The ruling against Shell’s plans for seismic blasting on the Wild Coast has been hailed as a victory for civil society and for the communities who would have been affected by it. But the angry response of Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe is a low point in his record.
South Africans ushered out 2021 with a momentous victory when the Makhanda High Court in Grahamstown ordered Shell to cease seismic blasting along the Wild Coast.
But the challenge to Shell’s activities made Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe see red. His lashing out at civil society for exercising its right to campaign against Shell’s project of ecological havoc was an assault on the human right to a healthy environment and a disgrace to his personal legacy. It deserves denunciation from the highest echelons of government.
Is it possible to conflate civil society’s actions in using science to prove the harms of seismic blasting and subsequent drilling for fossil fuels with “apartheid and colonialism of a special type”? When Mantashe switched sides and apparently pledged allegiance to big business over precarious communities, everything became possible.
Mantashe’s assault is not only erroneous. It puts the lives of members of civil society organisations and environmental activists in danger.
We saw as recently as 2020 how the life of anti-mining activist Fikile Ntshangase was taken at Ophondweni in KwaZulu-Natal. Inflammatory statements add fuel to the fire. It’s dangerous when a senior politician like Mantashe speaks to the media and accuses campaigners of being stumbling blocks to development.
And let us not forget that the company whose interests he defended — Shell — has literally helped to arm the military dictatorship in Nigeria where we have seen the occupation of Ogoniland and the execution of indigenous protesters, including their leader, author Ken Saro-Wiwa.
It should also be noted that the Batho Batho Trust, which has links to Shell, donated R15-million to the ANC in the last quarter of 2021.
Mantashe continues to favour the interests of fossil fuel companies at every opportunity, as recently as at the debate on the State of the Nation Address. In claiming that it’s a crime to stand for the protection of communities’ livelihoods, especially along the Wild Coast, Matashe seems to have forgotten it’s 2022, not 1984.
If all of civil society and the general public do not stand up to Gwede Mantashe’s position, we stand to lose our fundamental rights to protest and public participation as enshrined in the Constitution.
The one-time communist leader is now committing the sin of taking the name of apartheid and racism in vain, with the sole purpose of protecting business profits over human rights, community livelihoods and environmental protection.
Mantashe was once famous for his struggle for the rights of workers he represented under the apartheid system. Almost three decades later, he seems to have adopted the cynical tactics of the oppressor, using manipulative media statements to refer to members of civil society as racists, including groups and individuals who were at the forefront of civil disobedience at an earlier time.
Mantashe’s criticism of non-government organisations follows a pattern of officials bashing civil society, including the energy department’s chief economist’s latest reference to NGOs being a “stumbling block” to energy policies, whose voices must be suppressed.
Instead of aligning so enthusiastically and blatantly with the interests of fossil fuel companies, it’s time for the government to align with science and stand in solidarity with local communities at risk.
President Cyril Ramaphosa should not allow his minister to threaten communities and civil society organisations with language that is racially divisive and unprecedented within the ANC. Ministers bashing civil society must be left behind in 2022.
The president’s silence and inaction on numerous statements made by his own Cabinet member is a stain on his legacy as well, and it makes a mockery of his pledges to environmental protection and safeguarding of communities’ livelihoods.
Contrary to Shell’s propaganda, keenly adopted by Mantashe, there is nothing “developmental” about the seismic blasting on our Wild Coast, other than bringing profits to business and poverty to communities.
The use of seismic blasting to search for oil may have a devastating impact on the health of marine life, and the operations would potentially disrupt the communities that depend on eco-tourism and fishing for their livelihoods.
This year, we can celebrate that a precedent has been set — the South African courts and investors know that people should always be prioritised over polluters.
Respecting the right to protest is one of the least things the ANC government can do to redeem its shredded dignity and rebuild its credibility in South Africa today. DM
Nhlanhla Sibisi is the climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa.
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