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Under the Veil of a Virus

It is not just nature that has begun to fill the spaces we have vacated, highly contested regulations are being passed now, having evaded the proper public participation processes due to the emergency Covid-19 lockdown.

We are used to conspiratorial manipulation of public downtime by minister Gwede Mantashe to shunt through mining legislation and regulation – more on this later – but now we see the same from environmental minister Barbara Creecy. 

Today South Africa’s planned emission limits for sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution will double. Our Department of Environmental Affairs has prioritized the coal boilers of Africa’s two biggest polluters, Eskom and Sasol, over our rights to a clean environment. Exposure to 100 parts of SO2 per million parts of air (100 ppm) is considered immediately dangerous to life and health[1]. These new emission standards will allow 381.6 ppm – nearly 4 times this[2]. Studies have linked SO2to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for premature deaths, gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths, and pre-term births. Sulphur dioxide causes acid rain and those living near these boilers complain of burning of the nose and throat, eye irritation, breathing difficulties, and severe airway obstructions. These impacts pose a substantial risk to the vulnerable and poor especially in days facing the coronavirus pandemic.

Through this new regulation, debt-strapped Eskom and bailout-seeking Sasol will avoid billions in costs to install technologies for abatement of SO2. These companies are dealing with back-breaking debt because their corporate culture is one without mitigatory hedges, neither fiscal nor, especially, environmental. They’ve just been given yet another green light to act with impunity. What was Creecy thinking?

How fatigued and moth-eaten is the argument that this is for the greater good of all South Africans. It doesn’t wash. Evidence-based demands to stop these human rights violations and environmental degradation by our affiliates groundWork, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) have gone on for years and obviously remain unheeded. The same can be said for calls for a more rapid and just transition to renewable energy (RE) sources. South Africa’s clean-energy endowments are excellent, yet we lag behind the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and African averages[3]despite advantageous costs.

Gwede Mantashe snuck in the draft regulations for the Minerals and Petroleum Act for public comment just after Christmas last year, when most of the blue- and white-collar work force were on annual leave. Now he’s published them, with accusations that most of the public participation meetings for them were cancelled [4].

“Mining Affected Communities United in Action (Macua) and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the Bench Marks Foundation and others, all pointed to the fact that the regulations did not meet the threshold of consent demanded by the Constitution and courts and merely sought to provide an appearance of consultation without dealing with consent.[5]

Still Mantashe believes he can proceed without the consent of the community. Even after the Pretoria High Court ruled in favour of the Amadiba Crisis Committee, which objected to his ministry granting a licence to an Australian mining company, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, without the Xolobeni community’s free, prior and informed consent. 

Both ministers have opened themselves to further litigatory action, seem blind to ecological limits and the rights of citizens over capital. Creecy and Mantashe have tied their colours to continued expansion of a petro economy at the expense of the climate, ignoring the social, economic, and ecological realities of life for people living in unprivileged situations. It is with trepidation that we anticipate Creecy’s decision on our appeal against offshore exploratory drilling by Sasol and ENI, which is imminent. Transformation cannot assume to work with its feet firmly planted in the fossil fuel regime and playing to Peak Oil.

[1]Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry.

[2]Using the following formula, for 1000mg/m3: Concentration (ppm) = 24.45 x concentration (mg/m3) ÷ molecular weight

[3]Nakumuryango, A., & Inglesi-Lotz, R. 2016. South Africa’s performance on renewable energy and its relative position against the OECD countries and the rest of Africa. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 56, 999–1007.

[4] Rutledge, C. Mantashe uses State of Disaster to escape accountability. Daily Maverick. March 30, 2020.

[5]C. Rutledge, Mantashe uses State of Disaster to escape accountability. Daily Maverick. March 30, 2020.

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