Nhlanhla Sibisi

South Africans ushered 2021 out the door with a momentous victory when the Makhanda High Court in Grahamstown ordered Shell to cease their seismic blasting along the Wild Coast. But the challenge to Shell’s activities made Gwede Mantashe see red. Lashing out at civil society for exercising their right to campaign against Shell’s project of ecological havoc is an assault of the human right to a healthy environment and a disgrace to his personal legacy. It deserves denunciations from the highest echelons of government.

Can civil society using science to prove the harms of seismic blasting and subsequent drilling for fossil fuels be conflated with “apartheid and colonialism of a special type?” Since Minister Mantashe switched sides and pledged allegiance to big business over precarious communities – everything became possible.

Yet Minister Mantashe’s assault was not only erroneous. It puts the lives of civil society organisations and individual environment defenders in danger.

We saw as recently as 2020 how nefarious characters took the life of Fikile Ntshangase at Ophondweni, in KwaZulu Natal. Inflammatory statements add fuel to the fire when a leading politician like Gwede Mantashe takes to the media and accuses campaigners of being stumbling blocks to development.

And let us never forget that the company’s interests he defended – Shell – has literally armed the Nigerian military dictatorship, enabling the occupation of Ogoniland and the execution of  indigenous protesters, including their leader, author Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Still, Mantashe continues to favour the interests of fossil fuel companies at every opportunity, as recently as Tuesday 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, Minister Matashe seems to have forgotten it’s 2021 rather than 1984. If all of civil society and the general public does not stand up to Gwede Mantashe’s pandering, we stand to lose our fundamental rights to protest and public participation as enshrined in the constitution.

Once-communist leader Minister Mantashe 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. 

Gwede Mantashe has become famous from his struggle for the rights of workers he represented under the the apartheid system. Almost three decades later, he seems to have picked up the cyncial tactics of the oppressor, using manipulative media statements to refer to civil society as racists, including groups and individuals that have led civil disobedience to the then-apartheid state at the time. 

Gwede Mantashe’s criticism of non-governmental organisations is part of a pattern of bashing civil society, including DMRE’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. 

The President of the Republic, President Cyril Ramaphosa, should not allow the minister of DMRE to threaten communities and civil society organisations with language that is racially divisive and unprecedented from the ANC. Ministers bashing civil society must be left behind in 2021.

Ramaphosa’s silence and inaction on numerous statements made by his own cabinet member is a stain on his own legacy as well and makes a mockery of his own pledges to environmental protection and safeguarding of communities’ livelihood.

Contrary to Shell’s propaganda, keenly adopted by Mantashe, there is nothing “developmental” about the seismic blasting on our Wild Coast except for bringing profits to business and poverty to communities. The use of seismic waves can 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 this precedent has been set, and that the South African courts and investors alike (much to Mantashe’s chagrin) know that people should always be prioritised over polluters. Respecting the freedom of protest is one of the last things that the ANC government can do to honor its shreds of dignity and credibility in South Africa today.

Nhlanhla Sibisi is a Greenpeace Africa Climate & Energy Campaigner