Ethekwini residents are livid after discovering that their municipality has secretly signed an agreement with cellphone giant MTN to erect cellphone antennae in Durban, bypassing public participation planning regulations.
The city also “lied” to residents about the proposed new cellphone masts calling them a city-wide CCTV project which would include licence-plate recognition cameras. As a result, residents are blaming the slew of newly built transmitters for a wave of unbearable symptoms similar to radiation sickness.
In September 2016, residents in several Durban suburbs noticed workmen erecting large concrete towers in open city spaces such as traffic islands. Wondering whether these were new cellphone masts, concerned residents approached their councillors and the city administrators for clarity.
But the eThekwini Metro spokesperson, Tozi Mthethwa, reassured the community that the towers were not for cellphone antennae, but that the eThekwini Municipality had embarked on a city-wide CCTV project that would include licence-plate recognition cameras.
Mthethwa said at the time that the project was in line with the Municipal Integrated Development Programme which strives to create a “safe” and “smart” city.
“The objective was to reduce crime in various parts of the city as well as to have coverage of parts of the city where high levels of crime have been reported,” said Mthethwa in a statement.
“These cameras are monitored 24 hours, 365 days a year”.
City Press has been discovered that Mthethwa concealed the fact that the towers were the result of a secret deal struck with MTN by the city’s head of disaster management, Vincent Ngubane, which would allow the cellphone company to circumvent the public participation process that was required for the building of new cellphone infrastructure.
MTN’s national property manager, Gerard Naidoo, confirmed in a telephone interview that MTN had undertaken a “municipal infrastructure agreement” with Ethekwini that allowed the company to “share municipal infrastructure”.
The understanding, said Naidoo, was that where infrastructure existed, such as high-mast lighting, telephone poles and CCTV surveillance towers, MTN would “share the structure” for installation of their equipment.
Naidoo claimed that the arrangement was “above board” and done “in good faith” with eThekwini management. He referred additional queries to the city.
MTN had previously had several applications for new towers opposed by residents, who feared health risks and property devaluation as a result of the proximity of the towers.
Homeowners were therefore surprised and outraged when the completed “surveillance” towers were fitted with cellphone antennae instead of cameras. In some cases the masts included a camera perched on top, but in most cases the towers were purpose-built cellphone masts, put up without the necessary public participation process required by municipal planning laws.
Initially the masts sported metal plates with the name of the service provider that had constructed the towers, naming the client as MTN. These were later removed.
One of these service providers, Tellumat, confirmed via a telephone interview that they were solely contracted to erect cellphone towers for MTN.
At the time that the towers came into operation, hundreds of residents living in the vicinity of the towers began experiencing mysterious headaches, muscle pain, depression and a number of other symptoms.
In Glenwood, where 10 antennae were erected in a one-kilometre radius without a public participation process, resident Andre van Rooyen and his wife landed in hospital with a mysterious debilitating illness.
“I started talking to people in the neighbourhood and I discovered that all my neighbours were suffering from the same symptoms. These symptoms were identical to those listed in a number of scientific studies into the effects of cellphone radiation. We were directly opposite a cell tower that had been built in a road below us,” he said.
In Merebank, a tower was erected on school premises and almost immediately residents began experiencing symptoms of headaches, dizziness, muscle pain and depression. Community worker Yusuf Vawda has collected 600 signatures from residents who want the towers removed.
In Chatsworth, Woodhurst residents have approached the high court to have a tower dismantled. They say was erected without following due process.
MTN has referred all queries from residents to the municipality, saying that the shared agreement was administered by the city’s disaster management unit, and that MTN followed all the legal and planning requirements as specified by the municipality.
Ngubane, the man who is named as the person who agreed to the “infrastructure sharing” arrangement, refused to be interviewed.
The city communications department, approached with a request to clarify their misleading public statement, also refused to respond.
With new 4G cellphone technology, cellphone companies are compelled to transmit stronger and stronger signals in order to carry the volume of live streaming demanded by smart phones. When asked about the health effects of these new towers, Gerard Naidoo of MTN stressed that the company complies with guidelines set by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and World Health Organisation.
Emission level guidelines are extremely complicated calculations, depending on various factors. These guidelines were drawn up in 2005.
In a fact sheet published in October 2014, the World Health Organisation estimated the number of mobile phones at 6.9 billion worldwide.
“The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Studies are ongoing to more fully assess potential long-term effects of mobile phone use. The organisation will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from radiofrequency fields exposure by 2016,” it said in the statement.
In May 2015, 190 scientists from 39 countries issued a press release, in which they submitted an appeal to the United Nations, UN member states and the World Health Organisation, requesting that they adopt more protective exposure guidelines for electromagnetic fields (EMF) and wireless technology in the face of increasing evidence of risk.
The press release says that “the industry has set what they say are ‘safe levels’ of radiation exposure, but there are a growing number of doctors, physicists and health professionals who strongly disagree, and foresee a public health crisis”.
In January 2015 Umhlanga residents successfully opposed the erection of a new cellphone tower in their neighbourhood, and in February 2016 in Durban North there were more than 100 written objections to plans for a new tower.
Chatsworth residents are taking the city to court over a cell mast erected on school property.
According to eThekwini city planning regulations and bylaws, the erection of any cellphone mast, or the installation of any cellphone antennae, requires a 30-day public participation process.
Apart from health concerns, residents object to the aesthetics of cell towers, and estate agents have estimated that the proximity of a cell tower can decrease the value of a house by up to 20%.