Following the widespread publication of plans by Royal Dutch Shell to conduct a non-stop, five-month-long seismic survey of South Africa’s pristine ‘Wild Coast’, national outrage has erupted. The last two weeks have seen protest actions by communities and activist groups the length and breadth of our country, attempting to amplify the voices of our compatriots on the Wild Coast whose communities, and the ecosystems upon which they rely, stand to be devastated by the actions of international petrochemical corporations – actions proudly facilitated and promoted by the South African government. A collective of traditional fishermen and women from across the Wild Coast powerfully summarise the top-down approach to community engagement taken by Shell, in the same vein as the company’s colonial forebears:
“You neglected your duty of care towards us when you did not ensure that affected parties were consulted as well as not examining the harm seismic surveys will cause on marine lives and people’s livelihoods who are dependent on oceans. Moreover, oil and gas exploration won’t bring development to marginalised communities – we reject Shell seismic surveys.”
A seismic survey involves firing high-powered compressed air guns towards the seafloor, and assessing oil and gas deposits beneath by measuring the reflected sound. These blasts are due to occur every ten seconds for five months, and the sound generated can penetrate 40km into the seabed. The noise from these airguns can raise background ocean noise levels by 100 times for the duration of surveying, which has devastating impacts on marine life. Many marine mammals which communicate and navigate using hearing are particularly negatively affected by seismic surveying. Multiple studies have argued that these animals are impacted via a wide range of pathways, including impaired communication, extended stress responses, and hunger due to impacts on prey stocks. These impacts were raised in the founding documents of the second court case, which can be found here (refer to section B). Whilst the full range of impacts is unknown, marine scientists seem to be unified in their assessment that seismic surveying is intensely disturbing to ecosystems at every observable level. Nonhle Mbuthuma, of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, expresses this concern powerfully when she says:
“If you destroy the ocean, you destroy human life. Our livelihoods as indigenous people will be history if the South African Government allows Shell to mine our ocean, our spiritual healing place. Communities have the right to choose and we have the right to live in a healthy environment. As the Amadiba Crisis Committee we say no to any kind of extractivism. Let’s put people before profit.”
In addition, beyond the issue of seismic surveys, oil and gas companies have a terrible socio-environmental track record throughout Africa and the world. According to Amnesty International, with information based on reports from Shell itself, Shell leaked over 55 million litres of oil in the Niger Delta alone. A figure which Amnesty international calls “a massive underestimate”. Just one litre of oil can contaminate 1 million litres of water. This has obvious impacts on livelihoods and ecosystems in the affected regions. Communities who have lived in the Niger Delta region for generations, now find themselves unable to fish for food, or use their water for sanitation and irrigation of crops. The Niger Delta is now one of the most polluted places on earth. A Dutch court recently ordered Shell to pay compensation to affected communities for oil pollution in some areas of Nigeria, but this will not return their lands and waters – their heritage – to its previous state capable of supporting livelihoods. One resident of K-Dere, Nigeria said “When Shell came, they promised that if they find oil, they’ll transform our community”, another resident of the same community said, “’Everything just died like that. [It] destroyed all the aquatic life in the stream where we used to fetch water – our farmlands, every living thing there”. This is just one example that holds a lesson for us in South Africa, as oil and gas companies knock on our door.
As people band together in the face of environmental degradation and colonial exploitation, and activist groups continue to fight in the courts on their behalf, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy has released a statement to the press seemingly making clear the role of the South African government: to share in the profits of big corporations at the expense of the people who are justifiably outraged at the uncounted losses that they will incur. Gwede Mantashe today launched a tirade against communities up and down the Wild Coast, and those supporting them, appearing to describe grassroots activism as “apartheid”, and seemingly dismissing their demands to be heard as “colonialism of a special type.” These disgusting invocations of South Africa’s darkest moments, used against the very South Africans who suffered through those moments, remind us of the vast gap between the responsibilities and the actions of our government.
In his press conference, Mantashe attempted to justify the continued exploitation of fossil fuel resources by international corporations as a means towards a just transition. Mr Mantashe appears to deliberately misuse both the word “just” and the word “transition”. It is international scientific consensus that in order to avoid the most severe impacts of the climate crisis, undiscovered fossil fuel deposits must remain just that: undiscovered. In a 2021 report published by the International Energy Agency it categorically stated that “No new oil and natural gas fields are needed”, if we are to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and provide humanity with a 50%-66% chance of limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees. It is necessary to say, 1.5 degrees is still not ideal by any measure and will see much more devastating impacts across the social-economic-environmental nexus than those we already see now in South Africa and in the world that has so far warmed by 1.1 degrees. It is also scientific consensus that the impacts of climate change will be most devastating to under-resourced people and communities. Does it make sense to begin building infrastructure and setting up industries that lead to much pain and suffering socially, economically and environmentally; and which we know unequivocally we must phase out to preserve the prospect of a liveable future?
Given all this it may be sensible to ask why Mr Mantashe would not only publicly support petrochemical megacorporations, but would also seem to describe grass-roots community activists – ordinary South Africans taking a stand for our national heritage- as perpetrating a kind of apartheid against these corporations? As always, the answer may be found by following the money. The ANC’s investment arm, the Batho Batho trust, currently holds a 46.8% stake in Thebe Investment Corporation, which in turn holds a 28% stake in Shell South Africa. As South Africans, we need to ask the question:
Can we trust our ministers and our government to be objective in protecting our Section 24 rights, if the ruling party of that same government, those same ministers, have vested financial interests in oil and gas?
Environmental Organisations demand that the government tells the truth about the climate emergency, and acts immediately based on that truth. To allow Shell and other oil and gas companies free licence to continue to desecrate and exploit our shores, particularly with their poor history of such activities in other countries, is to willingly ignore the voices of the people of South Africa, and to actively endorse a colonial attack on our country, both through the direct impact of seismic surveying and fossil fuel extraction, and through the unfolding impacts of the climate crisis. This is a particularly egregious betrayal, as our country warms twice as fast as the global average. Our ministers and oil and gas executives can use their wealth to insulate themselves from these impacts, but ordinary South Africans will have to bear the brunt of their actions and inaction.
By encouraging a boycott of Shell, in a way that protects workers, we also seek to send a message directly to the government of South Africa:
We as South Africans do not accept the continued exploitation of our people and the ecosystems within which we exist, and upon which many of us directly rely, by petrochemical profiteers. It is your duty as our elected representatives to put an immediate stop to Shell’s activity within our borders. We should not have to boycott businesses for desecrating our home and national heritage, it is your constitutionally mandated job to protect us and future generations.
Put our people over profit, choose our communities over oil, put our oceans – our national heritage – over destructive profiteering.
Do your job.
Organisations and Individuals who either supported the protest actions, or the content of this press release, or both.
- African Climate Alliance
- Amadiba Crisis Committee
- Extinction Rebellion Cape Town
- Feed the Future NPO
- Greenpeace Cape Town Volunteers
- Natural Justice South Africa
- Oceans Not Oil
- Project 90 by 2030
- Sustaining the Wild Coast
- Support Centre for Land use Change (SCLC)
- The Green Connection
- The New Environmental Justice Solutions
- Various Independent/Unaffiliated Grass-roots Activists.