Mantashe should rather cease punting fossil fuels

The article originally appeared in New Frame on 19 Nov. 2021. It can be viewed here.

Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy, has time and again taken South African citizens for fools with his spurious claims that coal can be clean and nuclear power is cheap. But during his recent speech at the African Energy Week in Cape Town, he demonstrated that this contempt is not limited to South Africans but continental in scope. 

Mantashe extolled Africans to “cease the moment” (it is assumed that he meant seize; his error is perhaps telling) and position African oil and gas “at the forefront of global energy growth”. In a desperate attempt to promote his and the government’s archaic and disastrous addiction to fossil fuels, he clumsily co-opted two arguments to try to convince Africans to embrace the further exploitation of oil and gas.

First, throughout his speech, he adopted pseudo pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist rhetorical positions. While his opening greeting was to the “ladies and gentlemen”, it was repeatedly followed by entreaties to his fellow “brothers and sisters”. He stated that Africa was being “encircled” by “rich and powerful” nations intent on preventing its right to exploit its oil and gas reserves. 

This, he argued, denied Africa the right to “develop”, while countries of the Global North were already “developed” and continued to exploit oil and gas. But, he stated, “through solidarity between and among us, as Africans, we will overcome”, warning (with an unsubtle allusion to colonial barbarism) that “the present must not enslave us further”. 

9 November 2021: Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe at African Energy Week at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. (Photograph by Gallo Images/ Jeffrey Abrahams)

Second, Mantashe co-opted climate justice arguments to rationalise the continued and accelerated exploitation of oil and gas on the continent. He argued that “the idea that development must take into perspective events across time on (sic) the history of pollution cannot be ignored”. 

At first glance, Mantashe is correct to draw attention to these two issues. The Global North was certainly busy at COP26 trying to encourage countries of the Global South to move away from fossil fuels and give up the search for more oil and gas. This pressure comes largely from countries which, experiencing stuttering transitions of their own, have done next to nothing to stop their own search for more oil and gas. It is also clear that when historical emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are considered, the Global North is almost entirely to blame for human-induced climate change. 

That said, a close look at Mantashe’s rhetoric reveals that it is riddled with hypocrisy and half-truths. 

Before lumping South Africa in with the rest of the continent in terms of GHG emissions and questions of climate justice, he would do well to look at the country’s record in this regard. South Africa is the 12th largest emitter of GHG in the world at about 470 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) every year. Its per capita emissions are 8.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) a year, well above the global average of 4.7 tCO2e. Compared with the rest of Africa, these numbers are significant. 

Total annual emissions from Africa amount to about 1 330 million MtCO2e, and per capita emissions equal .99 tCO2e. This means that South Africa accounts for 35% of the continent’s annual emissions of GHG. While only an estimate owing to the absence of reliable data, it is believed that since 1750 Africa has been responsible for 2.8% of all GHG emissions, with South Africa responsible for nearly half of that. 

Although South Africa has committed to reduce its emissions, it is revealing to note that Climate Action Tracker, a respected source of scientific analysis of climate change data, rates the country’s emissions targets in relation to the issue of climate justice as “insufficient”. 

Another credible source, Carbon Brief, in reviewing data since 1850, ranks South Africa 16th in terms of the countries most responsible for the GHG emissions causing climate change.

Mantashe should therefore consider South Africa’s role in Africa’s GHG emissions, both historically and now, before making claims on behalf of the whole continent. 

He also needs to scrutinise the historical impact of oil and gas exploration on the continent before extolling its virtues. Rather than the blessing he suggests, it has commonly been viewed as a curse. Africa has been brutally scarred by oil and gas exploration that has enriched a tiny elite and eroded democracy while leading to gross human rights abuses, systemic corruption and appalling environmental destruction. It would clearly be useful for Mantashe to acquaint himself with the recent history of Nigeria and explore what is currently happening in northern Mozambique to understand what type of “blessing” oil and gas is. 

He should reflect on his pseudo pan-African, anti-imperialist rhetoric by looking a little closer at who is exploring and extracting oil and gas on the continent. Both historically and now, he will find it is almost entirely dominated by companies from the Global North. He may want to glance a little more carefully at the current map that carves up the coast of South Africa mostly between European and American oil and gas companies like Total, Shell, Eni and others. One cannot but reflect on the maps that emerged from the Berlin conference in 1884, where Africa was similarly carved up for European exploitation. 

In closing, and in the context of Mantashe’s rush for more oil and gas and all the climate change-inducing GHG emissions they emit when burnt, it is worth reflecting on the impacts of climate change on the African continent. 

An overwhelming amount of evidence shows that temperature increases, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, will be higher than the global average. This means that large parts of Africa will experience continuing and worsening climate-induced crises. 

The Western Sahel region and large parts of southern Africa will experience more droughts and heat waves, while rainfall is predicted to be much more erratic in West and Central Africa. These changes will lead to shifting crop yields and related impacts on food supply. 

In addition, there will be the damage caused by accelerating extreme weather events. Evidence already indicates that these impacts lead to forced migration and increased conflicts over resources. 

These are the “blessings” that await the vast majority of Africans – compared with the riches that will be captured by a tiny few – if oil and gas extraction continues unabated on the continent. Is this the pan-African vision to which Mantashe aspires? 

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