THE Durban Anti-Cell Mast Alliance (DACMA), a residents lobby group created in 2017 to protest the illegal roll-out of MTN cell masts across Durban, lodged papers on Friday in the Durban High Court, asking for a review of the ‘secret deal’ that cellular company MTN concluded with the eThekwini Municipality in April 2016.
According to DACMA spokesperson Niki Moore, in terms of this deal, eThekwini Head of Disaster Management Vincent Ngubane absolved MTN from any regulatory processes when they put up their infrastructure across the city.
The filing of the papers follows almost two years of public outrage against these illegal cell towers. Despite numerous newspaper reports, community activism, council questions, applications via PAIA, legal correspondence and public meetings, neither eThekwini municipality nor MTN have done anything to explain how this situation came about, or whether they intend to rectify it.
Moore said in court papers, a group of applicants asked for an urgent High Court review of this ‘secret deal’. She said MTN and eThekwini Metro are accused of disregarding by-laws, disregarding town planning schemes, contravening national legislation such as NEMA, health and safety guidelines and the Civil Aviation Act, contravening Section 33 of the Constitution, contravening PAIA, contravening PAJA, contravening the Municipal Systems Act, and committing fraud.
“We have been forced to go to court because both MTN and eThekwini Municipality have consistently lied about this secret arrangement. This infrastructure roll-out was completely unprocedural and secret, with the result that MTN put up cell masts, hundreds of them, next to creches, schools, old age homes, on people’s pavements, in play parks, right outside their homes – with absolutely no consultation, no site planning, no permissions, no scoping, no public process,” said Moore.
She said the research the group had done had shown that the roll-out was completely unnecessary, as none of the masts increased cellular connectivity in areas where it was actually required.
“MTN has done the cellular telephone industry no favours. By proceeding illegally and unprocedurally, they have raised huge concerns about their industry in the minds of the public. Now people are really talking about cell masts, and the effects they are having on property prices, the environment, and people’s health.”
While DACMA is not against the need for reliable communication technologies, they believe there are better ways to go about it. At the moment, the impact of long-term high-frequency microwaves on humans and the environment is relatively unresearched – and the research that does exist is causing alarm amongst scientists.
“The cell companies hide behind the fact that they abide by so-called ‘international limits’, but they suppress the fact that these limits have been unchanged since 1998, are based on discredited science, and do not take into account the massive changes in technology in the last ten years. We know that cell masts are unsightly, and that no-one wants to live near one, but we still don’t know what they are doing to us and our environment,” said Moore.
She said it was nonsense that municipalities, who make money out of cell mast rental can dismiss any community concerns about the unverified effects of cell masts from the people who are forced to live right next to them.
“We are hoping that this court case will make both municipalities and mobile telephone companies stop and think about their reckless actions.”
Councillor Chris Pappas also recently reported that the Democratic Alliance (DA) in eThekwini would continue to vote against the erection of cell towers unless reasonable and unbiased information was provided by the municipality regarding health effects on residents and impact on property values.
Pappas said the DA wants the City to conduct an independent study into the health effects of cell towers and the impacts of cell towers on property values, as well as to provide an updated and comprehensive policy on telecommunications infrastructure in the city. This came after a Town Planning Appeals Committee meeting recently, which was attended by an assembly of mobile network operators (cell phone companies) and companies who build cell masts and then rent out the space.
“The public should be aware that the City of eThekwini will not be considering health effects of any particular mast when adjudicating appeals and objections. So if your chief concern in objecting to a cell mast is the health concern you will be wasting your R5 000 appeal fee. However, it is residents’ constitutional right to appeal and the decision will rest with individuals whether to appeal or not,” he said.
Pappas said there were other very relevant issues on which residents can appeal, and these appeals must be based on scientifically proven facts or justified town planning reasons.
The illegal MTN roll-out in Durban sparked concerns about the sudden proliferation of cell masts across the country. As a result of public concern, citizens across South Africa founded a national lobby group National Alliance Against Cell Masts (NAACM). The aim of this group is to assist people to combat unwanted and unnecessary cell masts in South Africa, to pressure the South African government into revising microwave radiation limits from cell masts, and to lobby for communication technologies that are less potentially harmful.
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