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Seismic survey along West Coast halted after Australian company fails to file court papers

A protester outside the Cape Town High Court on Monday wears a cardboard copy of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, mocking his notoriety as a 'coal fundamentalist'. (Photo: Onke Ngcuka)

A failure to file responding affidavits in the court case means Australian company Searcher Geodata has to pause its seismic survey off the West Coast.

Australian geodata company Searcher Geodata’s seismic survey programme has been halted until an urgent interdict application is heard on 7 March at the Cape Town High Court, Judge Daniel Thulare ruled on Monday.  

The applicants – 13 small-scale fishing communities and the civic organisation We are South Africans – filed an application to have an urgent interdict granted due to lack of consultation and improper environmental regulations followed in granting Searcher Geodata’s permit to conduct the surveying along the West Coast. The communities have also raised concerns about the effect seismic surveying has on their livelihoods and the indigenous heritage tied to that.

The case was filed against the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, the minister of forestry, fisheries and the environment, Searcher Geodata UK and Australia, the Petroleum Agency South Africa and BGP Pioneer, the ship conducting the surveying.  

“It is ordered that the third [Searcher UK], fourth [Searcher Australia] and sixth respondents [BGP Pioneer] are directed forthwith to discontinue any activities intended to give effect to or related to the seismic survey of the west and south-west coast of South Africa that commenced on or about 24 January 2022,” the court papers read.  

Fishers and supporters of West Coast communities affected by seismic surveys gathered at the Cape Town High Court on Monday to call for an end to oil and gas exploration. (Photo: Onke Ngcuka)

Outside the court, a small group of fishers and organisations demonstrated with placards and chants, calling for an end to the seismic survey. The group also had some choice words for Searcher Geodata and Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe: “Voetsek oil and gas; we cannot drink gas, we cannot eat gas!” the crowd chanted.  

Monday’s court proceedings were meant to hear the arguments of the applicants and the respondents. Instead, Searcher Geodata’s lawyer Ranjan Jaga SC pleaded with the court for an extension to file a responding affidavit to the applicant’s filing for an urgent interdict. 

“What I’m seeking on behalf of the third and fourth respondents is time to file the papers by Wednesday to refute [the harm to the communities]. Give us an opportunity, My Lord,” Jaga said in court.  

Judge Thulare responded: “Let’s look at the question of substantive justice… the papers suggest there is interference with the habitation of indigenous people, which threatens their livelihoods. The papers suggest the harm is irreparable. 

“There may be papers suggesting that may not be true,” the judge added, referring to the absence of responding affidavits.

Daily Maverick previously reported that the respondents had asked for two weeks to respond to the application, as opposed to the six calendar days they were given by the applicants. Jaga said the extended time was due to Searcher Geodata waiting on experts from different parts of the world.  

A small group of small-scale fishers and civic organisations protest outside the Cape Town High Court on Monday against seismic surveying along the West Coast. (Photo: Onke Ngcuka)

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, who represented the 13 applicants, said waiting for experts after the surveys had begun was “irresponsible”, adding that the lack of responding affidavits from the respondents was on the “verge of abuse of court processes”.  

In trying to reach a compromise, Jaga returned after the court had adjourned, suggesting Searcher Geodata could conduct the survey 58.5km out from the shoreline as opposed to the 20km from where they are currently operating. Under the Reconnaissance Permit granted to Searcher Geodata, the company is restricted to conducting the programme over 10,000km² of the roughly 22,000km² of the application area.  

Among the group of demonstrators outside the court was Kate Vraagom, who told Daily Maverick she was a “fisherman’s wife”.  

“Oil and gas will pollute our waters… how will our kids survive when their survival depends on the sea? Our kids become drug addicts because we’re unable to put food on the table and give them an education. We condemn the pollution caused by gas and oil in our oceans and we protest against it,” said Vraagom. DM/OBP

 

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