Johannesburg Strives for Greenness
By Anthony Stoppard
The Rio+10 Summit gets under way Aug 26 in Africa's largest industrial city, where inequalities and contamination are rampant.
JOHANNESBURG, (Tierramérica).- This South African city, Africa's largest industrial center, is attempting to clean its face in preparation for hosting the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), also known as Rio+10, the largest international conference to be held on the continent. But its social and environmental problems just cannot be hidden.
More than 100 heads of state and approximately 45,000 delegates are expected to converge on this northern South African city for the Summit, to take place in the exclusive suburb of Sandton, Aug 26-Sep 4.
With 3.8 million inhabitants, Johannesburg is marked by the urban planning of Apartheid -- the racist white regime that was finally dismantled in 1994 -- that still separates the wealthy, mostly white-inhabited suburbs from the poor areas where most blacks live.
Nowhere are these differences so visible as in Sandton, often described as the richest square kilometer in Africa, set alongside the poor township of Alexandra, home to blacks.
Sandton is home to many of South Africa's financial houses and the Johannesburg stock exchange.
It has shops filled with luxury imported goods and international brand names. It is an urban legend that the area has so many swimming pools and landscaped gardens that it looks like a tropical forest on some satellite pictures --even though it is built on the dry African veld.
But just around the corner, the nearby township Alexandra is a typical example of living conditions for the majority of urban South Africans. Over 350,000 people are crammed into a township originally designed for 75,000. Unemployment in the township is estimated at 60 percent.
Johannesburg, or Joburg, as it is known locally, started out as a mining town during the gold fever of the veld in 1886. The city grew as it sat atop one of the world's biggest gold deposits.
Air pollution is caused by the emissions from the city's industrial belt and the coal-fired electrical plant. To the south, the gold mines' dumps send up dust over the black townships. Forest fires in the surrounding areas are frequent and the impoverished residents of Alexandra and Soweto continue to rely on coal and wood for cooking and heat. Water is also a scarce commodity.
Alexandra township is the focus of a special presidential sustainable development program that aims to kick-start economic growth, provide essential infrastructure and social services and clean up the environment.
The summit has served as a good pretext to initiate much-needed change. Throughout the city, roads are being widened and water and telecommunications infrastructure is being upgraded to cope with the influx of delegates. Furthermore, communities are being mobilized to clean up their townships and suburbs ahead of the 10-day event.
The "Greening the WSSD" initiative is an innovative attempt to ensure that the summit is organized in an environmentally responsible way.
The initiative entails checking that the hotels where delegates will be staying have water conservation policies in place and that transport for delegates have emission reduction technology, to protect the atmosphere.
These preparations have been entrusted to the Johannesburg World Summit Company (Jowsco).
Admission into the Sandton Convention Center), where the heads of state are to gather, will be very limited for security reasons. Jowsco is setting up the Ubuntu Center (Ubuntu means "people" in the local Nguni language), a short distance from the Convention Center, as a meeting place for other delegates.
Both locations will have video connection to the Global Forum of civil society organizations.
There were fears that the Global Forum would have to be scaled down because of a lack of funds and political divisions among the participants. However, these have been sorted out and the organizing secretariat is ensuring activists that the Global Forum is going full-steam ahead.
In addition to the main conferences, there are 211 official parallel events, including seminars, exhibitions, debates and discussions and cultural events, planned to take place round Joburg during the summit.
But the South African population seems to be relatively indifferent. In spite of all the activities planned, a poll conducted two months ago revealed that only 15 percent of the respondents were aware that their country was hosting a major international summit.
* Anthony Stoppard is an IPS correspondent.