Shell shells the sea floor

Andrew Donaldson on Gwede Mantashe's defence of the oil company oil exploration activity along the wild coast


MANY years ago, some friends and I hiked the Wild Coast trail from Port St Johns to Coffee Bay. I cannot pretend it was a walk in the park and must admit that on occasion we paid small boys with boiled sweets for a push up those punishing hills. 

The practice is frowned upon these days and to make light of it is possibly triggering to the social justice commando. The fact that these children lay in wait to offer their services to weary souls struggling with overstuffed backpacks merely compounds the offence; it’s one more example of the enduring, systemic exploitation fostered in the colonial era.

And yet, at the time, losing a packet of Beacon’s best confectionery did seem a small price to pay for help in reaching more agreeable terrain.

Further abuse came in the villages where elderly women, perhaps the grandmothers of these boys, sold quarts of beer at massively inflated prices. It was after several of these, and a bit of dagga, that I noticed a puppy take its place in a litter of piglets to suckle on a fat sow, which struck me as not at all unusual in the circumstances…

This is a magical part of the country, and the fierce opposition to Royal Dutch Shell’s planned seismic exploration off the Wild Coast is not surprising. However, much of this opposition has been described by reactionaries as unreasonable and, for want of a polite term, “emotional”. But so what? Emotions do matter and, besides, since when has it made sense to pay much attention to corporate reason?

Earlier this month Shell were given the all-clear to explore for oil in vital whale breeding areas offshore after the high court in Makhanda dismissed an urgent legal challenge by environmental groups. The applicants had apparently failed to provide evidence that the obliteration of their environment was harmful to marine life.

It’s worth noting that the day before acting judge Avinash Govindjee’s ruling, Shell had abandoned its plans for a controversial new oilfield off the Shetland Islands, claiming there wasn’t a strong “economic case” to proceed with the project. 

The truth, though, is that Shell was facing massive “emotional” opposition in the UK. Greenpeace had threatened to sue the government if drilling went ahead and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon had signalled a hardline position on oil and gas production by confirming she did not believe the new oilfield should be licensed. 

But we digress. Last week, a second Wild Coast court action was launched against Shell, this time by Reinford Sinegugu Zukulu and other local traditional leaders. Zukulu, a director with non-profit organisation Sustaining the Wild Coast, laid out the historical or “emotional” aspect of their case in his affidavit. He points out that, unlike other areas, the Wild Coast’s indigenous folk have kept their land despite centuries of colonial and apartheid rule. This was 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. Our land and sea are central to our livelihoods and our way of life…”

Shell will now jeopardise this way of life, he says. “They want to do this for one reason: to look for oil and gas that they can profit from while worsening the planet’s climate crisis.”

Perhaps this court action, which also details the destructive mechanics of seismic prospecting, will succeed where the earlier bid had failed. It could go swimmingly for the ancestors, in other words, in ways that it hadn’t for the fish.

That said, I believe the applicants could strengthen their case considerably by appealing to the court to consider Gwede Mantashe’s ongoing support for the project as reason enough to rule against Shell.

Let’s be frank. Mantashe’s handling of the mineral resources and energy portfolio has been, if I may, somewhat rocky. Readers will recall the geology goblin’s embarrassing enthusiasm for “Hazenile”, a bogus mineral that would be “crucial in the manufacturing of battery storage technologies”. An honest mistake, you may argue, and just the sort of mishap that could happen to any minister who innocently “researches” chunks of an April Fool’s spoof for an address at a mining conference.

It is however his deliberate attempts to mislead the public that are the more troubling. [1] The “fossil-fuelled falsehoods”, as they’ve been described, have been turbo-charged for the Wild Coast. Addressing the media last week, a pugnacious Mantashe resorted to the dirtiest trick in the greenwashing playbook. 

By claiming that protests against Shell were examples of apartheid and colonialism of a special type, he’d fallen back on the old lie that the interests of the oil corporations were allied to those of workers and ordinary folk. It was the environmentalists, on the other hand, who were the bad guys as they disguised the sabotage of much-needed economic development as being beneficial and in the public’s interest.

As for seismic blasting, well, this was nothing more than a few puffs of air, Mantashe suggested, and certainly not the Godzilla-scaled disruptions as claimed by some — just a bit of compressed air harmlessly released into the seabed. Studies of the potential impact this breezy business has on marine life, he added, has been going on for years [2] and there is no conclusive evidence or scientific research which demonstrates that such work caused irreparable damage to fish or mammals.

This, it’s countered, is complete rubbish. Papers before the court reveal that seismic surveys use an “airgun array”, something akin to an artillery battery, to generate shock waves. These emissions, blasting out relentlessly at ten second intervals for a period of five months will be between 220 and 250 decibels at source, a noise that can be heard underwater for 100 kilometres or more. 

“To understand how loud this is,” Reinford Zukulu states, “the Honourable Court should appreciate that a jet plane produces 120 decibels when taking off, a jackhammer produces 130 decibels, and fireworks and gunshots produce 140 decibels; 150 decibels will burst a human’s eardrum, while 185–200 decibels will kill a human being.”

Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that opposition to Shell’s Nigerian operations resulted in the 1995 execution by the military regime of Ken Saro Wiwa and other leaders who had protested against the company’s devastation of their Ogoni homeland. 

One Ogoni activist in particular, Barry Wugale, finds it telling that, at the time the oil giant was drawing international condemnation following the activists’ hanging, the ANC was “busy moving its furniture into Shell House on Plein Street in Johannesburg. Once Shell saw the writing on the wall, it swiftly became the landlord-benefactor of the would-be ruling party of South Africa.”

