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As the campaign against Shell intensifies, it is clear that local communities in South Africa are culturally diverse, hold rich knowledge foundations, espouse an environmental holism, and are deeply concerned about ocean and coastal health. 

Africa is sitting with the twin challenge of “energy poverty” and raising the funding necessary for clean energy sources. In South Africa, the government has turned its attention to offshore oil and gas because it is highly lucrative and because coal-fuelled electricity plants have become less reliable and expensive to maintain.

In 2010/2011, prospecting revealed potential access to 500 trillion cubic feet of gas off South Africa and Mozambique’s shores and 11 billion barrels of oil off the Namibian coast. Offshore oil and gas exploration and mining, however, can directly impact the ocean and contribute to the degradation of ocean health.

Degradation of the oceans and coasts can negatively impact sea-based livelihoods, coastal cultural practices, coastal leisure, and marine biodiversity. It can also affect research for future medical solutions. South African research on novel antibiotics is indicating that these can be developed from particular forms of marine life. The latter is critical, considering the increase in antibiotic resistance worldwide.

It was therefore not surprising to witness the passionate response of local communities, coastal justice activists and international environmental organisations to Shell’s proposed 3D seismic survey off the Wild Coast in South Africa. The protests were vividly enacted, making ample use of vibrant costumes, colour, slogans, and chants to attract potential fellow protestors, onlookers, and the media. The unfolding scenes, published in both print and online media echoes a comment by George Okello Abungu, archaeologist and former Director-General of the National Museums of Kenya.

Okello remarked that the oceans have become the most recent theatre for the developmental agenda in Africa. Indeed and à la Erving Goffman, one can identify key protagonists, the front and backstage of ocean and coastal development, soliloquies on oil and gas in economic transformation and the role of coastal justice activism as the understudy to inclusive democratic change.

In these theatrical expressions, local communities are often the audience. They are skillfully presented with ocean strategies, environmental impact assessments and concepts such as benefit sharing. They may not be asked about their epistemologies, worldviews, higher-order development needs or desires. They are classed as participants who must be canvassed for the environmental assessment, or for development inclusion criteria to be met.

Anthropological fieldwork in South Africa (2020-2022) however, reveals that local communities in South Africa are culturally diverse, hold rich knowledge foundations, espouse an environmental holism, and are deeply concerned about ocean and coastal health.  

Regarding environmental (and spiritual) holism, the communities (especially the Khoisan descendants encountered), spoke of symbiosis between humans and Earth, including living and non-living entities. They worried about the irretrievable disruption of the ecological and spiritual balance necessary for all species to survive. Secondary data analysis showed the integration of diverse species in the spiritual engagement of indigenes with the spiritual and natural world.

The communities encountered are also largely poor and have high rates of unemployment. A number were suffering the scourge of drug and alcohol abuse. A common complaint was that because of apartheid and rapid coastal development, few had continuous and easy access to the coast. And those with the necessary fishing permits from government, worried about the impact of unregulated commercial fishing off South Africa’s coasts, ongoing fisheries crime and now, the possible, negative impact on fishing, of oil and gas prospecting off South Africa’s coast. Even so, some held the hope that ocean development via offshore explorations would yield employment for future generations.   

Focusing specifically on the Wild Coast, one finds that specific communities there have a long history of environmental activism. The mostly rural area of this coastline was also key to early liberation politics under apartheid, but in recent times, environmental activism in this area has been perceived as a form of economic oppression.

In South Africa however, and as shown by the vivid, online, and in-person protest against Shell’s proposed 3D seismic survey off the Wild Coast, the theatre of ocean development is being transformed. Communities are now demanding thorough and meaningful consultation processes, signaling commitment to radical transformation.

Some are drawing on international symbols of protest against inequality to voice their discontent, while others are foregrounding the human-marine connection, intimating that humans are not the only sentient species. These assertions signal a nascent, alternatively grounded environmentalism already perceived in indigenous communities worldwide. Discussions abound on the sentience of seemingly unconscious species and nature itself.

Empatheatre, a form of radical, participatory theatre partly funded by the UKRI One Ocean Hub project, is seeking to surface this complexity for policymakers. But it appears that ordinary citizens are now publicly representing themselves. Furthermore, the interdict granted against Shell is apparently an interim measure until the company can demonstrate that it has met all the criteria for consultation with local communities.

Clearly, it is not yet “curtain call” for the developmental theatre of the oceans, or for oil and gas explorations in South Africa. DM

This article appeared in the Daily Maverick on 15 February 2022 written by Professor Rose Boswell, an anthropologist, poet and DSI-NRF Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage at Nelson Mandela University.

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Prof Rose Boswell
Research Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage