Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe. Picture: BABY JIYANE
Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe. Picture: BABY JIYANE

Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe was ignorant and gravely insulting when he accused communities along the Wild Coast who are challenging Shell’s seismic survey of “engaging in colonialism and apartheid of a special sort”, it was argued in the high court in Makhanda on Friday.

Wild Coast communities, environmental and human rights organisations and individuals are asking the court sitting in Makhanda to urgently interdict the oil giant’s seismic survey, which they say is devastating to the marine environment as well as harmful to communities’ rights and reliance on the sea for sustenance, income and cultural practices.

Judgment is expected next week, meaning the world’s biggest survey ship, the Amazon Warrior, has at least the weekend to continue its seismic blasting, in the hunt for new oil and gas stores,  before a decision is made on whether to interdict its activity. 

Argument became heated on Friday over some of the issues, including whether “subjective cultural rights” could trump Shell’s commercial interests in these circumstances. There was disagreement over the irreparable damage experts say will be caused to the marine environment by seismic testing.

Mantashe was also roasted in court for suggesting that those communities along the Wild Coast who were challenging Shell’s seismic survey had a colonial and racist agenda.

Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi, SC, said it would have been pointless for his clients — who range from individual fisher folk to community organisations along the Wild Coast — to have embarked on an internal appeal to the minister as he had already “nailed his colours to the Shell mast”.

It was suggested in court papers that before resorting to legal action, the communities should have exhausted their internal remedies, which included an internal appeal to Mantashe.

“He has been unequivocal that he supports Shell,” said Ngcukaitobi. “The language he used was unfortunate. He accused the communities I represent of engaging in colonialism and apartheid of a special sort, masquerading as environmental protection.”

He said this showed him to be totally ignorant of who his clients were or the basis of their concerns.

“To instead defend Shell — with its headquarters in England — is a grave insult.”

Ngcukaitobi argued that the consultation carried out by Shell before proceeding with its seismic surveying along the Wild Coast was a farcical sham and had deliberately excluded communities and individuals that relied on the coastline for sustenance and income.

He claimed Shell had also failed to obtain an environmental authorisation in terms of environmental legislation and their seismic survey was therefore unlawful.

However, both advocate Adrian Friedman for Shell and advocate Olav Ronaasen for Mantashe disagreed and argued that the Environmental Management Programme report (EMPr) they had obtained, was an effective environmental authorisation issued under the National Environmental Management Act (Nema).

Friedman argued that the harm caused by an interim interdict against Shell would be “nothing short of catastrophic”, with the cost running to at least  R1bn.

It would effectively bring to an end any possibility of ever resuming the survey or taking advantage of any oil or gas findings it might have produced.

Friedman dismissed the notion that the surveying activity — which would take place at least 20km from the shore — could ever affect any communities living along the coastline.

He said the court would be recognising an “unprecedented form of harm” if it considered the subjective belief that the ancestors might take offence at an activity taking place more than 20km away.

Judge Gerald Bloem reserved judgment on Friday but said he would do his best to deliver it speedily.

Update: Friday December 17 2021
This story has been updated with new information throughout.

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