Rights group wins court bid against Engen

The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) has won a bid to join the high court battle between a group of south Durban basin activists and petroleum giant Engen as a friend of the court.

The groups want the Regulation of Gatherings Act — which Engen used to have the protests outside its Wentworth refinery banned — to be declared constitutionally invalid by the court.

On Friday the high court in Durban granted the application by the civil society body, which campaigns about access to information and freedom of political activity, to join the case between Engen and the South Durban Basin Community Development Trust as an amicus curiae (friend of the court).

In terms of the order, R2K is given leave to present oral evidence and written submissions to the challenge to the Act by the trust. Members of the trust were involved in a series of protests in 2018 to try to force Engen, which has run the refinery in Wentworth since 1954, to employ local people and involve local contractors in its multibillion-dollar business.

R2K will submit written heads of argument to the court seven days before the matter is set down to be heard. 

Engen responded to the protests, some of which became violent, by securing an interim interdict against the trust and its leaders, Frank Alexander, Melanie Haines, Allen Holmes, Terrence Ogle and Brandon Manique, using the Gatherings Act and the National Key Points Act to secure the order against them.

However, they went back to the court to challenge the interdict and the terms of the Gatherings Act, arguing in court papers that section 12(1)(a) of the Act violated their right to protest in terms of section 17 of the Bill of Rights and their labour rights in terms of section 23 of the Bill.

Engen had unsuccessfully objected to R2K joining the case, arguing in its heads of argument that the protests had been violent and potentially “catastrophic” and that the application of the Act had been appropriate under the circumstances.

Alexander welcomed the judgment.

The Mail & Guardian has reported in the past on the effects of Engen’s refineries on the community of Wentworth. Cancer rates in the valley where much of the community sits are so high that everyone speaks about it as “cancer valley”. Research by the University of KwaZulu-Natal shows that leukaemia is 24 times higher here than anywhere else in the country. Half the schoolchildren in the area suffer from asthma.

The two largest industries are the oil refineries, but the presence of many other petrochemical plants means there are about 300 smokestacks in south Durban.

These health effects have meant a decades-long battle between the community and Engen and other industries to lower pollution levels. Engen has consistently said that there are other sources of pollution, and that it has spent significant amounts of money to reduce the effect that it has.

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