Defend Truth


To Shell in a handbasket: Broken promises are the sinister shadow of fossil fuel companies


Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, a former minister in the Nelson Mandela government and is a board member of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

As Africa’s worst polluter, we are pushing our country closer to a climate disaster with immense implications for the rich biodiversity of the region. It will deepen poverty and uncontrolled development will destroy the ecotourism potential of communities.

‘We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection.”  – Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe on Shell seismic survey for oil and gas exploration on the Wild Coast and opposition from communities and environmental groups.

When we talk of environmental protection, we are actually talking of the air, water and soil that will ensure our grandchildren and many generations after that will have the three basic elements of nature that will protect their future. In the volatile times of an ecological emergency one such area that exists in our beautiful country is the Wild Coast. 

It is the most pristine biodiverse coastline in South Africa. Its fabled beaches and coves have hosted thousands from around the world over the years who have soaked in its magical and mystical natural beauty and living close to the Earth. I cannot imagine many in South Africa who have not had a Wild Coast adventure. People in local communities have fed themselves and built generations of fisher livelihoods from its rich aquatic resources. But importantly it’s also because of the indigenous cultures here who consecrate their heritage and spiritual beliefs by living in harmony with the ocean. 

Development does not equal bank balances. A new approach to resolving the climate crisis cannot continue to exceed our planetary boundaries through linear strategies and short-sighted economic decisions. Local communities have a voice to be heard. So do the forests, oceans and our land. 

Our freedom struggle was about voice. But today I recognise that our mistake was not listening to the voice of Mother Earth which gives us the blessings of life. We need to recalibrate our relationship to be based on mutual respect. The Wild Coast shows us how we need to earn our right to live in harmony with nature. And let me remind my former trade union leaders leading the charge that unionism we pioneered stood for justice and voice.

This Shell project also flies in the face of the commitments made by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Glasgow COP26. As Africa’s worst polluter, we are pushing our country closer to a climate disaster, with immense implications for the rich agricultural biodiversity of the region. Actually, it will deepen poverty and uncontrolled development will destroy the ecotourism potential of communities.

Therefore it is astounding to me that senior public and corporate leaders cannot see the intergenerational damage of this war against Nature. In some countries, the conversation is growing on defining these types of projects as intergenerational crimes.

Perhaps the minister should visit the Niger Delta and see for himself what happens in one or two generations. I visited the place in 2014 and my first question was: 

“How do people live in these devastated communities?”

“We have no choice,” said the activists accompanying me. “These are our ancestral lands. We have nowhere to go. Our children suffer respiratory problems, skin rashes and eye irritations.”

We met with Chief Eric Doo, from the Ogoniland community of Goi. Previously a flourishing and vibrant community, with a bakery, fish ponds and agricultural livelihoods, it is now a haunted ghost village. A thick layer of crude covers the devastated terrain.

“The fish have died. The groundwater is toxic. Our cassava and yams are full of crude. This is our legacy of oil exploration. This is our Hell. They use the law courts, the police and corrupt public officials against us.”

I bear witness to this reality.

Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an ecological think tank, was accompanying me. He said gas flaring releases “nitrogen oxides and other substances such as benzene, toluene [and] xylene… which are known to cause cancers.” The report says these pollutants can affect communities within 30km of the flare. There are more than 200 such continuous flares burning across the Niger Delta.

This refrain is repeated across Africa – from Angola to Sudan, Mozambique to Libya. International fossil fuel companies acting in collusion with ruthless businessmen – fathers, grandfathers – who prefer to ignore the alarming scientific reports about their activities and instead make promises about bringing development, jobs, schools, clinics, boreholes and progress. 

That is a blatant lie. 

Across the world there are more than 500 dead zones in our world’s oceans. Killed by our greed. And dead because marine life either dies or leaves the area. Habitats normally teeming with life become biological deserts because of oxygen scarcity. And one of the reasons is fossil fuel, its burning and drilling which cause global warming and toxic pollution. 

I therefore wholeheartedly support the court case brought by environmental groups Natural Justice, Greenpeace Africa, community activists and others that argues that the company’s offshore activities are unlawful and will cause significant harm to the environment, livelihoods, culture and heritage of communities along the region.

Lawful or not, it’s simply immoral. 

Scientists warn that “seismic surveying, which Shell proposes, employs large arrays of air guns that produce high-amplitude, low-frequency pulses… every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day and for months on end – over extensive areas of the ocean – is fundamentally damaging to marine ecosystems.”

I pray that justice will prevail not just for the born. But more importantly for the unborn – our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must be guided by some higher purpose than just living for ourselves. Because that was the fire that burned brightly in our hearts when we rose above our narrowness and sealed a covenant to deliver a better life to our people in 1994. DM/OBP


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  • Coen Gous says:

    No wonder I have respected you so much, so very much. You are prepared to turn against your own, for the sake of defending our future. Jay, if only you were 20/30/40 years younger, this country might have seen a different future world, or for that matter a current world. If only, if only, IF ONLY, you still had the power to effect real change. You have become old, much too soon

  • Coen Gous says:

    To the editor of Daily Maverick, Branco….Please, please, for God’s sake please, do Not push this article to the bottom of your list of articles. Some articles simply do not deserve that kind of treatment, and this one does not deserve that. Please do not measure articles according to the number of comments, as those with real meaning gest lost in a deep ending waterless pit.
    Please, for once I have read something that means something, as you have done on a number of occasions

  • Robert de Rooy says:

    Thank you for writing this important article. An Anglo Dutch company taking a legalistic approach to exploiting our resources is the way of colonialism. I believe that if Shell believes what they are doing is acceptable, they need to take South Africans into their confidence and convince us – with credible evidence – why they think so.

  • Patrick Devine says:

    “Broken promises are the sinister shadow of” failed socialist multi millionaires …..

  • Charles Parr says:

    Jay, you know as well as I do that protesting this development will achieve very little because the beneficiaries are greedy capitalist investors and local politicians and they don’t give a fig about the future of your or my children and grandchildren. It’s only money in the pocket that drives this type of exploitation and, in my view, the only way to stop this is by driving the price of oil down to a point where this type of project is simply not viable. We can all do our bit by buying less of these horrible polluting products, petrol and diesel. I can’t wait to buy an electric car but the price is prohibitive at the moment and the government keeps it that was by imposing a 42% import duty on them. We also need to lean on our pension funds to ensure that they don’t invest in petrochemical industries. Whatever we do it’s going to be a long road but we have to stay on course. My own feeling is that it is too late to save the Wild Coast as it will be exploited by mining companies in the pursuit of profit. The local people don’t help by cutting down every tree and taking every living this off the rocks and out of the ocean. So it’s not only mining and oil and gas exploration that’s killing the coast, it’s also over population of people.

  • Judy Scott-Goldman says:

    Thank you, Jay Naidoo, for all the important points raised in this article, not least this sentence: ‘When we talk of environmental protection, we are actually talking of the air, water and soil that will ensure our grandchildren and many generations after that will have the three basic elements of nature that will protect their future.’

  • Gillian Talevi says:

    Thank you Mr Naidoo for being so honest and writing with compassion for the beautiful Wild Coast that is such a spiritual part of this beautiful country, South Africa.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Long before climate change was better understood and before environmental activism became something every sensible person should support, what Jay has outlined, was encapsulated in an aphorism by Gandhi which said “The earth has enough for all of man’s needs, but not his greed.”

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