Fourty-five-year-old Thomas Mnguni was born and raised in Middleburg Mpumalanga. He has lived his entire life in what the government considers a priority zone in terms of air pollution, which means that there are very high levels of pollution in the area. The priority zone covers the Gert Sibande District, Nkangala and Ekhuruleni.
Thomas has always been a community activist, he speaks casually about being arrested at a community protest a few years ago, where the community was protesting about the renaming of the local municipality from Middelburg to Steve Tshwete and advocating for community members to be employed in projects that were being set up or created for the community. “I’ve always been an activist, but when I found environmental justice activists, I knew that’s what I should be doing,” he said. And when Groundwork (an environmental justice NGO) offered him a job in 2015, Thomas had finally met his match.
By the time Thomas was employed by Groundwork he had already accumulated a wealth of knowledge from previously volunteering at Environmental justice, another environmental NGO. He learned from fellow activists and his quest for knowledge led him to section 24 of the Constitution of South Africa, which he now recites confidently. “ 24A Everybody has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.” Armed with the constitution and his knowledge of the environment, Thomas decided to get into communities and make them aware that their rights are being violated and that there were rules and laws that protect them from such violations.
A few years later, Thomas’ four year old son, developed chronic flu, the family did not make too much of it. Thomas’ mother then said that this was not normal, and that the child had to be taken to see a doctor. The doctor told Thomas that his son was displaying signs of asthma. Considering what he knew about pollution from his activism, Thomas decided his family had to move away. The place they were staying in was very close to two mines and a landfill. A few months after the move, Thomas’ sons asthma became more manageable.
After this experience, Thomas was more determined in his activism. He wanted to inform communities, empower them and assist them in mobilizing themselves to start to demand that the government protect their environment and in doing so, protect their health.
“The thing about environmental justice is that it is politics and it cuts across all spheres of society, it’s about health, it’s about housing, it’s not just about the environment,” says Thomas.
- Foot soldiers of the health system: It’s election time which means men and women in party regalia take to the streets, podiums, loudhailers and stadiums. Invariably they tell people about all the good and wonderful things they have done or plan to do in the health system. SECTION27’s Nomatter Ndebele and photojournalist Thom Pierce travelled the roads of South Africa in search of the foot soldiers of the health system, the men and women who quietly get on with doing the job and saving lives, often without any acknowledgement.