MMSEZ authorities dodge every question about livelihoods threats, climate change, water scarcity and more

The incubation of the Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone is a surprisingly long one. Former minister of trade and industry Rob Davies endorsed special economic zones (SEZs) as the new driver of economic growth and development in South Africa as far back as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2012.

The focus on steering South Africa’s development trajectory towards SEZs was preceded by a large number of department of trade and industry and other official delegations visiting China through a SEZ exchange programme funded by the Chinese government. The exchange programme was geared towards re-aligning South Africa’s ailing industrial development zones to fit the SEZ model as part of what the Chinese government likes to call “inclusive development” (alluding to both growth and large-scale employment creation).

The outcome of the SEZ brain-washing exchange is the Special Economic Zones Act of 2014. All SEZs now qualify for a plethora of economic and tax incentives including only 15% corporate tax, vat concessions, water and energy discounts, to name a key few.

The zones are seen as pivotal to ensuring sustainable development. Yet the Musina-Makhado SEZ is the largest development proposed project in South Africa and everything about the extractivist coal-based mega-project is unsustainable. Despite the sustainable development question marks, the zone has been endorsed as a key driver of growth by President Cyril Ramaphosa as far back as 2018 on his official visit to China.

Yet on 1 September this year, at a MMSEZ investor roadshow, the zone was again endorsed by Ramaphosa, and a host of national departments, led by the trade, industry and competition department. Ramaphosa declared the Limpopo province “open for business”. The roadshow coincided with release of the final Environmental Impact Assessment Report, and a final round of public participation.

The MMSEZ environmental impact public participation process 2020-2021

There have been several rounds of poorly executed public participation processes on the Musina Makhado environmental impact assessment (EIA), between September and October 2020, complicated by Covid-19 lockdown regulations. Because of another hard Covid lockdown, the January round of public participation was rescheduled to March. None of these rounds have been preceded by broad information sharing with local residents.

The question of poor broader participation was raised by many interested and affected parties in September and October 2020 and again in March 2021. The fact that newspapers and radio are ineffective to reach rural communities was raised in public meetings. The latest round of public participation reached the pinnacle of public obfuscation.

The public participation cover-up September 2021

In September this year, just prior to the public participation process, the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy held meetings with a broad cross-section of residents and local leaders. It was again established that many people in the Musina and Makhado areas are still largely unaware of the MMSEZ. Yet the new Enviroxcellence environmental assessment practitioner, Ishmael Semenya, and the team of Limpopo Economic Development Agency (Lieda) made claims in the last virtual meeting held on 4 October that local residents support the MMSEZ.

This claim is based on Premier Chupu Mathabatha’s chant of “jobs, jobs, jobs”. This was underlined at the Lekkerlag public participation meeting where employment promises from Lieda were raised to the staggering figure of 800 000 employment for locals.

At further meetings held at Tshipise and in Louis Trichardt and at an online public participation session on 4 October, neither Enviroxcellence nor Lieda would answer any direct questions. Enviroxcellence simply regurgitated the March presentation of the smaller footprint of the MMSEZ (now trimmed down to 3 500 hectares and the smaller coal plant, reduced from 3 300 megawatts to 1 320MW).

Participants from these meetings will attest that the environmental assessment practitioner, the Lieda facilitator and Enviroxcellence team dodged every question, no matter how hard participants pushed for direct answers to burning issues posed by the MMSEZ, such as livelihoods threats, climate change, water scarcity and more.

The tactic of “noting” in order to say nothing, makes it blatantly clear that Lieda and Enviroxcellence did not learn from past mistakes. Instead they compounded them into a travesty of the National Environmental Act of 1998, to the great detriment of Vhembe communities.

The cost of the MMSEZ to South Africa’s sustainable development

The Musina-Makhado SEZ has two sites, a northern site close to Musina, which is for light industry (the EIA is approved) and the southern site based between Musina and Makhado. The southern site, the high-polluting “metallurgical-energy cluster”, will centre on the coal plant, to provide power for mineral extraction, smelting and processing.

Although the justification for SEZs is the produce value chains to boost economic diversification, the MMSEZ Master Operational Plan states that 70% of the processed minerals are to be exported back to China. The mineral beneficiation aspect to the zone is thus questionable in terms of what the South African economy would gain when offset against mineral depletion.

Despite South Africa’s just transition commitments, at a webinar hosted by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on 4 October 2021, chief executive Masoga stated that the MMSEZ coal plant would champion the use of ultra-super critical clean coal technology, the kind of technology that Medupi officials say they cannot use because it is too expensive. This, despite clauses that bind Medupi’s construction to this technology in World Bank loans. Considering Medupi’s construction foundered under-sized boilers, which has taken more than a decade to fix, the slick sound of ultra-super critical clean coal sounds like another South African coal catastrophe waiting to happen.

MMSEZ water woes

The EIA Report states that initial supply of water to the southern site of the MMSEZ will rely on two sources, the first will be from an agreement with the Zimbabwean Water Authority to supply 30 million cubic metres of water for use to the coal mines and initial MMSEZ construction, to increase the supply capacity of the Nzhelele Dam (by raising the dam walls) and also by extracting groundwater at a rate of 18 million cubic metres a second to ensure sufficient water supply. The alluvial aquifer, Thuli Karoo, will be used for groundwater supply.

The long-term solution for water supply is the construction of the Musina Dam, which will draw floodwater off the Limpopo River. The dam will take 10 years to build (with no clear documented strategy in the public domain for funding its expensive construction, estimated at R13.89-billion) the chances that the Vhembe underground water table will be radically affected are very high.

The Mudimele residents, who are closest to the proposed southern site, were alarmed to hear that the final EIA Report states that the Nzhelele Dam, which was used to supply their village with water, is proposed as a future water supply to the southern MMSEZ site. Commercial farmers in the area confirmed that the Nzhelele Dam has very limited capacity and it is for this reason that the Mudimele residents have to rely on boreholes and are not able to draw water from the dam.

At the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung webinar, which addressed the question of water scarcity for the proposed MMSEZ, chief executive Lehlogonolo Masoga defended the water scarcity and livelihoods issue, stating that there would be more than sufficient water for the MMSEZ after the building of the Musina Dam.

The ignominy of Masoga’s confidence as the head of the Musina Makhado State-Owned Company is that neither he nor Lieda want to fully grapple with the grim reality of their flimsy plans for water provision. Neither is there a full appraisal of the short-term water scarcity consequences on the livelihoods of millions of Vhembe residents who are already battling with water shortages and ongoing droughts.

When questioned on the bumped-up figure of employment promises of 800 000 jobs for locals made at the Limpopo public meetings, Masoga stated he could not confirm that figure, because the following day he may be quoted in the newspaper. Another fine bit of fancy footwork dodging questions in the vein of the Enviroxcellence public participation presentations.It is abundantly clear that Masoga and the Limpopo Environmental Development Agency are happy to make big promises they know they can’t keep, the cost of which will be the destruction of the Vhembe biosphere on the basis of buying community consensus through scandalous figures of large-scale employment. 

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Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson is a political economist and public-sector reform analyst at the University of the Western Cape

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