Here we go again. Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe, speaking at the Southern Africa Oil and Gas Conference in Cape Town on 14 September, reiterated his now-standard attack on “foreign-funded NGOs”. This time he took things a step further, suggesting that “you can’t rule out the fact that some of [the funding] comes from the CIA and [is] a deliberate programme to block development in a poor country like South Africa”.

Mantashe appears to use every public platform he is given — including his budget speech in May 2023 — to lob insults at civil society and the philanthropies that fund it for what he deems to be their “anti-development agenda”. His attacks stepped up significantly after a group of community organisations and NGOs successfully approached the Makhanda High Court in late 2021 for an interim interdict to stop an imminent seismic survey by Shell and Impact Africa off the Eastern Cape coast.

In response to the countrywide opposition to the seismic testing, Mantashe said, “We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection.”

But, in the Shell judgment, the high court found that it was “demonstrably clear” that the decisions to grant the permit for the seismic survey “were not preceded by a fair procedure”. The court found that the applicants in the case were justified in not first submitting an internal appeal against the granting of the right to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, because Mantashe’s bias in favour of the oil and gas industry was so significant that such an internal appeal would have been “an exercise in futility”.

There is no indication that the scathing judgment prompted any self-reflection on the minister’s part, nor that he or his department were at all chagrined to be found wanting in upholding their own laws. Instead, the minister has doubled down on his attacks. Unfortunately, the newspapers reporting his accusations do not try to verify or interrogate them, depriving their readers of the information they need to form their own views.

It’s time to put some facts on the table.

‘Unlimited resources’

Mantashe’s most recent broadside alleges that “many of the non-governmental organisations that take us to court have unlimited resources; they are funded by foreign entities”.

I have been working in the South African social and environmental justice space for more than a decade. The suggestion that there are “unlimited resources” available for litigation against the government is extremely amusing.

South Africa is considered to be a middle-income country by most global philanthropic foundations. Not only has international funding to local NGOs never been unlimited, but it has in fact dramatically declined since the end of apartheid (during which many of these same funders also supported the liberation movement).

There are limited pools of donor funding available, and those pools are shared among a wide spectrum of organisations and institutions that make up civil society. This includes academic institutions, NGOs, community-based organisations, community groups and charities focusing on an array of social justice issues, including health, education, gender rights, children’s rights, immigration, freedom of speech, access to justice, housing, political party funding, climate justice and energy. Many NGOs do not accept corporate funding, and public-interest lawyers are not allowed to charge professional fees.

Most donors only provide grants for one or two years at a time, making it very difficult to plan long-term, expensive and often unpredictable litigation campaigns. Funding applications are stringent and detailed, and applicants must demonstrate not only that they have robust strategic plans, but also that they have organisational governance structures which are able to manage the funds with rigorous accountability.

Contrary to Mantashe’s patronising suggestion that local NGOs are just told what to do by funders, NGOs and community organisations in South Africa are hyper-vigilant for any indication that they might be expected to change even an element of their strategy to suit a funder, and will reject any attempt to have an agenda imposed upon them.

Each philanthropic funder has a broad set of overarching objectives within which they will consider a funding application (and you can find all of these on their websites — their “agendas” are not secret). But it is the NGOs and community-based organisations themselves, in consultation with the communities with whom they work, who determine their own priorities and work plans. Litigation is not only the last resort for most groups, but it is also only funded within extremely strict parameters due to its expense, uncertainty, and the time and resources it consumes.

For smaller groups, a grant application to a donor might be in the region of $20,000 or $30,000 a year. Larger NGOs can possibly apply for annual grants of $100,000–$200,000 a year from a single funder, and because they have had time to establish their credibility with funders, they will have a broader range of donors from which they source their funding.

A well-funded medium-sized NGO (with around 10-15 employees) might have an annual budget of between R6-million and R10-million. Larger, long-established NGOs, with 20-40 employees, are likely to have annual budgets of R15-million to R30-million. All expenses must be paid from these funds, including programme costs, salaries and overheads, and funders require detailed financial reports demonstrating that expenditure has been carried out as approved.

These budgets might sound big, but let’s compare them to the organisations on which Mantashe so freely bestows his advocacy services.

TotalEnergies posted a record net profit of $36.2-billion (R688-billion) in 2022.

Shell’s annual profit for 2022 of $40-billion (R760-billion) was the highest in its 115-year history.

In total, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, TotalEnergies and Chevron reported nearly $200-billion in 2022 profits combined.

Disinformation campaigns

Those are “unlimited resources”, resources that have been used to carry out massive disinformation campaigns about climate change, and to buy the power and influence it takes to ensure that governments across the globe do not take urgent action to tackle it.

Even the world’s largest and most important annual conference on climate change — the annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP, is now dominated by oil and gas interests. More than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists attended COP27 in Egypt in 2022. In 2023, the fossil fuel industry has achieved the ultimate coup: the president of COP28 is the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Nevertheless, public pressure is building on these companies in the West, and they are shifting their focus to Africa and other developing markets, where politicians with an eye on those unlimited resources are all too happy to advance their interests. These politicians cannot be doing so because they really think that it will benefit ordinary Africans. Whatever your views on whether or not Africa should be “allowed” to extract and exploit its fossil fuels, believing that the global oil and gas majors are here because they care about Africa’s development and prosperity is an exercise in naivety, requiring wilful blindness to the whole sweep of the continent’s history.

Foreign funders are not throwing money at local NGOs to arrest South Africa’s development. Some NGOs have had some limited success in (temporarily) preventing offshore seismic testing. But this is not because they have unlimited resources. It is instead a reflection of how little respect the corporate players and regulators have for the democratic institutions established to ensure equality before the law, fair procedure and a fair hearing; how poorly advised the oil and gas majors are by the lawyers, consultants and bankers who are paid millions of dollars to smooth their way through the “complexities of the African market”; and how reliant they are on political favour, rather than legal process, to progress their plans.

There is something quite pitiful about a powerful politician who purports to champion African energy sovereignty so slavishly defending the interests of multinational fossil fuel corporations. Even some of the delegates in the oil and gas conference audience must have cringed at Mantashe’s mention of the CIA. How refreshing it would be if even one of them challenged the minister to provide some evidence for his claims.

But they need him, and he, apparently, needs them. So the minister will continue to be invited to speak at these events, and he will continue to launch ever more preposterous attacks on people who don’t agree with him. And it appears that NGOs will continue to be the only groups in the country willing to take him on for selling out our future.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 20 September 2023.

By: Tracey Davies

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