UN Development Programme South Africa backs ‘dirty’ Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone

The saying that true life is stranger than fiction is borne out by the events leading to the endorsement of the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) as the epitome of sustainable development by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in early July. The endorsement follows the signing of a memorandum of agreement between the MMSEZ state-owned company and the UNDP after the zone’s environmental approval on 23 February

The UNDP memorandum of agreement was signed on 17 March, signalling negotiations on cooperation were underway prior to the release of the environmental approval. In February, the proposed mega-project SEZ was promoted at the Dubai Expo by a coterie of top brass from the department of trade and industry and other officials with its somewhat smaller (1320 megawatt as opposed to 3 300MW) but still mega-dirty carbon coal-fired power plant at its centre. 

By July, with the help of some sleight of hand public statements by MMSEZ chief executive Lehlogonolo Masoga, the zone has been rebranded as the sustainable development mega-project to stimulate regional development supported by the UNDP.  Not only that, but those civil society organisations and environmental groupings who have criticised the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process, the many sustainability issues associated with the zone and the UNDP endorsement, have been tarred and feathered with the same brush. 

Masoga said in a recent statement: “Some individuals and organisations elected to become the champions and advocates for the perpetuation of poverty and unemployment among the voiceless poor people of Vhembe district and Limpopo in general. They did this by unnecessarily delaying this project which carries the hopes of many to liberate themselves from the shackles of the twin-devils of poverty and unemployment. They chose their egos over our people.”

Masoga’s triumphalist tone followed the rejection of an appeal to approve the EIA by the Limpopo Economic Development Agency (LEDET). The rejection of the appeal, collated by a loose coalition of social movements and interested and affected parties, including those involved with activist research and support to people in Limpopo, has been met with the coalition’s deep disillusionment as to the agency’s endorsement of the flawed EIA process.

The fascinating side of the MMSEZs public metamorphosis to its new virtuous image is that it is fully legitimised on the flimsiest of reasons by the UNDP. Ayodele Odusola, UNDP’s resident representative, in an open letter defending the memorandum of agreement, states that “UNDP has been given assurances, including in the form of a public statement, that all coal-fired power generation plants have been replaced by solar and hydrogen energy facilities which reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. 

The MMSEZ’s new image pivots around the power of policy rhetoric on the part of the SEZ’s leadership. Masoga’s announcements in April, a mere two months after the Dubai expo where the coal plant was punted along with the entire extractive metallurgical shebang that is the MMSEZ, suddenly become sufficient proof that the zone will not draw on dirty energy. This is despite any real heavy lifting in development policy terms to resolve the many issues around the zone’s sustainability footprint, specifically in terms of water, energy supply and job creation

The proposed switch to solar and hydrogen, given the size of the zone, seems implausible at best and ludicrous at worst. These issues have been raised on countless occasions, including by the environmental impact assessment public participation process that took place between 2020 and 2021.

In the same statement, Odusela goes on to state that “… UNDP’s interest in engaging with the MMSEZ is part of its efforts to promote socioeconomic development that is environmentally and socially sustainable in order to contribute towards overcoming South Africa’s triple development challenge. In addition to advancing development in Limpopo, the MMSEZ project offers the opportunity to advance the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement, an initiative supported by UNDP Africa, by introducing trade corridors and gateways between South Africa and neighbouring countries”.

These objectives are commendable, and certainly regional integration based on shared development programmes has long been endorsed, our research included, as a way of ensuring sustainable development in Southern Africa and Africa. SEZs themselves as development policy tools have many potential merits from a developmental political economy perspective. Both the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the UNDP have investigated the potential of SEZs in some detail.

Unfortunately, UNDP South Africa has not taken cognisance of the research that has underpinned civil society critique of the MMSEZ, choosing to believe Masoga’s public pronouncements. Instead, what is still in fact in the Environmental Authorisation for the Zone is an extractive minerals complex requiring requisite high delivery energy in the form of a coal plant. For this reason, the final EA states that solar energy is not a feasible alternative, while coal is. 

A further two examples of premature endorsement on the part of UNDP suffice. The first is on the question of employment creation. Even the UNCTAD’s  2019 Report endorsing SEZs emphasises that they often fall short on sustainable employment creation, understood as long-term job opportunities rather than short-term contracts. Employment creation is at the heart of Masoga’s denouncement of critique of the MMSEZ and of those organisations who have weighed in on the sustainable development discrepancies of the EIA. 

After the UNDP endorsement, Masoga stated, “… our people may not have the platform nor the resources to attract media headlines regularly but their plight triggers even more courage and vigour from us to fight harder for their ultimate emancipation from the clutches of underdevelopment”.

The polemical turn taken by Masoga indicates how the zone’s establishment has now become so politicised that any organisation or member of the public, including the purported grassroots voices that are being stifled, who dares to critique its sustainability is denounced as egotistical and anti-grassroots empowerment. This is despite in-depth research, including that of the UNDP and the UNCTAD, that emphasises the difficulties of following through on such promises, especially in the context of the Vhembe district with high unemployment and less than adequate skills creation done in advance of the establishment of the MMSEZ.

Independent research has shown that the proposed Musina Dam pre-feasibility study is a dubious, at best, back-of-an-envelope proposal with little by way of policy implementation practicality. Yet Odusela states “the long-term solution is the establishment of the Musina Dam at the confluence of Sands River and Limpopo River for domestic use and irrigation. This dam will also assist in containing the floods that have proven to cause devastating destruction of lives and livelihoods along the Limpopo River right through to Mozambique. Preliminary studies already indicate that the Musina Dam project is viable.” 

UNDP South Africa would do well to follow through on their stated commitment to work alongside civil society organisations to meet their stated promise of “ensuring monitoring and evaluation … [to] assess the progress made to achieve the expected results while adhering to and upholding national and international laws”. The alternative for the UNDP’s development reputation is to be drawn into the messy politics and dubious economic benefits of the MMSEZ on the basis of public statements such as those made by Masoga. The development contradictions of the zone are far from resolved by political grandstanding.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson is a political economist and public-sector reform analyst at the University of the Western Cape
Hazel Shirinda
Hazel Shirinda is an environmental scientist and activist based at the University of Venda. She does participatory development outreach with ACCEDE and SOLVE.

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