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‘Everything is linked to money’ – lawyers discuss Mantashe’s upcoming appeal against Shell oil and gas exploration ruling

‘Everything is linked to money’ – lawyers discuss Mantashe’s upcoming appeal against Shell oil and gas exploration ruling
From left: Human rights lawyer and social justice activist Pooven Moodley, Daily Maverick journalist Kevin Bloom and environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan.Photos:Supplied

In a Daily Maverick webinar, environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan and human rights lawyer Pooven Moodley discuss how, when it comes to mining, the South African government prioritises profit over people and the planet.

“[Energy] Minister Gwede Mantashe … he is not sleeping at night dreaming about how beautiful coal is. What’s actually happening is that everything is linked to money,” said Pooven Moodley, human rights lawyer and social justice activist during an Our Burning Planet webinar on Tuesday. 

“And we do know that money [changes] hands … even in the Shell case, in terms of the oil and gas exploration, parties were getting funded.”

Moodley was talking about how a decision by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to appeal a high court ruling that the government’s authorisation of oil and gas exploration on the Wild Coast was unlawful, was motivated by money. 

September 1 2022 marked a historic day when the Makhanda High Court in the Eastern Cape sided with rural communities, fishermen and traditional healers, ruling that the government’s decision to allow Shell plc to explore for oil and gas off the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast was unlawful.

However, weeks later, both Shell and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe lodged an appeal against the ruling.

With a date for the next round in this all-important legal battle looming, Kevin Bloom, Our Burning Planet investigative reporter, sat down with environmental lawyer Cormac Cullinan and frontline activist Pooven Moodley, both of whom were instrumental in securing the initial victory.

Agreeing with Moodley’s sentiments on the issue of money changing hands, Cullinan pointed out that Mantashe had sided strongly with the Australian mining company applying for exploration rights, and that during the litigation, Shell had donated money to the ANC.

“Minister Mantashe has been more responsive to the needs of multinational corporations,” said Cullinan. 

“The [local] communities have said unequivocally many times – we don’t want mining here … and he keeps trying to bus in more people and have new meetings to try to turn a firm no into yes.”

Bloom agreed, saying, “In South Africa, we know that local communities never benefit from a mining project,” citing past investigations which have shown that while tribal chiefs may be bought, their communities end up worse off and the real wealth goes to offshore accounts.

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Gateway case

When the high court ruling was initially made in September, it set an international precedent and made headlines globally.

Cullinan said the case was significant because it represented a turning of the tide in terms of public opinion around the exploration of oil and gas.

“I think this is the moment in which the public is moving against them and saying, ‘we may have supported these things in the past, but there’s now unacceptable harm to marine species’,” said Cullinan. 

“It’s unacceptable harm to the rights of local communities. I think that that’s incredibly significant.”

Cullinan said research has shown that if we have any hope of achieving the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement, no further exploration should take place, quoting the expression, “When you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

In terms of the upcoming appeal, Moodley said, “If we don’t win this case, it really opens up the gateway.” 

He explained that if Mantashe and Shell failed to win their appeal, it would make it much harder for future exploration projects to succeed, because they would have to consult with communities and follow proper procedures on environmental impact assessments and climate impacts. 

Planet over profit

Moodley said it’s clear from what climate science and indigenous knowledge is telling us, that climate change will have disastrous effects on many systems, including the economy and ecosystems in the future, as it is already starting to do.

“No matter what ministers or others argue, we know that reality and what the truth is, and it’s important for us to be very clear on that,” said Moodley.

Said Cullinan: “I think for ordinary South Africans, it’s also a question of holding our government [accountable] and saying, we want you to represent the interests of ordinary people and prioritise those over the interests of corporations.

“And, of course, in these instances, stopping climate change is very much in all of our interests and not continuing digging ourselves deeper into this hole.” DM

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