Oil giant Shell and several climate and civil rights organisations have been embroiled in a bitter battle over the oil company’s plans to conduct seismic surveys along the Wild Coast in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The purpose of the exploration was to assess the oil and gas deposits off the coast. 

Alarmed by the potential harm the seismic blasting would cause to the ecologically rich and fragile area and the communities who depend on the sea for their survival, the environmental organisations, civil rights groups and coastal communities took their pleas from the picket lines to the courts. The civil society organisations took on Shell and won, with the Makhanda High Court cancelling the seismic exploration permit.

Civil society may have won the battle, but the war is far from over, as Shell is appealing the court ruling and, with government support, is determined to go ahead with the seismic exploration. 

In conversation with land and environmental rights activist and spokesperson for the Amabiba Crisis Committee, Nonhle Mbuthuma, Climate Justice Central discusses why climate justice organisations and the Wild Coast communities are opposing Shell’s bid to extract oil and gas from the ecologically rich and pristine coastline.

Your organisation, Amadeba Crisis Committee, other environmental activists, and civil society organisations took on Shell and won. Why was it essential to stop Shell from exploring off the Wild Coast and extracting from the pristine area?

The ocean has been a sacred place for us for centuries. The ocean is not just a tourist place where you go for leisure. It is our sacred place where we connect with our ancestors. We are spiritually connected with the ocean as human beings. When Shell decided to explore for oil and gas, we knew many things would be disturbed in the ocean, including marine life.

Shell did not consider that. The only thing they considered was getting oil and gas and making a profit out of that, not considering our social life as people living along the coast.

It was also important because the ocean is also part of our livelihood, especially in the Eastern Cape. Now, if you destroy the ocean in the Eastern Cape, you destroy the livelihood of the Eastern Cape. How can we allow short-term development and then destroy our long-term [sustainability]?

We know that with oil and gas, when it's finished, it's finished. But the damage that will be left behind will be irreversible. That is why it was so important for us to say no to oil and gas exploration in our ocean.

So activists in the Eastern Cape, along the coast of South Africa, won the battle against Shell, but the war is not over. The Makhanda High Court granted Shell and the Department of Energy leave to appeal the case. What are your thoughts on this? Are there any plans in motion to stop Shell once and for all?

When we heard that Shell and the Department of Minerals and Energy had decided to appeal this decision, we were very disappointed. The government kept preaching that what they are doing, they are doing for us. But if they are doing it for us, why are they appealing against us?

It’s very clear that our South African government is not taking climate change seriously. In South Africa, we have already tasted the pain of global warming. Some parts [are experiencing] droughts, and some other parts are experiencing floods. Food insecurity is becoming a big problem in South Africa, but it doesn’t matter as long as the government keeps the private sector happy. 

Now, as civil societies, are showing our government that we're active citizens.If something is going to be done on our behalf, we have to be involved.  Development without people, that's not development.

Even if they appeal this,  we're not going to give it up. We're not going to leave. We'll continue to fight because our fight is not about making a profit. It's about the future generation that will be destroyed for profit.

The argument is often made that projects like Shell’s seismic exploration will bring development jobs and help end SA’s energy crisis. This argument has been used to make civil society look like they don't want South Africa to progress.

This excuse is very annoying! It makes us not raise our voices because we are scared they will make us look anti-development. That we don’t want South Africa to develop, which is not true.

[The Department of Mineral Resources and Energy] was insulting the civil societies and environmental NGOs, saying they are acting like the apartheid government, that we are anti-development. Our question for our government is who is the development for if the communities have said this is not our development.

We've been painted as if we don't want to see South Africa being developed because we have said that oil and gas are not the only energy we can use to solve the problem of the energy crisis that we have.

Fossil fuel projects are not coming to develop Africa; they are coming to destroy Africa. They must end before Africa is going to be affected the most when it comes to climate change.

You talk a lot about self-determined development. What does this development look like to you?

We mine a lot of minerals [coal] in South Africa, but today, we have an energy crisis while we mine every corner. Instead of mining, we should keep the minerals in the ground and use renewable energy sources.

Secondly, we need to clean our land because that is part of development and look towards ecotourism to support our community and protect nature. As we speak, we are losing land in the name of tourism, which  excludes communities.

Another thing we want to see is sustainable agriculture. The food price is very high, and society is being taught they must be dependent on the state. Instead of teaching people how to fish, we feed them fish. You know, we want to build a world that is life. That’s the kind of development we want to see.

As it stands, Shell’s bid to overturn the decision to halt its exploration for oil and gas in the Wild Coast has been postponed until 2024.

This article is part of our current reporting project "Dismantling the Fossil Fuel Industry".