South Africa


South Africa’s offshore gas strike – it’s all good, right?

A burning funnel of the Romanian central oil platform, on the Black Sea, near the shore of Constanta city, Romania 05 April 2016. EPA/STR

South Africa’s business press, taking its cue from President Cyril Ramaphosa, is treating the discovery of natural gas off the Southern Cape coast like it’s sunk a 70-foot putt for birdie. But the economic realities of climate change, added to the ingrained truths of the resource curse, suggest that lightning is about to blast the course. Do we play on or run for cover?

Six months ago, I would not have taken people like you,” said our driver, when we were negotiating the return trip from Port Harcourt to Yenagoa. “Now, it is fine.”

It was April 2013, and government forces had just gained the upper hand in their campaign against MEND, the violently retributive Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Although our driver was adamant that the situation was calmer than it had been in years, 12 Nigerian policemen had been killed by MEND gunmen less than two weeks before our arrival. The clampdown — and hence the lull — was in direct response to the sentencing of Henry Okah, MEND’s leader, by a South African court. In early March, after he’d been given 24 years, Okah had promised that the “gates of hell” would be let loose.

Which, we thought, was fair enough — given that through the windows of the speeding taxi, hell is exactly what the Niger Delta was.

By “people like us”, our driver had meant oyinbos — “white boys” — who’d been pumping the region with toxins since soon after the start of the slaving era, but who’d properly come into their own in 1956, when oil was first struck in commercial quantities in the small town of Oloibiri.

Over the ensuing half-century, the villages of the Delta would literally ooze with spilt crude. For years after the notorious Shell oil spills of 2008, settlements of thousands of people were caked in the stuff, which had seeped into the groundwater, run up the sides of buildings, destroyed fishing ponds — for 80% of families, their only means of support — and caused illnesses ranging from skin disease to cancer.

But here was the hellish part. By April 2013, there were 31 million Nigerians living in the Delta on a combined average of less than $2 a day — meanwhile, the region was generating 80% of Nigeria’s revenues, and a staggering 95% of its foreign exchange earnings.

These figures were provided courtesy of the website of the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, which at the time was awash in oyinbo oil company logos — Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Total — under the seemingly benign banner of “MNDA Partners”. Back in December 2010, it transpired, Wikileaks cables had revealed that Shell was running a corporate mole operation inside all the main ministries of the Nigerian government.

A sad story, sure, but what’s the point of telling it? Why burden you with these tales when none of it applies to South Africa? Just ask the business press, who on Thursday 7 February were treating the breaking news like the answer to our economic prayers.

A significant gas-condensate find off the coast of SA will provide a significant boost for the economy of R1-trillion over the next 20 years,” gushed Business Day, significantly. Bloomberg’s story, which was the most read across the country’s news platforms, gave pride of place to a man named Niall Kramer, CEO of the South African Oil & Gas Alliance (a lobby group), who referred to the find as “catalytic” and offered the following insight: “There’s nothing that has been on this kind of scale.” And Alec Hogg, whose sentence construction wasn’t much better (in fairness, it appeared he was too excited to punctuate), said this:

South Africa’s long wait for a meaningful oil and gas discovery ended yesterday when an exploration consortium headed by French group Total announced a gas find of about a billion barrels of oil equivalent in the offshore Southern Outeniqua Basin which runs parallel to the Southern Cape coast.”

Of course, it’s best to avoid ad hominem attacks, especially over something as trivial as grammar, but these are unprecedented times. As such, unrestrained enthusiasm for the carbon economy could conceivably give rise to the following exceptions to the ad hominem rule:

  • When the science is indisputable that fossil fuel emissions are destroying the biosphere at a rate far greater than expected;

  • When the normally conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns us to cut emissions in half by 2030 or face civilisational collapse; and

  • When our own Department of Environmental Affairs, in a mostly ignored report, confirms that South Africa is warming at twice the global average, which under low mitigation will have devastating consequences for agriculture, water security, biodiversity and human health.

And so, to bring things back to an even keel (because none of this is really funny), let’s talk a bit more soberly now about mitigation and the exuberance of the financial caste. In this spirit, the announcement last Thursday has a history and a context, one that may have come to fruition under President Cyril Ramaphosa, but was begun in earnest by his predecessor.


On 15 October 2014, at the International Convention Centre in Durban, President Jacob Zuma updated his audience — a high-level delegation of government and private sector influencers — on progress regarding “Operation Phakisa,” which had recently been introduced as the bedrock of the country’s National Development Plan, or NDP.

We had announced in June this year that we are chasing a growth target of 5% by 2019,” our erstwhile leader said. “To achieve that target, we require new and faster ways of doing things, and Operation Phakisa represents that new spirit of moving faster in meeting our targets. Operation Phakisa is an adaptation of the Big Fast Results Methodology of Malaysia.”

Newer, bigger, faster. The government’s starting point, explained Zuma, was that South Africa was surrounded by a vast ocean, an “untapped resource” that had the potential to contribute R177-billion to the economy and create a million jobs by 2033. Phakisa, which means “hurry up” in Sesotho, would unlock this potential through marine transport and manufacturing, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture (or fish farming) and something called “marine protection services and ocean governance”.