It wasn’t always thus, Wugale argues. In an open letter to Mantashe in Daily Maverick, he recalls the ANC’s long campaign against companies like Shell that were seen as supporting apartheid. It was a campaign that included, among other bombings by MK guerrillas, the attack on the Shell depot in Alberton in 1981. He writes:

“I have all the while believed that the ANC’s position was that oil companies, Shell particularly, played an ignoble role that aided apartheid. My reading of history is that the ANC saw the activities of Shell and other oil companies as synonymous with the military machinery of the apartheid regime. I thought that the ANC’s position was that attacks on Shell’s facilities were a statement for black liberation.”

Greed, of course, changes everything — and for the worst, as the environmentalists will tell you.

Grinched ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As I write, Santa’s elves bring terrible news that Christmas at Nkandla may be cancelled this year. This is not due to Omicron or the panicdemic, as it’s known here at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), but rather the high court in Pretoria. It has ruled that the decision by correctional services commissioner Arthur Fraser to release Jacob Zuma from prison on medical parole in September was unlawful and must be set aside.

Accused Number One must therefore return to jail to complete his 15-month sentence for contempt of court. 

The cruel irony here is that he was sent down in July; if he served his sentence, he would have been eligible for parole last month. It was thus possible that RET’s greatest prisoner of conscience would have been home for the holidays had he not been Frasered from chokey.

On the bright side, however, the former president’s book appears to be something of a best-seller. Not content with the notice it has received in this space, his people mounted their own campaign to publicise Jacob Zuma Speaks: The Words of a President (Xarra Books), the thrust of which appears to be setting straight the record on uBaba’s stewardship of the country..

In this regard, I must address certain factual errors in last week’s column. According to the publisher, Zuma did not write the book as I suggested, but merely “endorsed” its publication. Its authors are Professor Sipho Seepe, Kim Heller, Dudu Myeni and Themba Mathe — serious commentators all, apparently. Rather than dish up some tasteless dirt or entertaining gossip, they document “the potency of Jacob Zuma’s ideas” while providing “crucial reflections on many of South Africa’s current-day social and economic challenges”. 

Carl Niehaus, the renowned fabulist, is alas not a contributor. But perhaps he is helping out with the next volume. This could be uBaba’s long-awaited prison diary.

According to Duduzile Ivanka Zuma, her father has several more works up his sleeve. Speaking at the launch at midnight on Friday, she said: “I just want to let South Africa know that this is going to be the first of many books that my Dad is going to be writing and involved in, and the book that you are all waiting for will be coming soon as well.”

We’re launching this book, see? But it’s not the one you really want… 

This is not the sort of thing that a publisher usually expects to hear at such times. Luckily, the 2 000 print run has sold out. The public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane appears to have brought a truckload, thus dealing with her gift shopping in one fell swoop. What fun her family is going to have on Christmas Day with all those potent Zuma ideas bandied about over turkey and trimmings. 

Dudu has threatened that more copies are on their way. 

But back to the launch, where her father thanked his authors: “I feel very good that some South Africans who are patriots have felt that it was not fair for those South Africans who think differently to tell the kind of stories that were not true, the untruth about the work that we have done, who really demonstrated that the truth is important in society for the society to be well-informed, to know what has happened, because there is no use to create stories because you have a powerful machinery to do so.”

So unjustly treated, and by those who should know better. You’d think it Easter, and not Christmas.

JG Zuma Foundation spokesman and all-round agriculturalist Mzwanele “Malaprop” Manyi also spoke at the launch. There had, he said, been “a lot of false falsehoods” uttered about his boss’s tenure as president and this book would sort all that out. “It’s got reverting accounts of people that today are very quiet yet have said a lot of flowery stuff during those nine years…”

I’m sure it has. But launch done, it was then down to business and getting copies of Jacob Zuma Speaks into the hands of readers. On Saturday, Malaprop announced on Twitter that he and Dudu would be flogging the book from the trunk of a car outside a fast food outlet. His post, later deleted, read:

“Car Boot sales Pre Book shop sales R300 per unsigned copy and R1000 for signed copy tomorrow 12/12/2021 @ 14h00. Deposit at Capitec Bank below. Bring proof of deposit, NO CASH. 1st come, 1st served 

“Dudu and I will be at Mcdonald in Sandton (Cnr Grayston&Rivonia) #JACOBZUMASPEAKS pic.twitter.com/ptYuBGhoin Mzwanele Manyi (@MzwaneleManyi) December 11, 2021

He later tweeted: “This offer has now EXPIRED. But no stress. If u have Proof of Payment but due to limited stock you couldn't get yr book today at 14h00, the following will apply 

“1. Your money back tomorrow
“2. Get the Book later
“3. You can also choose to be deemed to have donated YOU WILL DECIDE https://twitter.com/MzwaneleManyi/” 

This, too, was later deleted, possibly as a result of the derision it generated. The foundation meanwhile continues with its fund-raising plans. Be warned: it is as if a powerful machinery is in operation here. 

Just one thing: what are the holiday visiting hours at the Estcourt correctional facility? Asking for Carl.

Season’s greetings

That’s the Grouse for 2021, folks. I’ll be back in January and, until then, all the best over the holidays. I’ll be in Scotland, taking in the waters. But wherever you may be, please stay safe.



[1] In August this year, New Frame published Climate Justice Coalition secretary Alex Lenferna’s coverview of the corruption scandals in which Mantashe and his members of his family are implicated. It’s a report that comprehensively deals with the fiction that the minister is a force for honest administration and a trusted opponent against Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s radical economic transformation faction. 

[2] These studies tend to continue until they produce findings that suit the corporations that fund them. Forgive the cynicism, but as this article in The Conversation suggests, credibility suffers when industry funds science.