OpEd by Thabo Sibeko

In South Africa, at a time where we should be thinking of inclusive ways to recover from the CoVid-19 pandemic, we are seeing a terrible trend – which appears to be intensifying – where the government seems to be in an unholy partnership with multinational companies that constantly demonstrate their desire for profits, at the expense of the wellbeing of our people and the environment we rely on.

I am sad to say, things have been no different in far-flung Limpopo province where the government and a Chinese company are pushing for the development of the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) – ultimately a self-contained hub, covering an area of approximately 8000-ha. Nearly all of the proposed industries planned for MMSEZ are carbon intensive and environmentally destructive, and will undoubtedly threaten the livelihoods of these communities.

This project is led by the Limpopo Economic Development Agency (LEDA), with Delta Built Environment Consultants (Delta BEC) appointed to manage the public participation process. However, from what we have seen, neither government nor Delta BEC made sure that all affected are informed of the opportunity to participate. Instead, it was up to NGOs like Earthlife and Save our Limpopo Valley (Solve) to keep communities informed of the risky implications the MMSEZ could have for them.

Evidence that Delta BEC did not do their due diligence to ensure that all people affected get a fair chance to be involved and participate in the process, was the poor turnout at some of the meetings we attended in various locations. In places like Makhado Grounds, Nancefield and the Molambwane area, we found out that communities did not even know that the public participation process was taking place.

To further demonstrate its lack of interest in a fair public participation process, Delta BEC also did not ensure to provide information in people’s home languages. At some of the meetings, for example, the one in Nancefield in the Musina area, the presentation was in English only, with no translators or translations available, not until we requested it. On top of this, there is a clear conflict of interest since the Limpopo Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) – which is supposed to be an independent government department, responsible for assessing the inputs into the EIA and deciding whether or not to approve the project – seem to be working together with Delta BEC.

Since the public participation should be highly-influential on whether the MMSEZ gets the go-ahead, it is important that those who will be affected have all the relevant, credible information in order to make more informed choices, but people are still poorly informed. Is this a deliberate tactic to avoid or silence any valid opposition that may come from these communities?

A key challenge is the narrative behind the perceived potential of the MMSEZ. Those people who question the claims made by the applicant or who appear to be against the project, are seen are seen as anti-development and anti-progress. But, the need to dissect all the promises made is an important step toward understanding whether the project will bring real benefits or not. From what I can gather, many people are still unsure about whether they want the project or not. Some see it as a move towards urbanisation (which could be viewed as a good thing for outlying rural areas seeking more inclusion), while others are more concerned with the loss of heritage and the risks to their natural resources.

Earthlife Africa is also very concerned that the young people attending these meetings, in their desperation to find work, are not asking the ‘right’ questions. They do not seem interested in the content of the meetings nor are they concerned with comprehensively considering the long-term implications of the project. For example, we found that the information shared in the various presentations was not always consistent, with presenters unable to provide any definitive information. This leads us to question the credibility of the claims around the numbers of jobs that are likely to be created. Communities also need to seek to be clear on whether the jobs created would be suitable for them, in terms of skills levels required versus what is available, and whether these jobs are permanent or temporary.

There were places where real questions were asked. In these instances, people wanted to know what would be done about water, in the already-water-scarce region. Others wanted to know more about the impacts on local vegetation, especially endangered species like the baobab, which not only has important cultural significance in terms of heritage, but also forms an intrinsic part of their daily way of life.

Also, from what we saw, in those areas where there was support (or little to no pushback), these meetings were well-organised. But, where people were asking the right questions, the ones that were more complicated to answer, these meetings were not so well organised. The truth is, it felt like these meetings were deliberately made to be uncomfortable, as though the organisers did not want meaningful participation, but rather just tick the box that the exercise was done, but with unclear outcomes because meetings did not go as planned.

However, we take small comfort from the fact that this process is far from over. Following this initial phase, which is more focused on obtaining approvals for using the site, each individual project still needs its own EIA and each project needs to apply for a water-use licence. And, Earthlife will be there to support these communities, armed with our newly-launched handy little public participation guidebook that clearly lays out the law in relation to our environmental and other related rights.