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International Cooperation

Public Participation Guide: Container Handling in the Port of Durban, South Africa


This case study describes the public participation process that was conducted in the context of an Integrated Environmental Management exercise related to the proposed expansion of container handling facilities at the Port of Durban, South Africa. This case study illustrates the benefits of involving stakeholders throughout the entire decision process, from initial problem definition through option generation, option evaluation, and decision-making. The use of a collaborative process resulted in a broad consensus on a preferred course of action and ensured that stakeholders were jointly responsible for determining the outcome.

Sponsoring Agency/Contact

  • Portnet (South Africa’s national port authority)


The container handling facilities in the Port of Durban, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa have been over-extended since the 1990s; increased container traffic over the preceding two decades highlighted the need to upgrade facilities to accommodate growth and increase efficiency in container handling. The Durban Metropolitan Area, known as eThekwini, relies heavily on the port industry, the area’s largest economic contributor, as does South Africa generally. Portnet was increasingly concerned that continued growth would exceed the port’s container handling capacity. However, despite the importance of the port to the regional and national economy, there was public concern that expansion of the port would harm the delicate ecology of the Bay of Durban.

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Public Participation Goal and Level

Portnet hired independent consultants to investigate the problem of container handling in the Port of Durban. The consultants recommended using an Integrated Environmental Management (IEM) approach to promote an open and participatory process. The main objective of IEM is to resolve or mitigate any negative impacts and to enhance positive impacts associated with development alternatives. The IEM process was conducted prior to the promulgation of South Africa’s current environmental impact assessment regulations.

The key principles of IEM that were adopted in this study were:

  • Independent coordination of the process;
  • Equal treatment of all stakeholders;
  • Meaningful involvement of all stakeholders in an open and participatory process ;
  • Collaborative problem solving and consensus building;
  • Respect for individual rights and democratic principles;
  • A clear articulation of the motivation or need for additional container terminal facilities;
  • Due consideration of alternative solutions, including the “no-go” option;
  • An effort to mitigate negative impacts and enhance positive impacts of proposals;
  • An effort to ensure that social benefits outweigh social costs;
  • Informed decision making;
  • Accountability for information on which decisions are made; and,
  • Compliance with these principles throughout planning, decision making, implementation and de-commissioning.

The public participation goals were to:

  • Ensure that all relevant stakeholders were involved in the process;
  • Ensure that stakeholders had the necessary capacity to substantially participate in the process;
  • Facilitate a process that would allow stakeholders to participate in successive stages of the process so as to develop a constructive response to the problem;
  • Conduct the process with a close consideration of the need for extensive and accessible communication as well as creative participation techniques; and,
  • Achieve as much agreement as possible among the involved stakeholders.

The above key IEM principles and public participation goals are consistent with the Collaborate level of public participation (see the spectrum of public participation [PDF]). (1 pp, 621 K, About PDF)Exit

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Specific Public Participation Tools and Techniques Used

A wide range of tools and techniques were used in this process, including:

  • Individual meetings and consultations;
  • Briefing sessions;
  • Workshops;
  • Public meetings;
  • Open house events;
  • Visioning exercise;
  • Mass communication methods (summaries made widely available, posters, etc.);
  • Negotiation forum (Local Advisory Committee); and
  • Formal public comment and correspondence.

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Public Participation Approach

The IEM process involved a series of steps combining technical study with a significant public participation process. The public participation process consisted of the following stages: stakeholder identification, problem definition and visioning, option exploration, option evaluation, and decision-making.

Stakeholder Identification

The proponent of development, Portnet, hired a team of independent consultants (project team) to conduct an environmental impact assessment on a site-specific container terminal development proposal in the Port of Durban. The project team convinced Portnet of the need to adopt a full IEM approach. In the initial stage of activity, the project team held a public meeting and subsequent workshop to reach agreement with Portnet and identified interested and affected parties on the study brief.

