Shell, environmental groups set for long haul in South Africa Wild Coast dispute

By David Whitehouse

Posted on Friday, 3 June 2022 09:31
REUTERS/Rick Wilking.

A new round of court hearings this week over plans by Royal Dutch Shell to carry out seismic blasting along South Africa’s Wild Coast leave a rapid resolution of the dispute looking remote.

The hearings at the Gqeberha High Court followed an interim edict against Shell’s proposals granted by the Grahamstown High Court in December 2021. The new hearings concerned the granting of Shell’s exploration right by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy in 2014. A decision is expected within three months.

The most important aspect of the legal challenge is the opportunity to test statutes and legislation, Sinegugu Zukulu, a campaigner with the Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC) group told an online briefing. A strong case by environmentalists will open the possibility of appeal if the court rules against them, he said, adding that he expects Shell to appeal if they lose the case. “We need to be prepared for a long battle.”

The December decision to block the survey was based on Shell’s inadequate consultation of local indigenous communities. Shell should not have relied on newspapers as the single method of consultation and should at least have used the radio, Nonhle Mbuthuma, founder of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), told the briefing.

  • Many local people don’t have access to newspapers and can’t read English or Afrikaans, she said.
  • The company’s intention was to “bypass and ignore” the local community. “Newspapers are where you hide the information away from us.”


Shell argues that its procedures for managing the impact from seismic activities are in line with the latest global industry standards. The hydrocarbon reserves, which its seismic survey aims to uncover, have the potential to “significantly contribute to  South Africa’s energy security and the government’s economic development programmes,” the company says.

Hloniphizwe Mtolo, Shell’s country chair for South Africa, wrote in an open letter in December that the sound produced during seismic surveys is comparable to many naturally occurring and man-made ocean sounds. In 2020, there were at least 325 seismic surveys conducted globally with no known harm to marine life, he wrote.

The company has argued that the communities should have asked Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe for help rather than seeking the interdiction. Mantashe strongly backs Shell’s plans and has likened environmental protests to “apartheid and colonialism”.

The environmental groups argue that the minister’s public stance shows that appealing to him would have been a waste of time. And saying that protesters are anti-development has no legal relevance, Wilmien Wicomb, a lawyer at the Legal Resources Centre, told the briefing.

  • The purpose of consultation is not for Shell to simply ask people who agree with its proposals, she said. “This development is decided in Pretoria and will benefit the few.”
  • Mbuthuma of the ACC denied that local indigenous communities are opposed to development in itself. But Shell and the government “don’t want to ask us what we want. They want top-down development imposed.”
  • Environmental damage to the ocean is inevitable if Shell’s development goes ahead, and this would extend well beyond the Wild Coast area, Mbuthuma said. “The ocean is one. You can’t cut it” into pieces.

Bottom line

The high stakes for both sides mean that the court’s decision is unlikely to be the end of the Wild Coast dispute.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options