OLIFANTS RIVER ESTUARY
Assault on the West Coast: Inside the illegal diamond mining applications
In the past few months, the Atlantic west coast in the region of the Olifants River estuary has sustained a barrage of new diamond mining applications. The documents reveal a litany of legally questionable oversights, including a failure to assess the needs of local communities. But the most disturbing evidence concerns the environmental consultant who has written most of the reports — according to the law, she is not qualified to work unsupervised.
On the face of it, aside from the biodiversity, there’s not much that the Selati Game Reserve and the Olifants River estuary have in common. Where the former, situated between the towns of Gravelotte and Hoedspruit in Limpopo Province, hosts a species of African cycad that can be found nowhere else on earth, the latter, situated on the Atlantic seaboard around 250km north of Cape Town, hosts the greatest concentration of birdlife on the Namaqualand west coast.
In Selati you’ll find rich grasslands, bushveld riverine ecosystems and an abundance of the “Big Five”; in the Olifants River estuary, it’s all about lesser and greater flamingos, African black oystercatchers and Caspian and swift terns.
Two different biomes, two entirely different worlds — which, if nothing else, speaks to the awesome depth and breadth of South Africa’s natural heritage. But, in the complex paperwork that hardly anyone outside of nature conservation or mining officialdom reads, there is a thread that ties Selati to the estuary in a narrative of brazen environmental malfeasance.
Looked at from Daily Maverick’s perspective, the narrative begins in April 2021, when we published the first part of our “Mordor at the Gates” series. Back then, while investigating the circumstances behind the mining application that had been lodged “out of nowhere” across 10,000ha of Selati’s northern stretches, we came across a company by the name of Sakal and Tebo (Pty) Ltd. It was this small company that had been retained by the applicant, an equally small entity trading as Tiara Mining, to prepare the environmental impact documentation for submission to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy.
Sakal and Tebo, it turned out, had submitted a final scoping report that was “fatally flawed,” with key information missing and an inaccurate description of mining activities. As for the environmental impact assessment, the more important document, the company neglected to mention that the entirety of the Selati Game Reserve had been classified as ecologically “irreplaceable”.
In the second part of the series, when Daily Maverick looked into the background of the company’s sole director, an environmental assessment practitioner (EAP) by the name of Melvyn Mandla Masango, we found that he had misrepresented his memberships and affiliations on the official government forms. These breaches, it was clear to us, were in direct contravention of the codes of conduct of the two organisations that had been legislated to hold South Africa’s EAPs to account — the Environmental Assessment Practitioners Association of South Africa (Eapasa), and the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (Sacnasp).
What we didn’t mention was Masango’s partner on the project, an EAP by the name of Yvonne Gutoona, who had signed off on the documentation not only on behalf of Sakal and Tebo but in some instances on behalf of Masango himself.
Although Gutoona was not a director of Sakal and Tebo, she was, as Daily Maverick knew at the time, one of two directors in a company called Archean Resources, which she neglected to disclose in the paperwork. This company, as our sources at Selati informed us, had also been hired by Tiara Mining — specifically, its founder Robert Michael Scholtz, who had been convicted of illicit diamond trading in 1985 — to prepare specialist environmental reports. The work, we learnt, had been farmed out by Archean Resources to third parties.
More significant than these irregularities, however, was the fact that neither Masango nor Gutoona seemed to be legally or technically qualified to compile reports on their own. In terms of the Natural Scientific Professions Act of 2003, according to which all natural scientists need to be registered with Sacnasp in order to practice, there are three levels of qualification: candidate natural scientist at the bottom, certified natural scientist in the middle and professional natural scientist at the top.
As section 22(2) of the act states:
“A certificated natural scientist or candidate natural scientist… may only perform work in the natural scientific professions under the supervision and control of a professional natural scientist.”
Although Masango was registered with Sacnasp as a candidate natural scientist and Gutoona as a certified natural scientist, there was no evidence in any of the reports that either of them had been supervised by a professional natural scientist.
In the event, things turned out well for Selati. A few weeks after our second feature was published, we received word that the mining application had been withdrawn — partly due, we were told, to the “public spotlight” that Daily Maverick had shone on the case. But in September 2021, when we began looking into a strange flareup of mining applications on South Africa’s west coast, the thread picked up again.
On an alarming number of the new applications, Yvonne Gutoona, as a director of Archean Resources, was listed as the EAP.
At the outset of this investigation, we had two questions for Neo Motlholwa, the legal counsel at Sacnasp. First, we wanted to know, did the law require the name of the supervising scientist to appear on all forms submitted to the DMRE? Second, if not, was there any other way to check whether a candidate or certified natural scientist was working under the required supervision?
The law, Motlholwa informed us, was clear:
“The name of the professional natural scientist (the ‘supervising scientist’) not only needs to appear on the DMRE paperwork but the DMRE paperwork may only be signed off by the said professional natural scientist.”
In the first four applications to the DMRE that Daily Maverick came across, basic assessment reports and environmental management programme reports for a pair of companies named Cape Zircon (Pty) Ltd and Buchuberg Resources (Pty) Ltd, Gutoona, who was listed as the sole EAP, was also the sole signatory. Covering a combined area of about 118,000ha on the southern banks of the Olifants River — and abutting its precious estuary — the four reports are essentially an application for prospecting rights to diamonds, gold and a variety of heavy minerals. Given that the name of a supervising scientist does not appear anywhere in these documents, they are all clearly unlawful. But the lack of supervision, as Daily Maverick would discover, came with a bunch of further consequences too.
