Words by Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
Your book Timeless Karoo was first published in 2007 and you became something of a household name when you started Treasure the Karoo Action Group opposing fracking in 2011. What came before all that?
I’ve had no formal tertiary training, and I left school without a matric. My first job was in marketing and sales in the motor industry. I then spent three years overseas, arriving back in SA in 1985 to a very unstable country.
I found a low level job in the security industry, and rose to management in 18 months, specialising in physical risk management (Occupational Health & Safety, Fire, Physical security and so on). Thinking back, this prepared me well for understanding the way that corporations think and act. It also trained me in public speaking and presentations.
When I sold my shares in that business (African Risk Management), I moved into a role of developing our property in the Karoo, near Touws River. This created an opportunity for working on Timeless Karoo.
How did you first hear about fracking?
I read about Shell’s plans in the newspapers, January 26th 2011. Shell and Johann Rupert had been bashing heads in Graaff-Reinet.
Will fracking affect you personally?
Not financially. Emotionally it would be devastating because I feel with my heart and soul that it will do damage to South Africa and her people. If it actually goes ahead I will write another book about it. So ironically, I would actually benefit if it went ahead.
You started up a Facebook page ‘Chase Shell Oil out of the Karoo’ as a gesture of protest. Did you have any idea it would become a social media phenomenon – an NGO (Treasure the Karoo Action Group – TKAG) that sprang out of a virtual grouping?
No, but I soon found myself at the thin end of the wedge – with support from people that I can’t turn my back on.
Why did you decide to devote yourself to opposing fracking?
The more that I read and learned about the technology and its proponents, the more I became convinced that it must be opposed – everywhere.
What skill sets have you had to learn in your new mission?
Politics. Working with volunteers. Asking for money. Technical knowledge on fracking. Working with media and writing press statements.
How far are you prepared to go to protect the Karoo from fracking?
I would do everything legally possible to ban, stop or delay it. I’m not sure if I would be prepared to break the law as a saboteur but I do have the training to do it.
Why do you love the Karoo so much? Is the Karoo worth it?
It’s not just about the Karoo – it’s about the world and standing up to dishonest people.
People have accused you of being emotional about fracking. Your comment?
The extractive industry has applied the “emotional” label to environmentalists since the mid 1900’s in an attempt to portray them as irrational. Any issue worth committing oneself to would require a lot of passion and it is inevitable that at times one would become emotional – it is only human.
It does not change the fact that this campaign has been based on truth and facts since day one. We can back up our statements and position with facts. It is interesting that the emotional label is not extended to many social movements that are also driven by passionate individuals. It is only applied to the environmental movement. Most environmental issues are inevitably social issues as well.
Are science and economics more important than emotion?
Science and economics form the basis of arguments and are very important. It is especially the lack of sufficient scientific and economic research on many aspects related to shale gas in South Africa that motivates us to ensure that our government makes an informed decision on shale gas and carefully weighs the potential costs and benefits, rather than simply swallowing the one-sided PR spin forwarded by many of the pro-frackers. While science and economics are very important, the commitment, passion and at times, emotion are also necessary in order to carry a campaign forward successfully.
What personal sacrifices have you had to make to keep up this fight?
One million rand plus all of my Goldman prize money, three years of seven-day weeks for no salary. I’ve sacrificed my health, social and family life, and neglected my business interests – a cost which I haven’t yet quantified.
What difference did winning the Goldman Environmental Prize make?
It was the right inspiration at the right time. I unashamedly use it to pursue the TKAG campaign objectives.
Do you travel much through the Karoo? What do people on the ground say about fracking?
I spend a lot of time in the Karoo. I am appalled by the lack of information and determination in a proud and capable people.
Is this just a white landowner issue?
If one was to look at some of the media statements by certain individuals and the recent video released by Shell, one would easily get the impression that shale gas is an issue with a racial divide; in other words, white landowners are opposing it and poor communities are in favour of it for the sake of economic benefits.
