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Dear Comrade Gwede Mantashe, I can’t believe you are making the case for Shell – here’s why


Barry Wugale is an Ogoni activist and author of Africa in Captivity: It’s Time for the Church to Stand Up.

It is the attempt to hand the ocean over to Shell to degrade, and the denial of the connectivity of the different communities that treasure the Wild Coast, that should be described as ‘apartheid of a special type’ — not the anti-Shell environmental protests.

Dear Comrade Gwede,

This is an open reply to your recent position in favour of Shell, where you described anti-Shell protests as “apartheid and colonialism of a special type” to promote economic oppression. I do not respond to you as the minister of energy, but as “comrade” because your words convey a political position on the matter.

We met many years ago during a Workers’ Day celebration at the Good Hope Centre in Cape Town. I was in the company of Comrade Tony Ehrenhreich of Cosatu. I gave you a copy of my book, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Steps to the Gallows. I believed that we shared a similar ideology about Africa.

Let’s review the ANC’s history or stance against oil companies, Shell included. I remind you that the ANC endorsed the oil embargo against apartheid South Africa on 20 May 1980. The ANC carried out a serious attack on the Sasol oil refinery in Sasolburg on Monday, 2 June 1980. The ANC sustained a series of attacks on oil installations, including Shell’s depot in Alberton, in June of 1981. In October of the same year, a new oil facility under construction at Secunda was bombed by the ANC’s foot soldiers. This trend continued to 1986 with a similar pattern of attacks in Scheepersnek, Paulpietersburg, Hectorspruit, Mkuze and Durban.

Dear Comrade Gwede, in recalling these events, it is not my intention to present the ANC as a violent organisation or to demonise the ANC. My understanding is that the ANC took those actions based on well-considered principles. I have all the while believed that the ANC’s position was that oil companies, Shell particularly, played an ignoble role that aided apartheid. My reading of history is that the ANC saw the activities of Shell and other oil companies as synonymous with the military machinery of the apartheid regime. I thought that the ANC’s position was that attacks on Shell’s facilities were a statement for black liberation.

Perhaps it would not be out of place to remind you that there are still countless numbers of ordinary people who were victims of the brutality of the military machines of the apartheid era, and Shell was one of the companies that fuelled those operations that violated and maimed black people.

I know some of the victims; they belong to a group called the Khulumani Support Group, and the scars from injuries inflicted on them remain. May I also remind you that in the July-September 1981 edition of the ANC publication, Social Development and Progress, the headline was Fuelling Apartheid. Your organisation was blunt in its stance against oil companies and their role in supporting violence against the people in the fishing communities along the coasts of South Africa.

I am struggling to see how your support for an apartheid-aligned company heals the historical past or helps the collective psychology of the victims of those dark days. 

Comrade Gwede, since I came across your remarks about Shell, I have been wondering if the principled position against oil companies like Shell has changed. I cannot help but ask when Shell became the saviour of the black majority that the ANC extricated from the claws of apartheid? I am not sure that the ANC knew in the 1980s that there were oil and/or gas deposits off the coast of South Africa. I mean, was oil and gas extraction ever or always part of the liberation struggle? Instead of a fixation on an extractive sector, why not put in place mechanisms for millions of the previously oppressed people to get involved in viable, sustainable agrarian productivity at scale? 

Comrade Gwede, when we met, you highlighted the importance of restoring the dignity of the formerly oppressed. You spoke about fostering unity between the black, coloured and even the white communities in the Western Cape. You also said it was wrong for black people from the Eastern Cape to be treated as “immigrants” in the Western Cape. That wish for unity is manifesting. Shell’s seismic survey has brought together both people of colour and the white community. The middle and working class, the rich and the poor are saying that they all have differentiated but equal connectivity to the Wild Coast — everyone wants the sustainable use of the country’s coast. They want the oceans for the intrinsic value of the ocean.

So, it is the attempt to hand the ocean over to Shell to degrade, and the denial of the connectivity of the different communities that should be described as “apartheid of a special type”.

Comrade Gwede, you are a leader in the ANC and a Cabinet minister. You have enormous power to make decisions which reflect the wishes of the people. Comrade Gwede, to advocate for Shell as the answer to the country’s staggering unemployment is a cheap solution to a complex problem. I hear that the maximum number of jobs that could be created from oil and gas activities is 50,000, of which the majority will be temporary jobs. Even if all the jobs were to be permanent employment, the majority of the people in these coastal communities lack the skills required by Shell for their operations. 

Comrade Gwede, the number of anti-Shell protests is a clarion call for climate-friendly jobs. South Africans want to end poverty. Those protests represent the desires of people to reduce inequality in the country, but they don’t want to achieve it at the expense of the environment. I don’t see how that fits into the definition of “apartheid of a special type”. DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8881″]



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Dear Barry
    I applaud you for the courage in writing this open letter. Be well aware that there are thousands, if not millions of South Africans that endorse every single word you wrote.
    Bless you!

