“I don’t know much,” said Richard Spoor, “but I know not to hit a police general.”
It was the morning of 17 January 2019, and Spoor, who in the past two decades had secured more victories for South Africa’s mining-affected communities than any other human rights lawyer in the country’s long and tortured history, was giving interviews on the pavement outside the Bizana Magistrate’s Court, where he had just appeared on an assault charge.
A small group of journalists had come to report on the event, given that it had everything to do with what had happened the previous day in a village in the district known as Xolobeni. More to the point, it had everything to do with Gwede Mantashe, the national chairperson of the ANC and then-mining minister in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet.
“You know, the thing about Gwede,” said Spoor, less than an hour later, after Daily Maverick had been invited to join him on his return trip to the King Shaka International Airport, “is that the guy works. He’s a maniac. I’m used to dealing with government, where there can sometimes be three months between contact. But this guy is just like, bang bang bang. Which is an admirable thing.”
It was an astonishing compliment, not least because Spoor almost certainly would not have been charged with assault had Andre Swart, aforesaid police general, not been hovering on Mantashe’s shoulder at the time the incident in question occurred.
At a public meeting in Xolobeni on 23 September 2018, as readers may recall, Spoor had accused Mantashe of purposely excluding his clients, the anti-mining Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), from proceedings.
That meeting, like the follow-up meeting on 16 January 2019, had ended in chaos, with the police deploying threats, stun grenades and teargas canisters to disperse the crowd. And yet aside from insisting that the charges against him were “ridiculous,” Spoor wasn’t interested in playing the victim.
What he wanted to do instead was talk about Mantashe’s “willingness to engage”. Unlike his predecessor Mosebenzi Zwane, Spoor explained, Mantashe was prepared at least to listen. For the first part of the journey, with Spoor driving at high speed while fielding calls from a quote-hungry media, Daily Maverick heard how Mantashe had offered a private consultation to the ACC in late 2018, how Spoor had acted as the go-between, how the ACC had pulled out two days before the arranged date, how mistakes had therefore been made by both sides.
All of which is to allow the possibility that when writing about Gwede Mantashe, who was appointed the minister of combined minerals and energy portfolio on 29 May 2019, the most obvious interpretation can sometimes be the most shallow.
“He is approachable, interesting, and always funny,” wrote Stephen Grootes, in a 2017 profile for Daily Maverick that reportedly moved its subject to tears. “Perhaps it is his love of argument, the fact that to him, speaking and debating is as water to a fish.”
There are some waters, of course, in which even fish shouldn’t swim — although it was hardly likely that the Johannesburg Country Club on the morning of 4 June 2019 would turn out to be one of them. Sponsored by consulting, tax and auditing firm PWC, the 2019 Junior Indaba for “explorers, developers and investors” in the emerging mining sector seemed like the perfect venue for the coming-out party of our brand-new minister of mineral resources and energy.
The chair of the Junior Indaba, former Harmony Gold CEO Bernard Swanepoel, laid out the welcome mat for Mantashe by declaring, “We are relieved to have you back as a minister, we could hear the collective sigh.”
And the ever-affable Mantashe reciprocated by inspiring the delegates, fresh from their breakfast canapes and designer coffees, to feel just as special.
“Excuse me if I appear excited or I appear lost,” he said, acknowledging that it was this crowd to whom his new office was speaking first, “I am still grappling with the responsibility.”
But what responsibility, exactly?
Two minutes into his presentation, it was clear that Mantashe’s primary obligation remained to the elusive cure-all known as “growth”. If he was aware that his colleagues in government were about to release the shocking information that the country’s economy had shrunk by 3.2% in the first quarter of 2019, he wasn’t letting on.
The super-minister was bullish, the bearer of a motivational message, at the core of which was President Ramaphosa’s “sunrise industry” slogan from the heavyweight Mining Indaba held earlier in the year — if the juniors didn’t explore and exploit the country’s untapped mineral deposits, said Mantashe, the industry would be relegated to the backwater doldrums referred to bleakly as “sunset”.
And then, at about five minutes into his speech, he dropped the clue as to what his expanded portfolio would entail, the shape of the next few years coming into focus through the phrase “insane debate about coal”.
So this was it, his debate bit, the thing that he loved to do.
