South Durban Oil Refineries, South Africa

South Durban, 25 miles south of the largest port in Africa, is home to the SAPREF and Engen oil refineries[1].  Negligence in refinery practices along with the nation’s oppressive apartheid past make South Durban a site of severe energy injustice brought about by practices of uneven development.

SAPREF refinery at dusk (Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters)

The South Durban industrial zone joined the national vision for development in the early 20th century as part of a broader national interest in South African ports and industry[2].  At the moment of this vision, and throughout the development of the industrial zone, these “national interests” were solely representative of South Africa’s white, ruling population.

Through the creation of an industrial zone, politicians, planners, and city officials were effectively able to justify the removal and marginalization of the already disadvantaged black and Indian populations.  Central to the industrial zone plan was the political need to, “dictate (and often restrict) the pattern of black urban settlement in urban environments”[3].  The introduction of the apartheid government in 1948 and the Group Areas Act of 1950 sectioned off different areas by race across the urban landscape[4].  Given their lack of representation and rights under the apartheid regime, nonwhite members of South Africa’s population were assigned to the least desirable geographic areas.  In South Durban, these areas were located in the new industrial zone.

Engen and SAPREF are now the two largest oil companies in South Africa.[5]

An atypically blue sky over the Engen refinery (Rogan Ward/ Rueters)

 Engen Quick Facts:

  • Present in more than 20 African countries, Indian Ocean Islands, and over 30 other territories[6]
  • Nameplate capacity of 135,000 barrels per day and operates over 1,500 service stations[7]
  • 80% owned by Petronas and 20% owned by the Pembani Group[8]
“SAPREF: The aging oil refinery beast” (Susan Galleymore)

SAPREF Quick Facts

  • Largest refinery in RZA, processes 24,000 tons of crude oil daily[9]
  • Produces 2.7 billion liters of petrol per year (approx. 71.3 million gallons)[10]

Both Engen and SAPREF were built in within a few kilometers of homes in Wentworth and Merebank, areas designated as colored and Indian townships by the Group Areas Act[11].

Map of South Durban- note the proximity of Merebank and Wentworth to both refineries. (Brooks et al. 2010)

Energy Injustice in South Durban

South Durban is a site of energy injustice due to negligence and the lack of access to resources and profits afforded to the local population or marginalized identities.  Under another piece of apartheid legislation known as the Key Points Act of 1980, the publishing of any information about the South Durban oil refineries was deemed illegal[13].  In fact, “not even local authorities were allowed to know how much pollution the plants were pumping out”[14].

In recent decades, community action of various forms has pressured the local government and refinery officials to reduce sulfur emissions[15].  Although the results have indicated a reduction in sulfur emissions, other toxic gases including benzene remain high[16].

SAPREF refinery gas flare (SDCEA 2015)

Outside of air pollution, the South Durban refineries frequently experience flash fires, explosions, leaks, spills, and flaring.  In 2001, gas spills contaminated water sources and, only after intense lobbying efforts from the local community did SAPREF replace its 40 year-old pipes[17].  In more recent news, a flash fire in Durban last May was responsible for the death of one worker and the hospitalization of two others[18].

These harmful, costly acts of negligence on the part of Engen and SAPREF reduce the quality of life for the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods whose location in the area was predetermined by the legacy of apartheid.

Wentworth, Merebank, and residents from surrounding neighborhoods protest outside of SAPREF (Sharl Els 2015)

In Wentworth and Merebank, the two aforementioned neighborhoods closest to Engen and SAPREF, communities are most vulnerable to the risks associated with uneven development and refinery negligence.  These areas face economic issues highlighted by a 52% unemployment rate among the adult population.  Of those who are economically active, 79% survive on less than 15,000 rand (roughly $1000) per year[19].  In Wentworth, the number one employer is, not surprisingly, Engen[20].

The proximity to its cheap, nonwhite labor force has allowed the company to hire and release employees at its leisure depending on its workforce needs.  This state of affairs reflects the tendency for energy corporations and government to select the path of least resistance when siting new industrial facilities[21].

Health/Safety Impacts

  • 75% say that industrial activity threatened the health and safety of the community[22]
  • 75% anticipate an increase in pollution[23]
  • 23% anticipate land to devalue with an increase in industrial land use[24]
  • 47% reported a member of the household suffering from asthmatic bronchitis, 44% suffer from allergies[25]
  • Fever (26%), eczema (23%), and wheezing (9%) are also common health risks[26]

The Path of Minimal Resistance

  • 79% are often unaware of industrial upgrades[27]
  • 91% do not attend public meetings (85% of which report that they do not attend because they are uninformed about meeting times)[28]

Furthermore, studies link asthma to sleep deprivation and suggest that this contributes to the fact that students with asthma miss school more frequently than their peers and are therefore more liable to under-achieve in the classroom[29].  This unfortunate reality must be measured critically against the work for community improvement and social good that the refineries claim to bring to the local community.

