Tomorrow, together

“What will happen to those fishing families… will you feed them oil?”

by | Dec 6, 2021

Round two in the fight against Shell’s Seismic survey in the ocean off the Wild Coast is set to be heard on 14 December when local community groups will argue that it is not only their livelihoods at stake but, through their ancestors who “reside” at sea, their relationships with God.

“The Wild Coast is a place of stunning natural beauty … indigenous people have maintained continued possession of this land, despite waves of colonial and apartheid aggression. Our ancestors’ blood was spilt protecting our land and sea and we now feel a sense of duty to protect it for future generations.”

So argues Reinford Sinegugu Zukulu, director of Sustaining the Wild Coast, a non-profit organisation, in the latest legal salvo for an interdict to stop the planned, five-month, air gun barrage by Shell in its oil and gas exploration campaign.

Zukulu, local traditional healer Mashona Wetu Dlamini, the Dwesa-Cwebe communal property association, representatives of local fishers and All Rise Attorneys for Climate and the Environment — represented by the Legal Resources Centre and attorney Richard Spoor — will argue their case for an urgent interdict before Makanda high court Acting Judge Avinash Govindjee.

Last week the same judge dismissed a similar urgent application launched by four environmental and human rights organisations.

The judge ruled that submissions by the organisations about the detrimental impact on the environment and marine life were “speculative at best” and they had not proved a reasonable apprehension of irreparable harm.

But the local communities are not deterred by this.

They ground their legal argument on two facts: Firstly, they say, they were not consulted; and secondly, they say, Shell does not have environmental authorisation under the National Environment Management Act (NEMA).

Zukulu, in his affidavit, says that the views of the local community have been completely disregarded by Shell.

“Our land and seas are central to our livelihoods and our way of life,” he says.

But this is not only about earning a living: “Some of our ancestors reside in the sea and our traditional healers and pastors use the sea to heal us and connect us to God.”

He said the air gun bursts, which would be blasted into the sea every ten seconds for five months, would be “louder than a jet plane taking off” and would be heard underwater more than 100 km away.

Zukulu said Shell had obtained its licence under the Mineral and Petroleum Resource (MPRDA) Development Act eight years ago without any meaningful engagement.

The local communities had only learnt of the seismic survey plan in early November.

“They are now rushing to blast our seas without any authorisation under (the much stricter conditions) of NEMA and on one month’s notice.

“Their conduct is literally criminal.”

He said the resultant public outcry, with 379,000 people signing an (online) petition and a further 37,000 people registering objections on an online public participation mechanism, was indicative that Shell had not been transparent or consulted properly.

He said Shell’s Environmental Management Programme (EMPr) was lacking.

“There is no discussion about traditional healing, or cultural and spiritual issues relating to the sea … the only heritage concerns mentioned relate to shipwrecks.”

He said the EMPr also only referred to the risk to marine mammals as being “challenging to assess”.

The application was supported by two marine experts, Dr Simon Elwen and Dr Tess Girdley, who said the EMPr had significant gaps regarding the impact of seismic surveys on marine life.

They also argue that numerous studies have been published since the approval was given that better explain the harm that will result from the survey.

“All of this underscores the need for a NEMA environmental authorisation process before any seismic survey may occur,” Zukulu said.

Shell is expected to file its opposing papers this week.

In the previous matter, the company argued that seismic surveys were “standard practice” in South Africa and all over the world and there was little chance of harm to marine life when proper mitigation processes were applied.

Shell said on the Wild Coast it would apply a five kilometre buffer zone around marine protected areas even though the law only required a two kilometre zone.

There would also be 24-hour acoustic monitoring and independent marine mammal observers would conduct visual inspections.

Watch: uLwandle an illustrated poem

The isiXhosa word for ocean, uLwandle, falls in the same noun class as ‘ubuntu’ – in Nguni languages, the ocean is not a thing, not an object, like ubuntu – we are, because the ocean is. Therefore a poem written from the oceans perspective would be a We, not and I.


When you see us from the shore,

We become a blue blanket bending towards the horizon,

You think: What a beautiful view.

See how those waves build and fall like ice melting.

Over the millions of years of our existence,

We have watched you come and go in all your forms.

We have blessed the warriors of the amaNgqika,

the amaNdlambe, the amaGqunukhwebe, the amaMpondo.

We have held the nets of fishermen and fed countless villages.

From this sunken blueness, back when cattle roamed far and wide,

We watched the ships arrive: fluttering flotillas from far-flung empires

on a quest to conquer and carve up the land.

Now, they are coming for us.

Men stand on these shores with clipboards and hard hats, pointing at us and making numbers in the air:

5k, millions, billions.

Sometimes we gather the cormorants to float like funeral pyres on the surface,

to scare the men away.

And yet, they continue.

If you spend a moment underwater with us,

you would understand why every seismic boom is a wound,

every chip packet a too-bright piece of confetti added to the sewerage you pump into us;

the churn of drills you grind into us; the slicks of dead sea birds you leave in your wake.

50k. Millions. Billions.

If you could feel with us, you would know that our indigo depths is where the ancestors rest,

They are called here when their earthly life is over, and to abantu abamhlophe,

who enter us to speak with the spirit world and learn how to become healers.

This is their heaven.

Dive deeper and it becomes darker, but not in the way grease feels, or a nightmare.

No, this dark is like being in the centre of your heart – within and with everything, as the water hangs around you in an amniotic suspension.

And then she comes – her body larger than your imagination,

She circles you, that orb-eye taking you in: friend or foe?

Then she comes closer, hanging in aqua time, as though asking:

Why are you here? Who sent you?

Are those your trucks I saw on the shore? We have thrown blue over her during every birth,

We have given her remote caves for every grief. We have held her in the air for joy and corralled the krill.

But now,

The men in hats want to extract liquid ancestors from us.

Puffed up with greed, with numbers for eyes, they want to blast us with airguns all day and night, while the rest of the world turns its back on fossilised fuels. How have your leaders allowed this?

What are promises at climate conferences when they are so blatantly broken? How many kilometres of the ancestral realm will need to be disturbed before you rethink your futures?

What will happen to those fishing families, who we have fed for generations, will you feed them oil?

Dive deep into the centre of your heart and answer these questions, for yourself.


  • Directed, illustrated & edited by Dylan McGarry
  • Written by Helen Walne
  • Narrated by Mpume Mthombeni
  • Original score by Braam du Toit
  • Voice over recording & mixing by Malusi Mnqobi Mthombeni
  • Sound effects and final mixing by Tristan Horton
  • Special thanks to Kira Erwin Jude Rio Pereira Kaplan Cleo Droomer Taryn Pereira


  • The news article was produced by, and first published on, Ground Up
  • Image credits: Jackie May


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