“To me,” said Mantashe, “it is not about killing coal and growing renewables. It’s a silly debate. It’s about growing the various technologies at our disposal. We must also invest in finding clean coal technology.”
The fact that in 2018 the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council had dismissed negative-emissions technologies as having “limited realistic potential” to offset the build-up of atmospheric carbon did not feature in Mantashe’s one-man debate. Neither did Nature magazine’s 2018 assessment of Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, as “magical thinking”.
Moving full steam ahead as if the “argument” was now settled and technology would save us all — a CCS facility was already in its pilot phase somewhere in the country, he promised — Mantashe encouraged the miners in the room to haul out their machinery and get to work.
“The Springbok flats, you will find rich coal deposits there,” he said. “The Molteno coalfields, junior miners, please talk to them and ask them what they have found.”
As a man dedicated to winning at public oration, Mantashe refrained from directing anyone in the room to an actual expert. Had he gone that route, he might have been forced to mention the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report of October 2018, in which a UN body made up of 91 climate scientists had warned that unless humanity cut its fossil fuel emissions in half by 2030 — a task that demanded “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” — the threads that held civilisation together would begin to unravel.
With growth as his lodestar, another truth too inconvenient for Mantashe to mention might also have been the report of early May 2019, in which 145 scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services announced that the finely balanced biosphere that had allowed humanity to evolve and flourish for the past 200,000 years was in the grips of an unprecedented death spiral.
And a definite no-no would have been the report released by the United Nations Environment Programme in March 2019, entitled “Global Resources Outlook 2019: Natural Resources for the Future We Want,” in which the extractive industries — that is, mining – was directly fingered as a cause of the die-off.
To be clear, Mantashe swam past all this and stuck to his course. He acknowledged that the “just transition”, which had lately become shorthand for protecting the jobs of coal industry workers in the shift to renewables, was now in his wheelhouse.
“That debate must be about the security of energy supply in South Africa,” he said, using his favourite word again, “we must not give it to somebody else.”
Weirdly enough, in their own attempt to not hand the debate to somebody else, the United States energy department had on the same day as Ramaphosa’s Cabinet announcement rebranded fossils fuels as “molecules of freedom”. In a scene that many observers took for a joke — but which, apocalyptically, was not — the US undersecretary of energy, Mark W Menzes, stated:
“Increasing export capacity from the Freeport LNG project is critical to spreading freedom gas throughout the world by giving America’s allies a diverse and affordable source of clean energy.”
Even more apocalyptically, in the six days between the Cabinet announcement and Mantashe’s maiden address at the Junior Indaba, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal overturned an earlier High Court ruling that interdicted US company Rhino Oil and Gas from proceeding with an exploration project aimed at establishing a natural gas fracking operation at sites across the country.
Mantashe, as we know from the discovery of a billion barrels of gas off the Southern Cape coast in February this year, is a big fan of all fossil fuels — his love is not showered on coal alone. And as we know from his speech on Tuesday at the Johannesburg Country Club, he is becoming adept at employing the tactics of the Trump administration in throwing the citizens of South Africa off the scent.
Here, it was worth re-quoting a nugget of world-renowned climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben, from his recently released Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?:
“Climate change is not a normal political negotiation between different interests, where compromise makes obvious sense. Climate change is a negotiation between human beings and physics, and physics doesn’t compromise.”
A facility for debate, in other words, doesn’t cut it in this context. As relevant as the observations about Mantashe’s persona may be in any other scenario — which is to say, any business-as-usual scenario, any conventional scenario — when it comes to climate collapse all bets are off. Mantashe is doubling down and the stakes are existential.
So now he has the energy ministry. The inherent danger in the situation was perfectly articulated in the final session of day one of the Junior Indaba, entitled “Mythbusting”. Among the myths that the junior miners intended to bust was the import of the Xolobeni judgment, in which Spoor successfully convinced the High Court that the anti-mining activists had the “right to say no”, and which some observers felt could be the death-knell of mining in South Africa.
After a four-and-a-half minute presentation from lawyer Hulme Scholes, the master of ceremonies shouted “music please!” and a slide came on the screen that read: “myth busted!”
The same thing happened after the presentation titled “Coal is dead”.
Then it was off for a “tjop and dop”, or, as it said in the programme, “a typical South African braai, drinks and networking sponsored by [insert company]”.DM
Owls make virtually zero noise while flying.