Soccer match on a sports field next to the SAPREF oil refinery, Wentworth, Durban, 1995 (Cedrick Nunn)

Refinery Community Initiatives

According to SAPREF’s website, the company is committed to supporting community uplift initiatives focused on education, poverty alleviation, and capacity building in local communities[30].  Ironically many of the South Durban community’s children struggle to succeed in the classroom as a result of severe asthma brought on by the sulfur emissions from the refineries.  Without being able to attend school regularly due to health conditions, children in Merebank and Wentworth are prone to falling behind their peers[31].

Engen advertises its Training Center as a tool for community upliftment and the upskilling of the labor force.  Although this is an admirable program, the program only trains its workers in, “traditionally ‘colored’ occupations of boiler making, fitting and turning, millwrighting, pipe fitting, and similar artisan work”[32].  In short, this initiative is ultimately self-serving for Engen as it schools workers in skills that will directly benefit the procedures that allow the refinery to continue to operate and profit while polluting the environment.

Through the systematic oppression of marginalized groups throughout the country’s history, the harmful effects of energy production have targeted the same communities whose cheap, expendable labor is required operate the means of energy production.  Although South Africa’s apartheid history offers a path to trace back the roots of its energy inequality, it is one of countless examples of ways in which energy systems contribute to uneven development and the marginalizing of communities based on race, socioeconomic status, belief system, or ethnicity.


[1]Nurick, R., & Johnson, V. (1998). Towards community based indicators for monitoring quality of life and the impact of industry in south Durban. Environment and Urbanization, 10(1), 233-250.

[2]Scott, D. (2003). ‘Creative Destruction’: Early Modernist Planning in the South Durban Industrial Zone, South Africa*. Journal Of Southern African Studies, 29(1), 235.

[3]Mabin A.S. and Smit.D. Reconstructing South Africa’s Cities? The making of Urban Planning 1900-2000, Planning Perspectives, 12:2, 193-223.

[4]Mabin, A. (1992). Comprehensive segregation: The origins of the Group Areas Act and its planning apparatuses. Journal Of Southern African Studies, 18(2), 405.

[5]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011) Feeling the Heat in Durban, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 22:4, 50-73.

[6]Engen. (n.d.) History of Engen. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from

[7]Engen (n.d.)

[8]Engen (n.d.)

[9]Sapref (n.d). About SAPREF. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from

[10]Sapref (n.d.)

[11]Chari, S. (2006). Life histories of race and space in the making of Wentworth and Merebank, South Durban. African Studies, 65(1), 105-130.

[12]Brooks, Shirley, Sutherland, Catherine, Scott, Dianne, & Guy, Heli. (2010). Integrating qualitative methodologies into risk assessment: insights from South Durban. South African Journal of Science, 106(9-10), 1-10. Retrieved April 19, 2016, from

[13]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011)

[14]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011)

[15]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011)

[16]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011)

[17]South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (2011)

[18]Suthentira Govender, (2015), One dead in Sapref fire. Retrieved March 30, 2016, from

[19]SRK Consulting (2004). Social impact assessment: The proposed upgrade of Mondi Paper, Merebank, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal

[20]Desai, A. (2002). We are the poors: Community struggles in post-apartheid South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[21]Mohai, P., Pellow, D., and Roberts, J.T. 2009. Environmental justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34: 405-430

[22]Jaggernath, J. (2010). Environmental conflicts in the South Durban Basin: Integrating residents’ perceptions and concerns resulting from air pollution. African Journal on Conflict Resolution, 10 (2), pp. 137-152.

[23]Jaggernath (2010)

[24]Jaggernath (2010)

[25]Jaggernath (2010)

[26]Jaggernath (2010)

[27]Jaggernath (2010)

[28]Jaggernath (2010)

[29]Nriagu J, Robins T, Gary L, Liggans G, Davila R, Supuwood K. Prevalence of asthma and respiratory symptoms in south-central Durban, South Africa. European Journal of Epidemiology, 1999;15:747–755.

[30]Sapref, (n.d.), FAQ. Retrieved March 01, 2016, from

[31]Desai (2002)

[32]Desai (2002)




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