In the general comments submitted to Gutoona on 17 May 2021, Natural Justice, a Cape Town-based environmental and land rights non-profit, points out that the reports are all “vague and high-level”. They not only “fail to provide site-specific assessments of impacts of the proposed activities,” the lawyers at Natural Justice state, they also “fail to provide sufficient details upon which a decision-maker can make informed and defensible decisions.”
In the specific comments, Gutoona’s work is then properly picked apart at its legally questionable seams. The objections begin with the “need and desirability” provisions of section 24(O) the National Environmental Management Act (Nema), to which the former Department of Environmental Affairs — now the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries — provided a detailed guideline in 2017.
Chapter 4 of the guideline, as Natural Justice notes, demands that the “need for and desirability of a proposed activity should specifically and explicitly be addressed” throughout the entirety of the environmental impact assessment process. Yet, it appears, in each of the four reports covering this somewhat massive area of the Atlantic west coast, Gutoona has given “barely more than a page” to need and desirability.
In this context, other than a “vague reference to policy objectives that promote the applicants’ own prospecting and mining plans,” the reports “fail to consider” any planning, environmental, heritage or economic policy objectives of the local or provincial government.
The same thing applies, according to Natural Justice, when it comes to alternatives to mining that Nema requires all reports to assess, including the “no-go” option. The alternatives, it is alleged, have “not been fully explored” while the no-go option is simply non-existent. In other words, for Cape Zircon and Buchuberg Resources, if we are to take their EAP at her word, not mining is not an option.
This, aside from the legislative problem, is problematic for the following reason:
“According to the West Coast District Municipality IDP and Spatial Development Framework Plan, traditionally the West Coast District’s primary economic sectors consisted of agriculture and fishing.”
It is here that Gutoona’s “failure to consider” climate change — only two brief mentions in the entirety of each 100-plus page report, it appears — comes into stark and disturbing focus.
As Natural Justice makes clear in light of the water usage requirements that these four applications represent:
“Agriculture is also the biggest user of water in the district, mostly under irrigation, despite the district being considered as water-scarce. As such, the West Coast District Municipality recognises climate change as a threat to the environment, its residents, and to future development.”
Given all of this, Natural Justice’s position, as an “interested and affected party,” is that the proposed mining activities are neither needed nor desirable. Here, again, the reasons for their stance are obvious: “[Agriculture] remains one of the most important drivers of economic growth in the district, relying heavily on access and use of water to sustain and develop the sector for the benefit of the local economy and for the benefit of providing for food security.”
And yet despite the above, we are still only a third of the way through Natural Justice’s objections. Their issues with Gutoona’s work continue for another seven pages, including “failure to assess water supply”, “failure to consider availability of licenced waste disposal sites”, “failure to adequately assess biodiversity” and a general failure, outlined in a number of lengthy and detailed paragraphs, to fulfil the obligations of the all-important process of public participation.
So who, on this specific suite of jobs, are Yvonne Gutoona’s clients?
A CIPC search reveals that Cape Zircon and Buchuberg Resources share the same directors: Lambertus Marthinius Cilliers, Jacobus Kotze van Niekerk and Vincent Sebatli Madlela.
Cilliers, it turns out, otherwise known as “Bertus,” is also listed as the “Head of Angolan Operations” for the Trans Hex Group, one of South Africa’s largest diamond mining concerns. Van Niekerk, as far as Daily Maverick could ascertain, is the same person named in a 2018 report by Richard Poplak as the “managing member” of a company called Ambicor, which was on contract at the time to Alexkor — the state-owned diamond mining company — to perform environmentally devastating cofferdam jobs off the Northern Cape coast. Madlela we couldn’t get a signal on, until we came across the minutes of a public participation meeting that Buchuberg Resources hosted at the Doringbaai community hall on 6 May 2021.
“Mr Madlela used to be a legal consultant for MSR,” the minutes stated.
This would be the same MSR, short for Mineral Sands Resources, that in 2019 was granted the right to massively expand its Tormin beach mining operation near Lutzville on the Olifants River. Owned by the Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd, MSR was given the go-ahead by the South African government to mine 10 additional beaches — without having to apply for a new mining right or undertake a full environmental impact assessment for the expanded area.
In the high court challenge that the Centre for Environmental Rights subsequently brought against the decision — a decision that the government had doubled down on when they dismissed the appeals — MSR was required to disclose the environmental performance assessment reports for the entire Tormin operation, including the additional beaches.
Obtained by Daily Maverick, the documents, which are a legislative requirement, had been signed off by a familiar name. Acting this time on behalf of Jomela Consulting, and referring to herself as an independent “professional natural scientist,” Gutoona’s signature appeared on the 2019 and 2020 reports as the sole environmental consultant.
Was this a blatant misrepresentation of her qualifications? While Gutoona did not respond to Daily Maverick’s request for comment, there was one more document on which we found her name — representing Archean Resources again, the client was Moonstone Diamond Marketing, and one of the “contact persons” was Madlela himself.
The document was a draft scoping report, submitted to DMRE on 30 August 2021, for an amended prospecting licence on a 70km stretch of coast directly north of the Olifants River estuary. According to the CIPC, Moonstone’s directorships are all held by Trans Hex people, including chairman of the board (and former Springbok rugby player) Marcus Wentzel.
Like his Trans Hex colleague Bertus Cilliers, Wentzel did not offer comment for this piece. Neither, unfortunately, did Madlela.
Either way, discounting Tormin, Daily Maverick counted 128,000ha of pristine Atlantic coastline under Gutoona’s stewardship. There was no dispute from anyone that she was acting unsupervised. DM/OBP
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