This is not a true reflection of the issue. The national campaign has seen supporters from a broad spectrum, from organisations such as the Southern Cape Land Committee, the Khoi Cultural Heritage Development Council and social justice movements such as GroundWork and Earthlife Africa as well as landowner representatives like Afriforum. In May 2013, a gathering of lobby groups, academics, civic and faith-based organizations, organised by the Southern Cape Land Committee, came together in Steytlerville in the Eastern Cape and produced a resolution to strengthen the voice of local communities who are expected to bear the brunt of the impact of fracking.
The anticipated negative impacts from shale gas extraction would not discriminate on a racial or class basis and so communities have started to mobilise themselves against a common foe. TKAG represents the broad South Africa public by focusing on environmental and civil rights issues related to shale gas mining, rather than a focus on land rights alone.
Is it useful to participate in debates with fracking proponents like Ivo Vegter?
Well, it’s a double-edged sword – because it gives him publicity, but it also sharpens my game. I am distressed that privileged intellectuals in cities (Vegter’s followers) are the most vociferous pro-frackers. I believe that to him and them this is entertainment – not a real threat.
Is this campaign against fracking changing the way people think about the Karoo?
Absolutely. Kumi Naidoo (executive director of Greenpeace International) told me that our campaign has put the Karoo on the map globally. Certainly, Shell will never think about it as they did in 2011.
Where is the strongest opposition to fracking?
In the cities of South Africa.
What are the energy alternatives to fracking?
If one were only to consider gas alternatives, the vast offshore gas fields around Southern Africa are a viable alternative to shale gas. In addition to gas, South Africa’s renewable energy industry is still in its infancy, despite South Africa being in a unique and enviable position with wind and solar resources. The current energy generation issues facing South Africa are due to a lack of sufficient maintenance and planning, ageing infrastructure and grid capacity, rather than a lack of raw energy materials.
Do people in the media understand fracking?
The professional journalists are well informed (Melanie Gosling of Cape Times, John Yeld of Cape Argus, freelancer Heather Dugmore, Donwald Pressly of Business Report, Mariska Spoormaker of Die Burger, Elise Tempelhoff of Beeld, Francois Williams of Sake24, etc.).
It’s been encouraging to watch initially pro-fracking financial journalists slowly come round.
What will be the deciding factor in this campaign? Economics? Science? The people’s will?
A combination of economics, science, the will of the people and enough money to sustain this campaign. We are privileged to have an incredibly progressive Constitution in South Africa. Unfortunately its principles and provisions are not always upheld in decisions made by the government and in some instances citizens have had to take on the government in court. This is a very expensive route to follow and is often, as a last resort, the most effective. This issue may only be resolved in the Constitutional Court, which would possibly cost us and the South African tax payers millions of rands. It is unfortunate that we have already had to sue our Minister simply to compel her to speak to us and share information with us that we were entitled to since the beginning.
What prompted the latest developments at TKAG, with Barry Wuganaale taking over from you as chairman and Daantjie Japhta as vice-chair?
We have, for a while already, enjoyed a relationship with both individuals and as their roles and level of involvement in the campaign grew, it became a natural process of restructuring our board to accommodate them more formally with executive powers within Treasure the Karoo Action Group.
Daantjie Japhta is the former mayor of Graaff-Reinet and he is the chief of the local Khoi people in the region as well. We have much respect for his understanding and experience in the local political matters of the region and we have a lot to learn from him and his style of leadership.
Pastor Barry Wuganaale is a campaigning veteran with years of experience in community work and the oil and gas industry. He is part of the Ogoni people (and a direct relative of Ken Saro-Wiwa) in the Niger Delta and he has personally felt the effects of the extensive oil pollution by multinational oil companies, including Shell. His wisdom, strength and courage are invaluable to us in our campaign.
Have you ever felt discouraged and wanted to give up the fight?
No. Setbacks like Shell and the Government appearing to collude only make me more determined. And every time I drive through the Karoo’s beautiful landscapes and speak to Karoo people, my resolve strengthens. I can’t think of anything that would make me give up.