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Public participation is a farce in Musina-Makhado project

After three public participation rounds in September and October 2020 and in January 2021 it is hard to imagine that the directive for more thorough public participation on the Environmental Impact Assessment Report for the proposed Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone could go wrong again. Yet, last week, the meetings exploded as people vented their frustration about inadequate information on the zone.

Ironically, South Africa’s legislation on inclusion is the best in the world, especially on issues of sustainable development and the environment. The National Environmental Management Act (Nema) is inspired by international best practice on participatory sustainable development.

Nema founding principles in chapter 1 state, “… the participation of all interested and affected parties in environmental governance must be promoted, and all people must have the opportunity to develop the understanding, skills and capacity necessary for achieving equitable and effective participation, and participation by vulnerable and disadvantaged persons must be ensured”.

Yet despite the enormity of the MMSEZ in terms of its effect on people, livelihoods and the environment, as field interviews in March 2021 yet again exposed, no attempt was made by Delta Built Environment Consultants (Delta BEC) and the Limpopo Economic Development Agency (LEDA) prior to the meetings to inform people of the details of the project. In meetings with key affected groups, the Mulambwane and Mudimeli, leaders expressed outrage at the lack of information and inclusion and have approached the LEDA for focus group meetings.

It appears that the extent of the proposed project’s effect has been relayed to people through Limpopo Premier Stanley Mathabatha’s promises of jobs and of guarantees that the metallurgical zone, centring on a coal plant and related metallurgical industries will not irrevocably damage the water scarce Vhembe Biosphere and district.

Last week’s round of public meetings showed that once again the LEDA  and Delta BEC had given little to no thought to the process except to tick off the public participation box on the to-do list.

The meetings in Musina and Makhado on the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process descended into anarchy after a dispute over the necessity of translating the presentation into three languages. As one person from Makhado stated in the meeting: “Why were we not consulted about translation or the way these meetings are being held?”

Delta BEC recirculated previous presentations, with slight modifications. No additional specialist knowledge was made available. There was no attempt at plain language, nor a recognition of the explicit directive in Nema to provide people with information prior to meetings to enable them to effectively participate. 

It is for this reason that environmental organisations such as Earthlife Africa and Mining Communities Unite in Action have dismissed previous participation rounds as “tick-box processes”. Equally, it is no wonder that the Musina and Makhado meetings descended into shouting matches between different groups.

Officials made no effort to manage the pandemonium. Instead, the LEDA facilitators and the Delta BEC environmental assessment consultant, Ronaldo Retief, abandoned the meetings to the local police force to ensure crowd control.  It is rather telling that a police presence was evidently felt as being necessary; this was not a feature of the last rounds of meetings).

101 on public participation

A striking feature of how Delta BEC and the LEDA have organised the public participation process is that many of the questions, issues and comments raised by the Department of Economic Development Environment and Tourism (LEDET) in the letter that referred the EIA back for further tweaking are not the environmental assessment practitioner’s (EAP’s) sole responsibility. For example, the LEDET states that “sources of water and energy supply have not been explicitly outlined in the EIAR [Environmental Impact Assessment Report]”. The responsibility for determining adequate water supply is clearly the responsibility of both the LEDA as the enabling agency, and ultimately the LEDET.

The proposed energy components of the MMSEZ rests on the myth of “clean coal fired energy” and, in the short term, Eskom has committed to supply five megawatts (MW) of energy to get the zone up and running. With Eskom barely able to supply South Africa, committing energy resources to the mega-project is negligent.

Equally of concern is that the EIA presented last week revises the size of the coal plant from 3 300MW to 1 320MW, with a commitment to super-critical clean coal, a term environmental specialists raise their eyebrows on hearing. More than a decade after its inception, Medupi still “aspires” to clean coal, making a mockery of earlier promises to lead the way in clean coal technology.

Ironically, the LEDET initially refused Delta BEC an extension to finalise the EIA in January, and then granted one a month later. At the Pretoria meeting, a participant pointed out that the Nema legislated a turn-around time of 107 days for the LEDET’s decision, which will expire on 19 May. Retief, on behalf of Delta BEC, had to admit that, to their knowledge, the current process is unlawful because, to date, the company had received no written explanation from the LEDET regarding the legality of the current extension.

It is clear that the LEDA and the LEDET’s haste to finalise the EIA is to please the Chinese operator, Shenzhen Hoi Mor (now listed as a South African subsidiary company) and state-owned enterprises waiting in the wings for the official nod for the zone. As a result, due process, including effective public participation is being thrown under the bus. Retief appears to be landing under the bus too, because his role has exponentially expanded to one of facilitator, mediator/apologist for the LEDA and the LEDET, not to mention general scapegoat for everything that is wrong with the proposed project.

A prime example of this is the LEDA’s failure to provide Delta BEC or the public with information that ought to be in the public domain. At the Pretoria public meeting on Friday, 30 April, Retief could provide no further information or assurances of the promises of 50 000 jobs for locals. Retief’s answer to this question was: “… we will only know about the jobs when the Chinese get here”. The LEDA officials present refused to comment. Retief also confirmed that the EIA peer review document has also been withheld by the LEDET from both Delta BEC and the public, but he clarified that the review document is not confidential.

One thing is clear: the last round of public participation on the MMSEZ was a further smear to the government’s commitment to legislation on the importance of public participation. Yet in the growing tradition of mobilisation on unsustainable development, frustrated by the lack of information and the participation process, Vhembe district residents have learned to raise their voices of dissent. These voices will only get louder.

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Lisa Thompson
Professor Lisa Thompson is a political economist based at the University of the Western Cape
Meshack Mbangula
Meshack Mbangula is a renowned community activist and a leader in community capacitation and mobilisation for Mining Affected Communities Unite in Action (MACUA)

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