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Becoming an Enemy

ANC Policy Discussion Paper for Dec 2022

Moments after leaving the podium of the Coexistence of Fishing Industries and Upstream Petroleum Colloquim, where major existential concerns from fishers, First People and coastal communities included impacts of offshore and infrastructural development to ecosystems, climate consequences, access to fishing grounds, deliberate exclusion and the need for meaningful consultation around developmental opportunities, Minerals and Energy Minster Gwede Mantashe said to the media, “We’re going ahead with gas… oil and gas exploration despite concerns.”

This uptick of authoritarianism may well have been as response to a room filled with dissenting South Africans – stakeholders in any petro-orchestrated enclosure of our ocean commons. As the Ocean Not Oil movement grows bolder in addressing the crucial issues of how fundamental ocean health is to our existence, the minister demonises those who raise them and continues to trivialise these concerns.

The government’s expansionist marine oil and gas development imaginary, Operation Phakisa, which dominates 98% of South Africa’s vast ocean 1.5 million km2 commons, represents the sea as a blank in its presentations.The blank in the logic of the relational structure of offshore Phakisa to the sea and its dependents, is an extractivist-oriented colonising concept that environmental philosopher Val Plumwood calls denial by backgrounding. Plumwood describes backgrounding as,

 “perhaps the most hazardous and distorting effect of Othering from a human prudential point of view. When the other’s agency is treated as background or denied, we give the other less credit than is due to it, we can come to take for granted what it provides for us, to pay attention only when something goes wrong, and to starve it of resources. This is a problem for prudence as well as for justice, for where we are in fact dependent on this other, we can gain an illusory sense of our own ontological and ecological independence, and it is just such a sense that seems to pervade the dominant culture’s contemporary disastrous misperceptions of its economic and ecological relationships.[1]

Recent Environmental Scoping reports describe some deep sea environments as an “unknown”[2] – a blank on which to trace Phakisa’s appropriative seismic survey hashlines or an abyss where toxic and radioactive drill cuttings can be discarded[3]. This metaphoric emptying legitimises a lack of due diligence in the regulatory regime, creating a  “rational deficit“[4],  inviting commodification without restriction and instrumental containment and governance.

Historically the Phakisa oil and gas rhetoric has avoided the use of the term ‘sustainable’, preferring the ‘decarbonisation’ concept and terms like ‘low’ or ‘constrained carbon’. Until the recent court cases [SDCEA & Others V Eni/Sasol; C.J. Adams & Others v Searcher Seismic &Others; Sustaining the Wild Coast NPC & Others V Shell/ Impact Africa & Others – respondents include the ministries of Minerals & Energy, and the Forestries, Fisheries and Environment], there was almost no link of the oil and gas Phakisa metanarrative to climate change or global warming issues in official interaction with the media. This omission has worked to keep inequalities around the climate consequences of continued hydrocarbon use invisible and unaddressed, and limits critical analysis and public discourse. EIAs for offshore exploration and production also fail to include estimates of end outputs relevant to future effects of greenhouse gas emissions and acceleration of global climate impact (Barker & Jones, 2013; Bond et al., 2018). Circumventing these higher order considerations feeds the Phakisa economic development imaginary, controls political subjectivity and creates what rhetorician and propaganda theoretician Tom Huckin argued is a “particularly potent form of propaganda” (Huckin, 2019, p. 186), namely one of denial and delusion.

Backgrounding normalises risk to an already vulnerable sea and those who live in it and assumes an inevitability to how the petro-imaginary will change what the sea is composed of. Focusing a lens on stakeholder concerns advances an alternate relational understanding of oceanic space and a call for marine justice (Widener, 2017). 

The Phakisa vision for a ‘fast-tracked’, gas-powered-future is now shaping problematic relations of domination – over the ocean and its marine others, interested and affected parties, ocean-users, intangible heritage, legislature, the precautionary principle and its opposing logic, and over future generations’ wellbeing.

Resistance to oil majors on our coast and the Operation-Phakisa-imaginary has provoked a rejoinder from the ruling party, African National Congress, whose Policy Discussion Papers of May, 2022 proposed the stratagem of “opposing politically” those who oppose oil and gas. This brings to mind Michael Watt’s warning that the continental shelf becomes” the forcing house for the development of deepwater and ultradeepwater oil and gas production”[5].

Proponents of a South African gas based economy have based it upon unreliable assumptions that lack thorough, peer-reviewed background research and planning. The Gas Master Plan makes a number of dubious claims that gas-for-development is reparative economics, gas is a clean energy, is needed for peaking /sustaining the grid- and can combat energy scarcity in South Africa. Biogeochemists and ecosystem scientists Howarth et al., (2010, 2013, Howarth,(2014)) have shown that the radiative forcing of methane means a larger global warming role[6] than coal or oil “for any possible use of natural gas” [7]

Whilst the ANC proposes an adversarial stance against oil and gas opposition, the ever more insistent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that continued oil and gas production will exacerbates major changes in climate, ocean and ecological systems (and agricultural systems) with stark impacts on poorer nations of the world. The repression of marine species, fisher livelihoods, intangible heritage and climate consequences by Phakisa political imaginary needs to be symbolically confronted and undone at national as well as global levels. 

