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Saving the Wild Coast from Big Oil

South Africa
Credit: Ocean Warriors Wild Coast

The salty whiff of a public uprising is in the air on the Eastern Cape as Royal Dutch Shell faces another court hearing over its seismic oil exploration on the pristine Wild Coast.

The rugged coastline is an endless landscape of beaches, headlands, wild gorges, sparkling surf and traditional subsistence fishing and farming by the indigenous Xhosa community. Oil and gas production here, as well as the seismic testing itself, is a threat to wildlife and livelihoods.

Thousands of people have come out onto sandy picket lines to say no to Shell’s plans and campaigners have been trying to fight them in the courts. One application, led by a group of environmental NGOs and other local groups was dismissed by the Makhanda High Court on 3 December but now a new group of applicants are taking Shell on in a hearing scheduled for Friday 17 December.

Bad news spreads

Shell’s arrival on the Wild Coast, holding an exploration permit and environmental authorization cooked up in the dark during the corrupt days of former president Jacob Zuma, was initially a tiny affair. A small, cramped article appeared in the Eastern Cape newspaper I work for, the Daily Dispatch, on 1 November 2021. In it local researchers were interviewed. They talked about the potential for noise damage to marine ecosystems due to seismic surveys.

Everyone attending could feel the importance of the gathering, and I certainly felt that this movement was about to grow

Within days, protests started to spring up, starting in the parking lot near the famous Nahoon Reef in East London and spreading up the East Coast. Emily Craik, a 29-year-old social media manager, was at that first demonstration.‘Everyone attending could feel the importance of the gathering, and I certainly felt that this movement was about to grow,’ she said. ‘All I knew was that I wanted to help.’

The Amadiba Crisis Committee also got involved and what had initially seemed to be a conversation between environmentally-minded surfers became a national and international campaign.

In 2018 the Amadiba community on the Wild Coast succeeded in a 20-year battle to bar opencast mining of the titanium-rich red sands of the Xolobeni people. That farmer-focused community struggle, led by the Amadiba Crisis Committee, managed to build an international network of support.

‘For over two decades, the coastal Amadiba community has fought against opencast mining on our land,’ said the Committee in a public statement. ‘Now we also must fight against mining of the ocean. Indigenous people along the whole coast of Africa must have the right to say no to projects that threatens their livelihood: the right to free prior and informed consent.’

On Sunday 5 December, protests took place on 66 beaches across South Africa – from Cape Town to Richards Bay – all deriding the entire oil and gas drive led by the government and big oil and calling for exploration to be halted.

Indigenous people along the whole coast of Africa must have the right to say no to projects that threatens their livelihood

In East London, standing on the deck of the local lifesaver’s club-house, Div de Villiers, director of environmental compliance in the provincial government and a leading light in the fight against rhino and perlemoen (‘mother-of-pearl’) poachers, addressed 250 people standing on the sodden, misty beach. He accused Shell of having done no research on the impact of seismic surveys on the Wild Coast and of not speaking to local people, especially Xhosa traditional leaders, before pushing ahead with its plans.

Craik now runs social media for the East London-based Ocean Warriors. ‘I have run several other charitable campaigns, but nothing as inspiring as Save The Wild Coast. It has been a 24/7 job, with tears – losing the interdict was a knock; weird nightmares about Shell; gasps; and eye-rolls (mainly at our government) – but it has been the most rewarding work I have ever done.’

Toxic association

Thanks to the annual sardine run, the Wild Coast hosts the entire marine orchestra from whales, dolphins and sharks down to every order of bird and fish species, filling resorts and fishing baskets. The notion of leaking gas lines, oil-spattered mussel beds, and general degradation of oil and gas extraction is a mental horror for many South Africans.

Protest against Shell has even spread to the boardroom. Discovery Holdings, the country’s largest medical aid, insurance and banking corporation, came out strongly against the potential for environmental harm and said it was doing its own independent research as it carried on with its now-difficult retail partnership with Shell. A leading Eastern Cape fuel supplier, Express Petroleum, announced it was ‘debranding’ – dumping Shell – as a supplier and the Border-Kei Chamber of Commerce announced it was to campaign against the Wild Coast exploration.

The notion of leaking gas lines, oil-spattered mussel beds, and general degradation of oil and gas extraction is a mental horror for many South Africans

Minister of Mineral Resources, Gwede Mantashe, is the driving force behind the big oil dream. But with the public odds stacked against him, it came as a shock when Eastern Cape high court judge Avinash Govindjee ruled in favour of Shell and Mantashe on 3 December.

He found that on a ‘balance of convenience’ Shell had spent billions on preparing for the survey and would probably not return if the‘window of opportunity’ was denied. The oil giant was free to give its hired survey vessel, Amazon Warrior, the go-ahead to start the Wild Coast survey.

On the day Govindjee was delivering his judgment, 24 of South Africa’s leading marine scientists wrote an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa urging him to stop the seismic surveys planned for the entire coastline as there was clear and growing global scientific evidence that the damage caused by sonic booming to the acoustics of the ocean and its creatures – from squid eggs to whales – was irreparable.

The fight isn’t over

All eyes are now on Friday’s court application led by battle-scarred environmental lawyer Richard Spoor, who led the fight against titanium mining for the Amadiba Crisis Committee.The affidavits submitted ahead of the hearing include allegations of clear environmental cheating, among them a claim that the scientists who did the original impact research in 2014 were land-focused seismic engineers who knew nothing about marine ecosystems.

One of the applicants in the case, Reinford Sinegugu Zukulu, who lives at Baleni Village in the Amadiba Traditional Community and runs not-for-profit Sustaining the Wild Coast said in his affidavit:‘Unlike other coastal stretches in South Africa, indigenous people have maintained continuous possession of this land despite waves of colonial and apartheid aggression. This is no accident. Our ancestors’ blood was spilt protecting our land and sea. We now feel a sense of duty to protect our land and sea for future generations, as well as for the benefit of the planet.’

The courtroom battle is where the matter will be legally decided, but out in the public President Ramaphosa is faced with global condemnation for his often-stated commitment to meet the hydro-carbon reduction goals set by the Paris and Glasgow climate agreements, while back home his minister and business factions are in court boxing to allow Shell to push into some of the world’s last unspoiled environments. There is a distinctly ANC-flavoured interest in the Wild Coast oil deal. The ANC-linked Thebe Investments has a 28 per cent interest in Shell Downstream South Africa – something that has drawn public ire.

Win or lose in court, it is a crisis of popular will versus the age-old story of neo-colonial extraction and profiteering favouring a small corrupt elite.

The Amazon Warrior might have the legal right to blast away, for now, but it is a marked vessel and protest to protect land and water is built into South Africa’s political DNA.


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