The project team then expanded its stakeholder identification and outreach, with an emphasis on those likely to be immediately affected by the possible development of new container facilities in the Port of Durban. A variety of mechanisms were used to identify stakeholders, including:

  • Networking with stakeholder groups;
  • Drawing on the expertise and existing databases of local consultants;
  • Advertising in the local media with a call for participants;
  • Collecting information on participants at events organized as part of the process; and,
  • Maintaining an ongoing database of contacts.

The group of stakeholders represented diverse interests, including port management, business, labor, government, navy, community and non-governmental organizations. The challenge to the process was to ensure that the approach implemented allowed for the full and adequate involvement of key stakeholders. Initial energy went into meeting individually with a broad array of stakeholders in order to establish channels of communication and build trust and confidence in the project team, identify concerns, and establish process requirements of the diverse groups.

Problem Definition and Visioning

The project team developed various background studies and provided the documents in an accessible format to enable the substantial participation of stakeholders. The background documents enabled the project team to reach agreement with Portnet and other stakeholders on the nature of the container handling problem. The rationale for focusing on reaching agreement on the nature of the problem was to allow for a broad range of possible solutions to the problem. A narrow exploration of the problem would give rise to a limited set of solutions. The project team explicitly sought an open approach regarding the problem and potential solutions.

In addition to reaching agreement on the nature of the problem to be addressed, all stakeholders participated in a visioning exercise regarding the future of the Bay and Port of Durban. The vision statement served as the basis for developing criteria, which were applied later during the review of possible solutions.

Option Exploration

Once agreement was reached on the nature of the container-handling problem, the project team worked with stakeholders to explore possible options for dealing with the problem. The project team conducted various background studies to help inform this process. These background studies aimed to:

  • Understand the interrelationship between the Bay and the City;
  • Understand the natural functioning of the Bay; and,
  • Develop criteria for assessing the options.

Based on a critical evaluation of Portnet’s motivation for additional container handling facilities and recognition of the substantial economic and social benefits to be realized by the City and Province from such facilities, stakeholders agreed that a “do nothing” option was not a desirable course of action. The challenge was to find a way of accommodating the container growth while promoting the City-Bay interface, multi-functional use of the Bay, and maintaining the Bay’s vital ecological role. Stakeholders subsequently identified a set of possible options in workshop sessions.

Option Evaluation

The project team and stakeholders then worked interactively to determine the possible consequences of the options identified. This process drew on the preparation of materials that clearly communicated to stakeholders the options as well as their possible consequences. Materials included large scale posters and matrices of options and criteria.

During this stage of the process, it became possible to narrow the set of options under investigation. This gave rise to debate among stakeholders, including Portnet, regarding the final decision making process. Stakeholders accepted that Portnet would have ultimate decision making power. However, they felt that the positive collaborative process that had been undertaken would be diminished if its outcome were merely a report setting out options and consequences for Portnet’s consideration. The sense of collective involvement led to an agreement that a committee of stakeholders be established to advise the decision makers on preferred options for implementation. Portnet accepted this and consequently a Local Advisory Committee (LAC) was convened.

Decision Making

The project team prepared a decision document that consolidated the key findings of the IEM process to provide the LAC with a basis for selecting a preferred option, or set of options, for resolving the container handling problem. This set the stage for a process of deliberation, negotiation, and further study.

The LAC reached agreement on preferred options for dealing with the container handling problems. In a detailed assessment of these proposals, Portnet identified certain constraints which were not apparent during the earlier stages of the IEM process that rendered certain options unfeasible. Portnet subsequently submitted a revised development proposal for consideration by the LAC.

The LAC requested that the project team convene specialist task teams to identify and assess specific concerns associated with the revised proposals. The purpose of these focused inputs was to supplement the work already completed. The task team research led to the LAC revising its recommendations. Consequently, Portnet decided in principle to implement phases One and Two of the proposed development proposal subject to the outcome of a detailed impact assessment.

