Killing the Holy Ghost: Inside the unlawful bid for environmental approval of the Musina-Makhado SEZ

By Kevin Bloom

On 1 September 2020, the draft environmental impact assessment for the R145bn Musina-Makhado SEZ was released for public comment. What followed, given the absolute devastation that the project would visit on the Limpopo River basin, were delays and about-turns that often verged on the unlawful. But on 19 May 2021, the local implementing agents for the China-backed initiative may have crossed the point of no-return — a high court review is almost certain, it now seems, with the law as clear as day.

(For more in the Killing the Holy Ghost series, read Kevin Bloom’s three investigative features here, here and here, and Brandon Abdinor’s report on the draft environmental impact assessment here.)

On the morning of 15 March 2021, in among the thousands of virtual meetings that were happening across South Africa, there was one in particular that underlined the hopeless banality of human-induced ecosystem collapse. The humans in question had logged on to discuss a range of acronyms that made sense mainly to them, but which to an outsider would have been essential to an understanding of the broader picture of ruin. In order of importance, those acronyms were as follows:

MMSEZ: The Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone, a proposed China-funded 8,000ha metallurgical cluster in the baobab-laden Limpopo River Valley, which would be powered by its own 3,000MW coal-fired plant, draw water from drought- and famine-stricken Zimbabwe, and generally lay waste to the transnational ecosystems upon which millions of livelihoods depended.

LEDET: The Limpopo provincial government’s Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism, which, instead of Minister Barbara Creecy’s national department — as befitted a R145-billion project backed by some of the largest industrial conglomerates in the People’s Republic, including Shenzhen Hoi Mor, the Power Construction Corporation of China and the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Group — had been chosen as the “competent authority” over the all-important process of environmental authorisation for MMSEZ.

LEDA: The Limpopo Economic Development Agency, the lead South African implementing agent for MMSEZ, which — as Daily Maverick reported in April 2020 — had allegedly pulled the wool over the eyes of the indigenous custodians of the land, not least by neglecting to disclose their deal with Power China International for construction of the abovementioned coal-fired plant.

EIA: The Environmental Impact Assessment report, as required by the National Environmental Management Act of 1998 (or NEMA, another critical acronym), which the Department of Trade and Industry had “targeted for completion” on MMSEZ by the close of 2020.

EAP: Environmental Assessment Practitioner, the qualified and independent professional responsible for the drafting of the EIA, who in this case — under the appointment of LEDA, the so-called “applicant” — had been identified as Nico-Ronaldo Retief, a senior employee of Delta Built Environmental Consultants, or Delta BEC. 

And so, with that out of the way, there was also the background to the virtual meeting of 15 March to consider, without which an outsider would not have been able to decipher the first thing about its purpose, cryptically defined as “EIA clarity on comments received from LEDET on 4 March 2021”. 

It had all kicked off on 1 September 2020, when Delta BEC, on the instruction of LEDET, had released the MMSEZ draft EIA for public comment, a process originally intended to last the prescribed 50 days, until 22 October 2020. Unsurprisingly, given the restrictions on public gatherings brought on by Covid-19, the EAP had requested an extension to 31 October, which LEDET had granted. But on 16 October, when he realised that there was no hope of submitting the paperwork on time, Retief had asked for a further extension, all the way out to 31 March 2021. Eleven days later, with the deadline looming and no answer from LEDET, a “revised request with additional motivation” was sent.

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