The superdrug

In my great-grandfather’s Day THEY travelled on horseback and pulled their wagons with oxen

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In my great-grandfather’s Day THEY travelled on horseback and pulled their wagons with oxen. The only fuel they required for travel was the grazing grass of the veld and it was as free as the rain. When I was a boy you didn’t need a car, because buses were punctual and plentiful and to travel by train was safe and cost next to nothing. Lorries were scarce as the Railway Police were a force to be reckoned with and all goods were transported by rail. For holidays my father often shipped our car down to the coast by rail, while we followed in another train. Even in the early 1960s it was still very cheap to travel. You could buy a litre of petrol for 8c and a brand new mini for about R800. Later when my parents stayed in Durban, it cost me only R4 to drive down from Pretoria for a visit.

Drug wars

In the past wars were fought over gold and diamonds. Today’s wars are drug wars and even the Gulf War and the present “Bush-and-Blair” war in Iraq are about the superdrug of our time – fossil-fuel energy, which the whole world is addicted to, and the consequences affect us all. Before the early 1970s inflation was something that only happened to your tyres, but ever since the Arabs started to put a squeeze on the oil-taps, it has dictated world economies.

Due to the sorry state and insecurity of our rail system, the cost of living is unnecessarily high as everything must be transported by road. With our population expansion, the wild places became more distant as time went by. Everything I want to do as a field sportsperson is affected by the cost of travelling. But it needn’t be like this, if we manufacture our own fuel.

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While at university I worked as laboratory assistant at the Fuel Research Institute. I tried to do my little bit to make Sasol a reality. We were all highly motivated and worked long hours, to make our country less dependent on imported fuel and produce our own oil at a fraction of the international price. Sasol petrol could at the time be produced at less than 2c/ℓ!

The hassle with Sasol

Almost half a century later I can’t help but feel it was as futile as the Bush war. Fearing sanctions, the government went into an agreement that Sasol would not compete with the oil cartels and would sell us our own fuel at international prices. When the threat of sanctions disappeared, however, Sasol was so happy with the huge profit they’d been making the agreement stayed in place. When the price of imported oil later went through the roof, so did the price of Sasol.
When the authorities saw that our total addiction to this “superdrug” kept us from complaining, they started to add all kinds of taxes and levies to the price of fuel and all we did was dig deeper into our pockets.

A reliable source in Secunda informed me recently that Sasol is produced at about R1/ℓ, while we pay seven times as much. I had to cancel my annual tigerfishing trip to Zambia this year due to the ever-rising cost of diesel. I made my last trip to Kariba over New Year 2004. By all accounts there was no fuel in Zimbabwe, so at around R5/ℓ we filled up with enough diesel to make it there and back. At the border we encountered long queues of Sasol fuel-tankers and not a single empty pump on the other side, while the price all the way to our destination averaged R2,70/ℓ! We were taken for a very expensive ride, literally.

In reality Sasol fuel isn’t so cheap – not if you take into account the environmental damage it inflicts. For its size Secunda produces the highest concentration of greenhouse gases in the world. Now they plan to build a third coal-to-oil plant, in the pristine environment of the Waterberg! How much must we still sacrifice, without any benefit, so they can make super profits? No wonder TIME magazine recently reported that sources of oil can be more of a curse than a blessing to the developing world, because of the environmental damage done without any benefit to the population.
The situation is out of hand, but we have only ourselves to blame. Like drug-starved zombies we allow ourselves to be lead by our noses, as long as we can only get our daily shot of the “superdrug”. We even allow the economists to tell us inflation is caused by the high cost of food, which is all produced and transported with expensive diesel.

In fact, the cost of fuel determines the price of everything. We’ll be slaves to the Sasols of this world, until we realise there are better ways to move around, and in future issues we’ll look at some of these ways. – Abré J Steyn (e-mail [email protected] or contact 083 235 4822) |fw