Wild Coast activists set international precedent in campaign against exploitation of the sea

Wild Coast activists set international precedent in campaign against exploitation of the sea
Ocean activist Flo Jung from Germany protests against oil giant Shell and the Shearwater seismic vessel Amazon Warrior as it arrives in Cape Town, South Africa, on 21 November 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Nic Bothma)

We dedicate our 2022 environmental heroes accolade to six organisations whose tireless efforts against the exploitation of the sea and its communities deserve South Africa's recognition. The leading ones were Sustaining the Wild Coast, Amadiba Crisis Committee, Natural Justice, the Legal Resources Centre, Greenpeace Africa and the law firm Cullinan & Associates.

It was the summer of 2021 when the largest environmental campaign in South Africa’s history was launched. On the beaches of the Eastern Cape, activists, academics, subsistence farmers, fisherfolk, traditional healers and lawyers rolled up their trousers and waded into the ocean, all in the name of safeguarding our marine heritage.

The protesters were affiliated to many organisations, but the leading ones were Sustaining the Wild Coast, Amadiba Crisis Committee, Natural Justice, the Legal Resources Centre, Greenpeace Africa and the law firm Cullinan & Associates. It is, therefore, to the management and staff of these six organisations that we dedicate our 2022 environmental heroes accolade.

For the answer to what they did, we need to go back to early December 2021 when the vessel Amazon Warrior had just arrived in South African waters and was waiting to blast its 48 airguns through the ocean floor and deep into the Earth’s crust.

The hunt, of course, was for oil and gas, and the hunters were local consortium Impact Africa and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

During that same week, we had watched an application for an urgent interdict play out in the Makhanda High Court. The advocates for the oil companies used every trick in the book to allow the seismic blasting to go ahead. But, a few days after Christmas last year, the interdict was granted and the Amazon Warrior was ordered to vacate the waters off the ecologically sensitive Wild Coast.

Then, on 1 September 2022, an even bigger victory was achieved. In a ruling that set an international precedent and was covered everywhere from The New York Times to The Sydney Morning Herald, a panel of three judges sided with the activists, rural communities and traditional healers.

They said in their judgment that the government, and more specifically the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy under Minister Gwede Mantashe, had granted an “unlawful” exploration licence to begin with.

Amid the celebrations, the question of whether Mantashe and the oil companies would take the matter on appeal still remained.

The answer, we now know, was yes. We also know that we live in a more intense world than a year ago, with the stakes a lot higher, and both sides in the battle more entrenched in their positions.

This is mainly because of two things.

One, the devastating impacts of climate collapse that we have witnessed in the past 12 months, particularly in places like Pakistan, the US state of Florida and the KwaZulu-Natal coast, where the destruction of infrastructure and loss of life and livelihoods have been all but unimaginable.

Two, the doubling down on the doublespeak from the oil and gas industry in Africa, whose response to the devastation has been to co-opt the language of the climate activists while continuing apace with their plans for extraction.


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In other words, without being sensationalist, our environmental heroes sit on the interface between truth and lies, survival and collapse, life and death.

“I think this case represents a global turning of the tide against Big Oil,” said Cormac Cullinan, founder of Cullinan & Associates, during an Our Burning Planet webinar in November 2022 – and we at DM168 couldn’t agree more.

The final question, then, is: Will the Supreme Court of Appeal uphold the Makhanda High Court’s decision? For her part, Nonhle Mbuthuma of the Amadiba Crisis Committee is confident of another victory.

“Shell is trying to appeal against the planet and humanity,” she said on 13 December 2022, “as if the environment and the people who safeguard it have no right to be protected. We are ready to continue this fight.” DM168

How we chose the People of the Year winners

In the past, Daily Maverick journalists decided who they thought warranted the title of Person of the Year, but for the second year running, we have asked readers to vote for their preferred choice, with the proviso that we still have the final say. Choosing the annual winners is a labour of love because that’s what it takes to get a bunch of DM editors to decide whether they agree or disagree with the choices of 13,000 readers. Over the next few days, we shall republish online all the results in various categories. Heather Robertson, DM168 editor

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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