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Not a man of the people: Gwede Mantashe’s endorsement of Shell’s seismic survey was straight out of the apartheid-era playbook


Jan Arkert is a researcher at The Green Connection who has completed a master’s thesis on the ecological impacts of fracking in the Karoo. His report Grasping for Gas shows why climate goals and gas are not compatible.

The heavy-handed way in which the government — Gwede Mantashe in particular — handled the Shell saga is starkly reminiscent of the apartheid regime’s approach when a multinational applied to mine the sand dunes along the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal in 1989.

When environmental activists and fishing communities applied to interdict Shell from continuing a seismic survey off the Wild Coast, I had no idea that the law could be so stimulating. Following the jousting and counter-parries of the legal minds as they argued their cases in the High Court in Makhanda, a nail-biting wait for the judges’ verdict followed.

The disappointment of the first verdict (handed down on 3 December 2021) was soon followed by an emotional high when, three weeks later, Judge Gerald Bloem ruled that Shell and its cohorts had to stop the seismic survey.

The sorry saga, which has headlined the news during the past month, reminds me of a similar environmental justice issue that played itself out during the dying days of the apartheid era. As an international pariah state, the government was desperate for investments and relied heavily on the extractive industry to keep the economy running. Unfortunately, desperate governments and greedy corporations have always made curious and often opportunistic bedfellows. This was clearly the case when a multinational mining company applied to the then government to mine the sand dunes along the eastern shores of Lake St Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal in 1989.

What erupted was the largest outcry and mobilisation up to that point of social and environmental justice movements and activists across South Africa. Despite the very weak environmental legislation in place at the time, which made no provision for public participation, the National Party government — ignoring the sheer scale of the outcry, which included a petition with more than 300,000 signatures and countrywide demonstrations — exercised its autocratic obstinacy and was determined to allow mining to proceed.

Arguing that the potential job creation outweighed the inconvenience to local communities while trivialising the potential environmental harm, the Minister of Environmental Affairs in FW de Klerk’s government, Gert Kotzé, expressed the opinion that people who endorsed the petition “were fanatics who do not listen to reason”. Sound familiar? It would be good to note that, at the time, esteemed South Africans such as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Mangosuthu Buthelezi were among the many who endorsed the petition.

Thankfully, in 1996 the Mandela-led post-apartheid government made the correct decision to set aside the mining application and to develop the cultural and environmental potential of the area. It heeded the recommendations of the Leon Commission (established to evaluate the merits of the opposing arguments) that St Lucia is too precious to risk, and that mining would cause unacceptable damage to a place that is special because of its rich history, ecology and biological diversity.

Fast-forward 26 years and once again the cultural and ecological heritage of a treasured part of the east coast of South Africa is under threat from corporate greed, aided by (in my view) arrogant political leaders with vested interests. Shell’s announcement in October 2021 of the imminent commencement of seismic blasting off the Wild Coast led to a considerable outcry from all sectors of society, including community-based organisations, small-scale fishers, environmental groups and members of the public.

Within weeks, dozens of public protests were launched — a petition from Oceans Not Oil collected almost 400,000 signatures and two urgent court interdicts were sought. The first interdict (heard on 3 December 2021) was unsuccessful, and the nation held its collective breath awaiting the second application on 17 December 2021.

The fortnight between the two hearings provided enough time for Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe to make some of the most disparaging and divisive comments uttered by a post-1994 minister. Speaking at a press conference on 9 December 2021, and in a similar vein to the comments made by Kotzé in 1993, Mantashe felt it necessary to question the motivation of people when he said, “we consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection”.

However, it is interesting to note that communities on the Wild Coast (from Dwesa-Cwebe, Port St John’s and Amadiba) wrote a scathing open letter to Mantashe in response to these comments.

In his book, Humankind, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman observes that people in power are more likely to be impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and rude than average. Bregman also asserts that people in power are often less attentive and are less interested in other perspectives. These descriptions ring true in the corridors of our government, which seems hellbent on foisting its wishes and desires, and those of the fossil fuel industry, upon the people of South Africa.

Despite what the research of scientists, economists and sociologists may tell us, it is apparent that our political leaders still think they know best. Mantashe continues to insist that “clean coal” is viable and that “gas is a clean alternative fossil fuel”, even though a plethora of peer-reviewed international papers have shown this to be a pipe dream.

Just as with the demise of the hated apartheid regime in 1994 and the advent of democracy, it appears that some of our political leaders have not quite come to terms with the new constitutional and democratic order, much less embraced it. This is often exposed when these leaders ignore people’s constitutional right to be informed, consulted and included in decisions that affect their culture, heritage and livelihoods.

In his judgment, Judge Bloem strongly endorsed these rights, reiterating the applicants’ assertion that Minister Mantashe has “nailed his colours to Shell’s mast”, following his decision to publicly side with Shell (rather than support the constitutional rights of citizens).

We can be proud of our people for coming together at this critical moment and that our judicial system relied on the facts to decide the case. In our teetering democracy, there can be no room for the divisive leadership or dictator-style governing which characterised the apartheid regime.

It is 2022, nearly 30 years into democracy and our decision-makers must catch up with the rest of society and rely on the Constitution to guide its choices. We grow weary of a government that insists on working against the people. DM

See Jan Arkert at The Green Connection.

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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    That Gwede is himself a colonial fascist that does not give a sh1t about people or our planet ought to be so in the face of the ANC that he’s reshuffled out of a job.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Conflicts of interest

    this is what happens when the governing party (not the government) is directly invested in Shell in this instance. Yes, the ANC is invested in the ‘downstream’ business and exploration is upstream, but there would certainly have been material business benefits to the downstream business as well.

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