  • Lothar Böttcher says:

    Let’s hope the dinosaurs take heed of your words and change course towards equity and sustainability before hitting the rocks.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Ideology doesn’t mix with economics. That’s why we still have SOEs draining the fiscus instead of efficient privitised companies contributing to the economy and why we job destroying Labour legislation in the midst of an emplyment crisis. What on earth does the ANC attitude to Shell 25 years ago have to do with a rational debate with respect to the pace of moving to renewables, the energy gap and the necessity to untilise all our resources to sustain the economy.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    A well written article. Thank you. The most important sentence in this article is, “why not put in place mechanisms for millions of the previously oppressed people to get involved in viable, sustainable agrarian productivity at scale”. Here lies one of the solutions to poverty and unemployment.many parts of the Transkei region hold great opportunity for increased agriculture. Many rivers run off this coast. Food has to be king.

    • Craig King says:

      I doubt everybody wants to be a farmer. Pol Pot had to kill a lot of people to encourage the living to become farmers. Most people want a good, well paying, job in a city. Ubiquitous, affordable energy makes that possible.

      • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

        Except the anc so-called education system will never allow their voting fodder to become eligible for ‘good, well paying’ job anywhere.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Trading backwards is self destructive. The emotional hysteria around the Shell exploration is not helpful for an economy that needs to make the right moves to reduce coal dependency and at the same time to create jobs. The author needs to look up the “multiplier effect” to understand the job impact of this potential investment.

    • Willem Boshoff says:

      Making clever and sustainable use of any fossil fuel we have is not the same as Shell being let loose on the Wild Coast to sonic blast in pristine ocean. What’s happening is unconscionable on every level.

    • Sean de Waal says:

      The “right moves to reduce coal dependency” do not include damaging our oceans and, by extension, our planet. We might convincingly argue that investing in solar, wind and other sustainable energy technologies is a less greedy and more responsible approach to mending our economy.

  • David Bristow says:

    Dear “Comrade” Wugale, while I agree wholeheartedly with what you write here, as long as we continue to play this neo-struggle “comrade” BS game, we’ll never get down to the business of good governanace instead of the politicing that has got us into the mess we are in.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    Well written. As you know from Nigeria, the oil companies did not uplift the local communities, but severely damaged the environment they lived in. Shell was instrumental in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa – an activist against the damage the that was being done. There is absolutely no certainty that Shell would do any better in this country!

  • Jean du Plessis says:

    Thanks for this! Please also note what is happening on the Weskus.

  • Dennis de Necker says:

    I may be misinformed, but I understood that back in the 90’s, when the ANC came into power, a building in Plein St, Johannesburg, known as Shell House, was ‘gifted’???? to the ANC and in so doing, it became ANC House, the official offices of the ANC. Maybe the Wild Coast is a favour called in?
    Payback time?

    • Dennis de Necker says:

      A good way to let Shell understand how people view their disregard for the Wild Coast, would be to no longer buy Shell fuel and oil – the only effort that this requires is to remember NOT to turn in at a Shell sign.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I posted this on Tony Balcomb’s article:

    If anyone out there still thinks the wild coast of the former Transkei is an idyllic pristine fauna, flora and marine reserve untouched by human hands, may I recommend a road trip out there?
    You will see that there are barely any trees left – firewood and charcoal sellers have seen to that – and the fishing resources are all but depleted. Goats, sheep and nguni cattle roam the highways, as do unbelievably bad drivers, and you will see precious few wild birds and absolutely NO wild animals.
    The towns along the roads are all beset and blockaded by filth, squalor and gridlock.
    Housing is by way of ugly rural sprawl – I have no idea how you deliver services to scattered dwellings covering just about every hillside in sight. I guess the massive amount of plastic litter spread over the same hillsides is testament to how difficult it is.
    Trump is a fool – but he said a mouthful when he called Africa a s***hole – the former Transkei slots straight in there.
    What further damage can Shell do to a region that has already been systematically decimated?

    • Clyde Smith says:

      It’s not directly the region that Shell will damage, it’s the ocean. And the oceanic damage may impact the region.

    • Coen Gous says:

      What an stupid comment. This has nothing to do with the land (where you are right). Like Clyde Smith said, this is about the ocean. If you were too blind to understand it, it is not about the Wild Coast either. Whales and sea life do not live in cocoons. Like You. Who cares where you posted your article?

    • Kenneth Jeenes Jeenes says:

      Indeed – what a stupid comment! But moreover, so irrelevant and one-dimensional. I don’t know which causes me more despair – what Gwede Mantashe says, or what you say. Both are equally depressing because of the sentiments they reflect.

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