Churches in unholy row over cellphone masts
Some reject masts over health fears, but others welcome them
03 September 2017 – 00:02
Pastor Charles White is in the business of saving souls, not irradiating them.
And a cellphone mast atop his new steeple is not the kind of hotline to heaven he aspires to at the Eternal Flame Church in Heathfield, Cape Town.
“The company [that approached us] probably knew we have plans to build a steeple over 9m in the air. That’s a very good target,” he said this week.
“We sided with the community that the mast is dangerous to children and health in close proximity. We are a community-based church. Everybody in our church stood with us in objecting to that mast going up.”
This is despite rental income of up to R35,000 a month that base stations offer; White does not believe it is a coincidence that his hair started falling out at his previous office, which was a few metres from a cellphone tower.
On the other side of Cape Town, Sirol Roselt from the AGS Durbanville church sees it differently. A mast is due to go up next to its crèche, despite objections from neighbours and the Durbanville Community Forum.
Roselt says the church community supports the move. “I have yet to see studies that have proved any health-related downside [to masts]. If there was any proof of health downsides I would not have supported it myself.”
However, opposition towards the proliferation of masts is growing countrywide as companies also target mosques, schools, retirement homes and even street lights, fuelled by a race to deliver fast-data coverage to gadget-addicted consumers.
The Muslim Judicial Council wants an independent investigation into the health impacts of masts, which receive and transmit the electromagnetic signals needed to make cellphone calls and – increasingly – access the internet.
Mast density has skyrocketed in urban areas due to population growth, with new installations commonly sprouting up as fake pine or palm trees.
“I’ve started sleeping in my car – I’ve made up a bed in there,” said Durban anti-mast activist Niki Moore, who is considering selling her house after she found it was receiving above-average radiation from a nearby tower. “Increasingly this is the residents of South Africa versus the cellphone companies.”
Other recent cases include:
• A mast at a school in Chatsworth, Durban, has sparked a legal dispute;
• A legal wrangle over a mast in Constantia prompted Vodacom to remove a tower, only for MTN to erect one – causing a new legal stand-off;
• Residents in Durban are furious over a lease agreement between Ethekwini municipality and MTN allowing the company to use camera surveillance towers to double as cell towers; and
• Vodacom recently removed numerous masts from Fourways Gardens after the intervention of the residents’ association. Residents are also considering legal action to prevent City Power from using street lights as antennae.
Opponents of mast proliferation are not convinced by World Health Organisation safety assurances, pointing to worrying studies, including one that linked electromagnetic exposure to tumours in rats.
Residents’ groups have also complained about a lack of public participation in planning decisions, with some accusing municipalities of seeking ways to circumvent the process. In Graaff-Reinet, the community said a tower was disguised as a chimney to keep it secret.
Mast companies do not need an environmental impact assessment if the tower is attached to an existing building or rooftop, the Department of Environmental Affairs said.
Spokesman Albi Modise said: “The Department of Health has indicated that surveys conducted in South Africa have shown that the actual levels of public exposure as a result of base station emissions are only a fraction of the [international] guidelines.”
Mast companies and cellphone companies this week denied any devious intent, pointing out that their actions are circumscribed by local government bylaws.
Pieter Pretorius from High Wave Consultants, which successfully applied for the AGS Durbanville church site, said better planning would reduce conflict with communities, particularly in light of rapid urbanisation.
MTN South Africa acknowledged the challenge of “striking a balance between the demand and community concerns”.
It added: “Over the past few years there has been exponential growth in demand for high-speed data services. This has required MTN to optimise its network to cater for an increase in data demand and consumption.”
Vodacom spokesman Byron Kennedy said additional base stations were the only way to ensure quality and speed of data connections given the huge growth in data traffic. Companies were also hamstrung by a finite allocation of electromagnetic spectrum – divided up among several users including television broadcasters. Kennedy said more than 20 million people across the country used mobile devices to access the internet on the Vodacom network.
“There is a proven link between increased internet access and economic growth, so the mobile industry is playing a crucial role,” Kennedy said.
• 15km is the estimated distance between cell masts along prominent highways like the N1
• 5m is the recommended no-go zone around base stations
• 50m is the recommended non-inhabited zone around base stations
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