Basically, Zuma’s plan to repair the economy involved building a fleet of South African-registered ships and some new rig repair facilities at the country’s ports, but mostly it focused on doing what the nation’s governing classes have always done best — extract the natural resources, then wait for the trickle-down effect to kick in. As for aquaculture, this was small potatoes next to the GDP potential of the first two, and so was just a nice-to-have. And the last category, the “ocean governance” thing, was where the environmental caretaking would happen.

If all sectors implement the measures to fight climate change at the same time,” explained Zuma, “together we can build the biggest mitigation buffer against climate change. We can save our country and the world for future generations.”

Are we allowed to get indignant again?

Let’s hold off a bit longer, while we quote Patrick Bond and Desné Masie, a pair of Wits academics who were around for Phakisa’s 2014 launch (Daily Maverick reviewed the collection in which these words first appeared here):

At the Durban hotel, more than 650 experts and officials — with predictable race/class/gender biases — brainstormed an ocean commodification drive in which these crises were reduced to ‘policy conflict’ and hence the state’s ‘capacity to manage and mitigate the environmental impact’ of Phakisa. For these technocrats, South Africa’s existing negative ‘general public perception’ about oil and gas exploration could be explained away… mainly by the public’s alleged ‘general lack of knowledge’ and ‘lack of understanding’ regarding the country’s supposedly admirable governance systems, especially in regulating fossil fuels.”

Indignation, reboot. The 650 experts forgot to send their brainstorming notes to the whales and dolphins off the KwaZulu-Natal coast, who in 2016 and 2017 were stranding in record numbers amid the seismic surveys of the oil and gas prospectors, whose air guns were blasting underwater at 200 decibels every 10 to 15 seconds for 24 hours a day. On the back of this, leading marine scientists accused the petroleum industry of reneging on an agreement made through Operation Phakisa that seismic surveys would not be conducted between the months of June and November, when the whales migrate north to breed off the coast of Mozambique.

And this happened before oil or gas had even been found. As Bond explained to Daily Maverick in 2018, the Agulhas current is the second most dangerous current in the world, and the prospectors were drilling at depths of up to 3.5km. What were the chances that nothing else would go wrong?


True, there are no human beings 175km off the Southern Cape coast, no settlements of fish farmers who’d be choked out by a sudden eruption from a burst pipe (as in the Niger Delta), no indigenous communities prepared to die in defence of their ancestral lands (as everywhere from Standing Rock to Xolobeni).

The last time Total was responsible for a major accident at sea was in March 2012, when 238 workers were evacuated from a platform in the UK’s Elgin fields, after rig workers who were trying to close off a well-lost control of the repair. Although it was the largest ever leak in North Sea history, releasing an official 6,000 tons of gas into the atmosphere (unofficial estimates placed the figure at almost four times that), the UK’s Health and Safety Executive deemed it a “disaster averted”.

Which, apparently, was because no people were killed. The methane cloud that rose kilometres into the atmosphere, the petrol condensate sheen that spread like death across the ocean’s surface, were of little consequence to the authorities, who fined Total all of £1-million and change — a small percentage of the profits that the conglomerate was making in an hour.

We learned on the weekend from a report in the Sunday Tribune that this same company was going to “rescue the South African economy”. Albert Mbalati, chief executive of South African oil and gas exploration company DNG Energy, told the newspaper that the find would not only bring the country “energy security” but would “preserve the environment”. Natural gas, he reminded us, is a “transition fuel” whose carbon dioxide emissions are “60% less than fossil fuels.”

Which is spot-on, Mr Mbalati, except that natural gas is a fossil fuel. Also, some of the estimates place the reduction in emissions at less than 50%. Also, when natural gas leaks it releases methane, which is about 25 times more effective at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide — which means that those (low-balled) 6,000 tons of gas that escaped during Total’s accident in the North Sea were equivalent to around 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide.

But let’s be positive. Let’s assume that Total won’t allow another accident to happen because it’s terrified of paying another million-pound fine — our newfound gas fields would still be a great thing for climate change, right, far better than coal or crude oil? Not right. We’ve known since 2012 that even if we replaced all the world’s coal-fired power plants with natural gas, it would do almost nothing to slow global warming this century. What we need to do, according to every uncompromised climate scientist alive, is to quit, as soon as possible, preferably yesterday, our dependence on fossil fuels.

It’s an economic pipe-dream, sure. But then even The Economist magazine has taken to admitting that climate change is a straight-up example of market failure, an instance where — thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal — the possibility has been raised that “economists have lost the chance to lead the fight”.

Meanwhile, our business press, taking the cue from our president and his sidekick Gwede Mantashe, will continue to pretend that the trickle-down effect actually works — that this discovery is the best thing to happen since the last commodities boom; that we are not, nor will we ever be, Nigeria or Mozambique or Angola. DM


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