[1] Plumwood, V. (2002). Decolonisation relationships with nature. PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, (2), 7-30.

[2] Alborough & Bungartz, 2018

[3] (Stevens, Bungartz & Gopaul, 2018).

[4] Plumwood, V. (2002). Decolonisation relationships with nature. PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, (2), 7-30. p. 9

[5] Michael Watts, “Oil Frontiers: The Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico,” in Oil Culture, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 202.

[6] The current role of methane in global warming is large, contributing 1.0 watts m2 out of the net total 2.29 watts m2 of radiative forcing [34].

[7] Howarth, R. W., D. Shindell, R. Santoro, A. Ingraffea, N. Phillips, and A. Townsend-Small. 2012. Methane emissions from natural gas systems. Background paper prepared for the National Climate Assessment, Reference # 2011-003, Office of Science & Technology Policy Assessment, Washington, DC. Available at http://www.–% 20National%20Climate%20Assessment.pdf (accessed 1 March 2012). 


African National Congress (2022, May 20). ANC Umrabulo Policy Conference 2022 Discussion Documents.

Alborough, C. & Bungartz, L. (2018 March). Exploration Drilling within Block ER236, off the East Coast of South Africa, Final Scoping Report – V1, ENI, Environmental Resource Management.

Allen, M. R., Babiker, M., Chen, Y., de Coninck, H., Connors, S., van Diemen, R., … & Zickfeld, K. (2018). Summary for policymakers. In Global Warming of 1.5: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5\C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. IPCC

Barker, A., & Jones, C. (2013). A critique of the performance of EIA within the offshore oil and gas sector. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 43, 31-39.

Bennett, N. J., Alava, J. J., Ferguson, C. E., Blythe, J., Morgera, E., Boyd, D., & Côté, I. M. (2022). Environmental Justice in the Ocean.

Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, South Africa. (2021, November 18) South African Gas Master Plan: Basecase Report version 01. South African Government.

Huckin, T. (2019). Propaganda by Omission: The Case of Topical Silence. In Qualitative Studies of Silence pp. 186-205.

Howarth, R. W., Santoro, R., & Ingraffea, A. (2011). Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations. Climatic change106(4), 679-690.

Howarth, R. W., Shindell, D., Santoro, R., Ingraffea, A., Phillips, N., & Townsend-Small, A. (2012). Methane emissions from natural gas systems. Background paper prepared for the National Climate Assessment, Reference# 2011-003, Office of Science & Technology Policy Assessment, Washington, DC.

Howarth, R. W. (2014). A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas. Energy Science & Engineering2(2), 47-60.

Howarth, R. W. (2021). Methane and climate change. Environmental Impacts from Development of Unconventional Oil and Gas Reserves.

IPCC. (2019). IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

Oceans Not Oil. (2021). We Object to Shell and CGG Seismic Surveys on RSA Coast!

1518 Proposed Searcher Seismic Reconnaissance. (2022, September 9). EIMS.

South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE). (2014, August 15). Operation Phakisa: Unlocking the Economic Potential of South Africa’s Oceans: Offshore Oil and Gas Exploration Final Lab Report.

Plumwood, V. (2002). Decolonisation relationships with nature. PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, (2), 7-30.

Pörtner, H. O., Roberts, D. C., Masson-Delmotte, V., Zhai, P., Tignor, M., Poloczanska, E., & Weyer, N. M. (2019). The ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate. IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

South African Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE). (2021) Gas master plan 2022: Base case report. 

Stevens, V., Bungartz, L. & Gopaul, S. (2018) Exploration Drilling within Block ER236, off the East Coast of South Africa. Final Environmental Impact Assessment Report. ENI, Environmental Resource Management.

Walker, T. (2018). Securing a sustainable oceans economy: South Africa’s approach. ISS Southern Africa Report, 2018(14), 1-24.

Watts, M. (2014). Oil frontiers: the Niger Delta and the Gulf of Mexico. Oil culture, 189-210.

Widener, P. (2018). Coastal people dispute offshore oil exploration: Toward a study of embedded seascapes, submersible knowledge, sacrifice, and marine justice. Environmental Sociology, 4(4), 405-418.

Widener, P. (2021). Toxic and Intoxicating Oil: Discovery, Resistance, and Justice in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rutgers University Press.

Yates, D. A. (2022). The oil curse: pollution, authoritarianism, corruption, and conflict. In Handbook on Oil and International Relations (pp. 242-253). Edward Elgar Publishing.


South Durban Community Environmental Alliance et al. V Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries & Others, (2021, June 14) Case No. 29433/21 in the High Court of South Africa Gauteng Division, Pretoria;

Sustaining the Wild Coast NPC and Others vs. Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy and Others. (2021, December 28) Case No. 3491/2021 in the High Court of South Africa Eastern Cape Division, Makhanda/Grahamstown.  

Christian John Adams & Others v Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy & Others. (2022, March1) Case No. 1306/22 in the High Court of South Africa Western Cape Division, Cape Town.   

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