Bond and Rehana Dada, ‘Putting a price on fresh air,’ 17 January 2005,

[6]. Patrick Bond, ‘Privatization of the air turns lethal,’ Capitalism Nature Socialism, 18, 4, 2007.

[7]. Khadija Sharife and Patrick Bond, ‘False solutions to climate crisis amplify eco-injustices,’ Women in Action, 2009, 2.

[8]. Aiobheann O’Sullivan, Carbon Credits, Centre for Civil Society CCS Wired #1 video, Durban, 2005.

[9]. Interview with Rehana Dada, 25 September 2005.

[10]. groundWork, Wasting the nation, 2008,

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. Ken Newcombe, ‘Letter to Durban Mayor,’

[13]. Financial Mail, ‘Hope for recovery process’, 17 October 2008

[14]. Shantar Vedantam, ‘Kyoto credits system aids the rich, some say,’ Washington Post, March 12, 2005.

[16]. Independent On Line, ‘Cities urged to upscale clean energy plans,’ 2 December 2011,

[17]. World Bank Prototype Carbon Fund 2004 website. Durban’

[18]. Independent On Line, ‘Mlaba and the great tender hijack,’ 10 April 2011,

[19]. Ibid.

[20]. Financial Mail, ‘Hope For Recovery Process,’ 17 October 2008,

[21]. L. de Jonge, ‘Development of the CDM over time and in the future,’ 2009,

[22]. Africa Report and Pacifica News journalists taped interview during Durban municipal tour of Bisasar Road landfill, 30 November 2011.

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Ibid.

[25]. Ibid.

[26]. John Parkin, ‘Durban’s gas-to-electricity project’, Durban Solid Waste powerpoint, 7 December 2011.

[27]. Ibid.

[28]. Africa Report and Pacifica News journalists taped interview during Durban municipal tour of Bisasar Road landfill, 30 November 2011.

[29]. Ibid.