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The IEM process successfully accomplished the goal of integrating a process of participatory planning with an environmental assessment exercise through the IEM process vehicle. The process consequently led to a broad consensus on a preferred course of action that met the approval of most stakeholder groups. It was a good example of an exercise in developing a sustainable solution to a challenging urban problem within a large metropolitan area. It served thereby to build social capital and sustainable relationships.

Further, depth of the IEM process benefited stakeholders in the following ways:

  • Gave stakeholders the opportunity to engage in a thoughtful debate and to influence decision-making;
  • Provided stakeholders with an opportunity to collaborate in problem-solving, rather than only consulting;
  • Allowed stakeholders to develop expertise on the issues at hand and to build their capacity on substantive and process issues; and
  • Promoted the development of constructive long-term relationships between and among stakeholders beyond to the problem on the table.

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Lessons Learned

This case study reinforces several key principles of public participation, including commitment to a specific level of public participation (in this case Collaboration), the development of a shared vision to guide subsequent deliberations and problem-solving, the importance of building sustainable relationships among stakeholders, and the need to build stakeholder capacity to engage effectively in substantive discussions.

The key principle informing the approach to this project was to seek a collaborative solution to the container-handling problem faced by the port. The process had the explicit intention of not only considering the implications of the various development options, but more significantly of finding agreement among stakeholder groups on a preferred option. The project team played the role of facilitators in this process.

The methodology of generating a collectively held vision for the port, scoping possible solutions for the problem under investigation, exploring the consequences of the respective options, and ultimately selecting a preferred solution reinforced the notion of it being a shared, collaborative process of problem-solving. This process was distinctive in that ultimately all of the participants in it were jointly responsible for determining the outcome.

An important aspect of the process was stakeholder participation in the visioning exercise on the future of Durban Bay. This exercise had a number of important aims, including promoting dialogue about different stakeholder perspectives, guiding the identification of possible solutions to the problem at hand, and providing a basis for developing criteria to evaluate the different solutions. The last point on criteria development is significant; it allowed the stakeholders involved in the process to be at the core of the evaluation of the options under investigation.

The vision-making process also served to build relationships that lasted throughout the process and in some cases have been sustained since the conclusion of the exercise. The shared vision and the associated relationships built as a result of the visioning process provided the basis for negotiating the final outcome to the process. It was a critical mechanism of evaluation and resolution. While not all stakeholders have been fully satisfied with all aspects of the outcome, those that had reservations found it easier to accept trade-offs because the process was rooted in a commonly shared vision.

A significant concern in this process pertained to stakeholder capacity for meaningful involvement in the process. Capacity problems included practical constraints preventing stakeholders from attending meetings, such as constraints of time, transport, and finances to cover costs. They also included real limitations among stakeholders regarding their knowledge on substantive issues in the process. The process was facilitated in a way that acknowledged and sought to address these concerns. Meetings and activities were arranged so that they were conducted at centrally accessible venues and at times that were suitable to most participants. The time of events usually straddled the end of the working day and the early evening.

The project team invested significant resources in providing background information on issues associated with the investigation. These were written in popularly accessible language so that all stakeholders could have a common base of understanding of issues. Background documentation was not restricted to a single background document and subsequent drafts of scoping and assessment reports. Background briefings on key issues and contextual information were also produced for the use of stakeholders.

This case study also provides several lessons about techniques used in such processes. These include:

  • Constructing the process around a series of staged and incremental steps adds value, as it allows for shared knowledge to be collected and built upon and also keeps the process on track;
  • Structuring the process to allow thoughtful debate increases stakeholder satisfaction with the process;
  • Diversifying events and activities enables broad participation from a wide range of groups;
  • Developing a dedicated and creative media strategy creates a supportive environment for the environmental assessment process in the mass media;
  • Drafting and presenting information in an accessible form for stakeholders adds value to the process.

Explore the full Public Participation Guide.

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For additional information on EPA's Public Participation Guide, contact:

Shereen Kandil
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Office of International and Tribal Affairs (2650R)
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20460