/ 29 May 2022

OPINION | Gwede Mantashe, like Nongqawuse, is the false prophet of oil and gas prosperity

Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe

On 30 May, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe is back in court, fighting against the people of the Eastern Cape. If Mantashe has his way, he will override their objections to ensure that Shell can do seismic blasting for oil and gas along the Wild Coast. 

In his quest to promote oil and gas, Mantashe claims that the Eastern Cape faces its second Nongqawuse moment.. As one of Mantashe’s more vocal critics, whom Mantashe and his lawyers threatened to sue, I’d like to finally admit that Mantashe might kind of be right. 

This is like a second Nongqawuse moment, it’s just that Mantashe is confused about which side of the prophecy he represents. 

Nongqawuse was a Xhosa prophetess. During a war with the British, she had a vision that her people should kill their cattle and destroy their crops. By doing so, the ancestors would ensure they won the war and prospered. The result was a deep and devastating famine. 

For Mantashe, it is those who resist oil and gas that are asking us to kill our proverbial cattle and crops. But, in reality, it is Mantashe himself who is asking people to sacrifice their land and oceans to polluting oil and gas corporations, under the false promise that they will see prosperity as a result. 

To see how these promises of oil- and gas-fuelled prosperity turn out in reality, we would do well to turn to the experience of our African brothers and sisters. 

One place to ask would be my family in Mauritius, who are still reeling from the devastating effects of one of the biggest oil spills ever witnessed in the Indian Ocean. We could ask people there, who are heavily reliant on fishing and tourism, how much prosperity oil’s toxic legacies have brought to their shores?

Deadly: Abandoned fishing boats litter the shoreline at B-Dere, Ogoni, Nigeria. The area is a toxic mix of pollution, violence and desperation. Photo: George Osodi/Bloomberg/Getty Images

We could speak to poet and activist Nnimmo Bassey from the oil-soaked Niger Delta in Nigeria. Decades of Shell’s oil and gas exploitation have made the Niger Delta home to a devastating combination of poverty, violence and inequality, layered upon deadly, toxic and polluted air, soil and water. 

We could also speak to award-winning activist Anabela Lemos from Mozambique. There, promises of oil and gas prosperity have also proven to be farcical. Studies have shown gas exploration has deepened poverty and inequality, not alleviated it. It has also sparked intense conflict. 

In the words of Bassey and Lemos, who co-authored a powerful piece in Foreign Affairs: “Far from generating prosperity and stability in sub-Saharan Africa, investments in fossil fuels cause real harm. Decades of fossil fuel development have failed to deliver energy to much of the continent and have built economic models dependent on extraction that have deepened inequality, caused environmental damage, stoked corruption, and encouraged political repression. Pouring more money into fossil fuels will not only perpetuate this dynamic but also delay the necessary shift to renewables.”

Mantashe and his department of mineral resources and energy have been on a recent tour, securing support for seismic surveys from traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape. It is quite astounding that the government is dedicating so much of its resources to promote oil and gas corporations. Additionally, given their clearly pro-oil and -gas stance, one wonders how truthful the department has been with traditional leaders about the effects of oil and gas exploration. 

One incredible nugget coming out of their discussions is that the department’s deputy director general has been telling traditional leaders that there is no blasting involved in seismic surveys. Seismic surveys are precisely loud underwater blasts used to produce soundwaves to survey the ocean floor. That’s why scientists have been warning against the harmful effects that surveys have on marine life. 

One also wonders whether Mantashe’s department shared the urgent science of climate change with traditional leaders, showing that the world must rapidly move away from coal, oil and gas to renewables such as solar and wind. If we fail to transition, then places like the Eastern Cape are set to face increasingly devastating drought and floods, much more horrendous than even the Nongqawuse- induced famine.

Two sides: Protesters in Transkei (above) and  Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe are on a collision course on the future of the Wild Coast and the impact of exploration for oil and gas.  Photos: Paul Botes & Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Finally, one wonders how truthful Mantashe’s department has been about the nature of the resistance to oil and gas exploration. It’s hard to forget how Mantashe accused local residents of “colonialism and apartheid of a special type” for resisting his department’s attempts to open the Wild Coast to Shell for exploitation without properly consulting those communities. 

Mantashe’s “colonialism of a special kind” narrative is hypocritical and perversely uses the narrative of decolonisation to advance the agenda of some of the worst neocolonial forces around. Mantashe’s anticolonial liberators are Royal Dutch Shell and a host of rapacious multinational oil and gas corporations trying to plunder our oceans and land for profit. 

Mantashe’s decolonial hypocrisy is particularly egregious given that many resisting his oil and gas agenda are doing so as part of a generations-long struggle to resist colonial extraction and violence. We could turn, for example, to the words of Sinegugu Zikulu from Sustaining the Wild Coast, one of the lead applicants in the case against Shell, who was born and raised in Xolobeni.

“What Mantashe does not understand is what they stand for is the continuation of colonisation. As what colonisation stood for is how African resources are being extracted to benefit European superpowers. What they are doing now is absolutely nothing different. It is worse, because we are allowing it to happen again and degrading the very basis of livelihoods for our people.” 

It is also worth reflecting on how, according to Professor Jeff Peires, the great cattle killing was secretly engineered by the British, who influenced Nongqawuse as a way to weaken the then powerful ama­Xhosa. It was part of a devious plan by Sir George Grey, who had devastated the Australian indigenous population and was brought to South Africa to do the same.

In a seeming repeat of history. Mantashe is selling a false prophecy of oil and gas prosperity, claiming that he is fighting against “colonialism of a special kind”. Meanwhile, he is actually working on behalf of neocolonial forces such as Shell — a company in which the ANC has invested through its investment arms like the Batho Batho trust. 

One other element of the Eastern Cape history Mantashe would do well to remember is how Nongqawuse’s followers turned against her for her false prophecies. Let’s hope we learn from history and Mantashe’s followers see through his false prophecy and turn against him before we are forced to face the ravages of neocolonial oil and gas extraction, not after.

Dr Alex Lenferna is a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org and secretary of the South African Climate Justice Coalition.

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