The importance of being a social movement activist in South Africa’s battle for clean energy

Mpophomeni Conservation Group

The decision-making framework provided by the South African constitution after the dawn of democracy highlights the importance of stakeholder engagement, thus increasing the power of activism. Vast stretches of the country are now earmarked for unconventional oil and gas exploration. Activists need to be vigilant that no application goes unchallenged.

In Oscar Wilde’s famous play, The Importance of Being Ernest, the hero pretends to be the honourable Ernest Worthing who to his surprise he turns out to be at the end of the play. Living a double life, John pretending to be Ernest, for the sake of marrying his beloved Gwendolen, struggles to keep appearance. When finally he finds out he has been the one that he pretended to be all along he exclaims with surprise “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”

Environmental activists in South Africa must feel this pleasant shudder now that they find that battles against mining companies can be won. In a struggle that often seems to amount to a battle against almighty Goliath, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) applications throughout the country suffer defeats. Environmental activists are marvelling about the realization that they can actually be as impactful as they had always dreamed of being. Eleven applications for unconventional gas explorations encompassing vast stretches of the country are currently under review.

Exploration applications for unconventional gas first surfaced in 2008 when three multinational oil and gas companies – among them Royal Dutch Shell – expressed interest to explore the Karoo desert. The process, however, has been stalled as a moratorium was instigated to do research on the practicalities of drilling for unconventional gas in the Karoo. The Academy of Science of South Africa published a report examining the “technical readiness to support the Shale Gas Industry”[1] which found major challenges relating to potential unconventional gas-drilling activities in the country.

An apparent lack of knowledge concerning deep level water resources which would be affected by the deep-seated drilling technique are a worrying finding in a water-scarce country such as South Africa. The Academy also pointed to the lack of present infrastructure to distribute gas throughout the country. What is also notable is that the oil and gas companies’ potential to create jobs is put into doubt. Required skills for gas exploration are simply not available in the country.

Illicit mining deals at the heart of state apparatus

The government so far has sent mixed messages with regards to fracking, with President Zuma repeatedly calling shale gas exploration a ‘game-changer’ for the South African economy.[2] However, the Departments of Water Affairs and Sanitation as well as Environmental Affairs try to affirm their respective mandates to safeguard the country’s water resources and biodiversity. Other concerns at government level shared with farmers across the country regard the future of arable land. Decision-making around mining rights is currently taking place in very a volatile political environment. South Africa’s mining industry dubbed by critical voices as the ‘legacy of apartheid’[3] has once again come under fire. This time serious allegations emanate from “State of Capture Report”[4] recently released by the outgoing Public Protector suggesting that members of the cabinet have unduly favoured a notorious business family in pursuit of mining capital.

The Indian-born Gupta family is deemed to have great influence on the president’s decision-making. President Zuma’s son Duduzane has tight business relationships with the Gupta family. With a government perceived to be too close to mining capital, environmental activists share the impression that they have to take their fate for the sake of themselves and their children into their own hands.

Court victories call for legal battle?

The decision-making framework provided by the South African constitution after the dawn of democracy highlights the importance of stakeholder engagement. This ties social movements close to prescribed public engagements. In his book From Revolution to Rights, Steven L. Robins suggests that “post-apartheid NGOs and social movement activists have increasingly recognized the emancipatory potential of rights-based approaches.” For most middle-class activists legal battles have become the weapon of choice. This holds especially true for the battle against fracking.

Under the current framework it becomes almost inevitable for activists to challenge oil and gas companies on legal grounds. The Ministry of Mineral Resources (DMR) under an act known as the One Environmental System has become the watchdog of environmental compliance. There is great distrust that DMR will oversee the environmental provisions better than the Department of Environmental Affairs did formerly.

A ruling of Pretoria High Court [5] stopped oil and gas company Sungu Sungu in their plans to explore Sungu Sungu for flaws in their application. One of the two dedicated activists praised for the victory held that: “Had the farmers’ associations not worked together, put their trust in the legal system and put up the money to fund the appeal and court application this exploration process would have continued unabated.” In her opinion the fight against fracking has become technical due to provisions made by government prescribing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for mining and gas developments.

“These applications are first and foremost legal processes that can grant extensive rights to exploration companies and negatively impact on the rights of landowners and occupants. Exploration companies must earn the right to explore on privately owned land and to do that they must comply with the law,” commented dairy farmer Adele Slater. Other companies had to scale down proposed exploration areas as they were made aware that their applications fall in protected areas.

Opponents of fracking encourage each other to scan EIAs for flaws and raise funds for court battles. The technical language of the voluminous applications, however, makes it tough for largely under-educated rural potentially-affected communities to engage. Constitutionally there are short time frames to comment on mining applications that make it hard even for professional environmental practitioners to intervene meaningfully. Rural constituents potentially worst hit are side-lined by this process as mining applications are poorly publicized and information is only provided at selected public libraries often far from peoples’ homes.

Movement building

Narrowing the social movement repertory to “technicism and legalism” might cause “premature deradicalization”, as political economist and movement scholar Patrick Bond suggests.[6] In order to ensure activists throughout the country are all on the same page Frack Free South Africa organized a three-day festival ending with the unanimous adoption of a declaration stating that “invasive development such as for fracking and other extractives are taken in forums where local community representatives are not present so the outcome is imposed on them.“[7]

Because vast stretches of the country are earmarked for unconventional gas exploration activists need to be vigilant that no application goes unchallenged. Many believe that fracking can best be fought if there is no one well that will be opened. Frack Free South Africa is an umbrella organization assembling different organizations encompassing the farmer lobby as well as citizens’ movements alarmed about the advance of oil and gas companies in South Africa. The organization has an informal organizational structure with no paid members or official positions. Members alert each other of urgent meetings calling for immediate action. Frack Free South Africa shares the vision that drilling for unconventional gas might be fended off in its entirety. At public meetings of oil and gas companies Fracktavistas reiterate that they neither want to see gas wells in their backyard nor anywhere else in the country. Other than piecemeal battles against the establishment of new coal mines or closure of existing ones, anti-fracking activists still hope that fracking can be defeated overall.

Despite partial victories against oil and gas companies, activists remain cognisant that companies can always reapply for exploration and finally exploration rights at later stages. That is unless the government puts its foot down to ban fracking overall, victories will always be temporary.

The ironic ending of Oscar Wilde’s play provides that Ernest’s new wife pardons him for having been rightfully claiming to be the one he pretended to be. South Africa’s Fracktavistas might be excused in the future for their unlikely victories against big oil and gas.

* Jasper Finkeldey is a PhD researcher and teaching assistant at the University of Essex. He is currently visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in Durban.

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