Shell offered South African villagers jobs; they chose Their Heritage instead

Residents join a demonstration against Royal Dutch’s Shell – Photo by Rogan Ward/Reuters

By Ryan Lenora Brown 

Mashona Dlamini knew his land was rich long before any mining company told him so.

As a child, he often followed his father, a healer called an inyanga, down through the silver-flecked red dunes around their village to the coast. There, they gathered the octopuses, sea urchins, and seawater that his father used to make medicine.

In winter, the land on either side of their path heaved up sweet potatoes and corn, in summer thick bunches of bananas. As long as they took only what they needed, Mr. Dlamini’s father explained as they walked, there would always be more.

So when international mining companies began to arrive in the early 2000s – first for titanium in the dunes, and later for gas they said might be beneath the ocean floor – Mr. Dlamini, along with many of his neighbors, wasn’t particularly interested in their pitch.


Residents of coastal communities in the global south, who are increasingly bearing the brunt of climate change, are challenging the notion that big polluters like Shell can continue business as usual.

“These companies can come and go, but we live with the consequences of what they do,” says Mr. Dlamini, now in his mid-80s and an inyanga himself. “The land and the ocean are a finite resource. We don’t want them to become a history lesson.”

So in December, when a hulking blue and white ship called the Amazon Warrior appeared off the coast of nearby Xolobeni, many felt history repeating itself.

The vessel had been hired by Royal Dutch Shell to blast powerful sound waves into the ocean floor as part of a seismic survey. By the way the sound bounced off the seabed, they would be able to tell if there were valuable reserves of natural gas in the water here.

A few weeks later, a South African court ordered the multinational to stop the seismic survey pending a proper environmental assessment. The court ruled that Shell hadn’t properly consulted with communities that could be affected by the survey, and hadn’t made sure the survey wouldn’t be environmentally destructive.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Mashona Dlamini, a traditional healer in Segidi, South Africa, was a plaintiff in a recent court case forcing Shell to stop a seismic survey along the coast near his village.

Shell has said it is committed to continuing exploration using a “caring” approach, and the oil giant will likely return to court later this year for the right to continue its survey.

Critics say the seismic survey will disturb endangered wildlife, such as penguins, dolphins, and migrating humpback whales, but the project has strong political backing, chiefly from South Africa’s energy minister.

That could pitch coastal communities, which fear losing their ancestral homeland and the country’s most pristine stretch of coastline, into a protracted legal battle against powerful officials and one of the world’s biggest oil companies.

“We’ve been told, ‘You are poor people in South Africa. What makes you think you can take on a rich company like Shell?’” says Nonhle Mbuthuma, an activist who led December’s successful opposition to the Shell survey. “But we know something they don’t – that our ancestors don’t have bank accounts. They can’t be paid off by these companies.”

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Growing up in the dying years of apartheid in the 1980s, Ms. Mbuthuma could – anyone could – see that mining had made her country rich. Minerals like gold, diamonds, and platinum had bankrolled South Africa’s skyscrapers, 10-lane highways, and glittering shopping malls.

In 1980, mining accounted for more than 20% of South Africa’s gross domestic product, and employed more than 750,000 people.

But equally obvious to Ms. Mbuthuma was the fact that the people whom mining had made rich weren’t those toiling underground.

In Segidi, a village on the southeastern coastline colloquially known as the Wild Coast, she had watched each January as the village’s men queued up for the buses to take them to faraway “white” cities like Johannesburg and Rustenburg, where they would work the rest of the year as migrant laborers in gold and platinum mines.

When they finally came back in December, they were tired, they were sick – and they didn’t have a whole lot to show for it.

As a healer, Mr. Dlamini became accustomed to the rattling, full-throttle cough of silicosis, a lung illness commonly contracted by miners.

“People went there normal, but they came back broken,” he says.

So when an Australian mining company was granted a license to mine for titanium in the area’s dunes in 2008, many people here balked. The company pledged permanent jobs and paved roads, but Ms. Mbuthuma says that after decades of neglect by outsiders –  first the apartheid government, then a new democratic one – many people had little reason to believe it.

“What we have is our land,” Ms. Mbuthuma says.

And so, with the assistance of human rights lawyers, they launched a legal challenge against the company, and their own government. The Australian company eventually pulled out after a decade of opposition from local activists.

“They think we are poor and desperate and therefore we will accept anything they offer us,” says Gcinamandla Mthwa, a resident of Xolobeni, one of the villages at the core of the titanium mining case. “But we have shown them we won’t.”

Legal path ahead

In the case of Shell, the path ahead is uncertain for activists. In early December, a court initially struck down a legal challenge by Greenpeace Africa and a collective of local fishermen, who had argued Shell’s survey would cause “irreparable harm” to marine life.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s minister for mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, scorned those who brought the case. “We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type,” he told local journalists.

Two weeks later, activists were back in court. This time, among the plaintiffs were Mr. Dlamini and several others from coastal communities. It wasn’t just marine life that would be harmed by the Shell survey, they argued.

It was their spiritual connection to the water as well. It was the knowledge passed by Mr. Dlamini’s father to him, and from him to his children. And in any case, they said, it wasn’t up to Shell – or even the South African government – to decide what should happen to the oceans that skirted their communities.

In court, the activists’ lawyers raised another point. As coastal communities in the global south, places like Xolobeni and Segidi are particularly vulnerable to climate change brought on, in part, by the use of fossil fuels like those Shell hopes to mine off the South African coast.

Last year, a court in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered, ordered the company to cut its emissions by 45%, citing the global environmental damage caused by its products.

On Dec. 28, a high court in the city of Makhanda ruled against Shell, ordering it to stop its survey pending the outcome of another case on whether it had the proper environmental approvals, which will be decided later this year.

A few days later, the blue- and white-striped ship sailed away, bound for its home base in Spain.

“I hope they won’t come back,” says Nozolile Shude, who lives in Xolobeni. “But if they do, we will just fight them again.”

Culled from Christian Science Monitor


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