Singer/songwriter David Kramer, the troubadour of the Karoo, took his show “Kramer se Karoo” to the Jam Street Amphitheatre at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in March this year.  And he’s singing out against fracking.

Some years ago, David Kramer went walkabout in the Karoo listening to and learning from the music and the people who made it. Kramer’s music has always sung of people on the margins, physically and socially; of people who are like geologic seams within our country’s landscape—enduring, fragile and essential. From his travels and meetings with musicians who played the “ou liedjies van die Karoo” (old songs of the Karoo) emerged the brilliant Karoo Kitaar Blues. It showcased the slide guitarist Hannes Coetzee and many others, including Helena Nuwegeld.

The story of Helena Nuwegeld is the story of the Karoo. Kramer met Helena while exploring the rich vein of musical history that is as vital to these parts as water. She was a guitarist and singer and her songs were about her place in the land. She was murdered a few years ago. The man who killed her was down on his luck and had been offered a roof over his head on a farm near where Helena lived. Kramer says it’s a particular South African tragedy, shaped by the violence that has rung through our history, and which has made cries of the violated as common prayers for rain.

“This man [her murderer] couldn’t deal with her so-called disrespect,” says Kramer. The man said in court that she had not called him “sir”. Helena was 85-years-old at the time of her death. “More importantly,”says Kramer, “He couldn’t respect her. She’d had a tough life and she wasn’t about to play that subservient role. She was hard, like the land she lived in. And she was badly treated and was suspicious of other people’s motives. But, she had more than he had, and he couldn’t handle it.”

Helena had more, says Kramer, because “she was that kind of person”. She had her life—rough hewn and sparse as it was—and she had her family and her songs. The murderer did not respect that; he wanted part of it—and ended up shooting her. He was sentenced to life in jail.

This is the essential story of the Karoo. It has more than it will yield yet gives more than any one person can grasp. For the oil companies to come in and want a part of it, shows a similar disrespect and they will end up killing it. Kramer is almost speechless when he talks about the prospect of fracking in the Karoo.

“This is short-term. They [the oil companies] say they will replace what is damaged. But we’ve heard all that before and we’ve seen what’s happened in the Niger Delta. When there’s a disaster, you destroy the ecology for centuries. If we contaminate the water underground, we can’t flush it out because don’t have the water in the first place to do so.”

And he’s not speaking from a point of ignorance. He has read up on the issue, watched the documentary “Gaslands” and he is constantly asking questions. “Life is on this planet because of water. I don’t understand how—in an arid place like the Karoo—they want to use so much water to get gas,” he says, referring to the technology of hydraulic fracturing which entails pumping millions of litres of chemical-laden water into the shale rock to split it and release natural gas.

“Are we going to take that chance? Are we going to pump in millions of toxic chemicals in these underground areas, crank the rocks, leave it there and then think it doesn’t really do any damage because we can’t see it? And what then, when in a hundred years time it [the toxins] start to ooze out?”

Someone commented that if shell was a person and you looked at their criminal record, it would not be the kind of person you’d want in your neighbourhood. “It’s like saying, ‘Oh, that guy is fine—he’s a paedophile—but he gives the kids sweets and feeds them.’ It’s a kind of suspension of logic and rationality,” says Kramer

On his CD, “Huistoe”, there’s a song called “Dans mettie dood” (Dance with the dead) that describes the harsh, tenuous lifeline of the Karoo.

Ek staan heel maand en wag virrie reen se reuk/Want sonner water sallie veld’ie bloomie/Sonner blomme sallie geld’ie kommie/Sonner geld wil almal vir almal neuk

[I stand for months awaiting the smell of rain/’Cos without water, the flowers won’t bloom/Without flowers, the money won’t come/And without money, we’ll tear each other apart.]

If fracking goes ahead in the Karoo, the oil companies will be handing out their dance cards.

At the show, he introduced his song “Onnerwater”—a song about the ancient Karoo, and from his recent CD “Huistoe”—by telling people of the dangers of fracking. His is the essential story of the Karoo as much as the Karoo is an essential story in South Africa’s history. A couple of the band members wore T-shirts that read: “Stop fracking our Karoo!”

Postscript: Since this was written, the South African government has placed a moratorium on all shale gas prospecting that will utilise hydraulic fracturing technology.

Kramer’s new show featured his favourite songs of the Karoo, spanning some 30 years and he was joined by Hannes Coetzee and the Sonskyn Susters (the Sunshine Sisters) and local jig dancers (rieldansers).


Photo courtesy of Hans van der Veen.


Drill, Baby, Drill!: The chant of the political naif

Recently, the righteous voices of reason stepped into the fray regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing technology in prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo, One of the voices is journalist Ivo Vegter, who assumed the role of Devil’s advocate. Such a role requires a modicum of intellectual rigour otherwise you end up playing God’s advocate, endorsing that which you supposedly set out to question. It’s an easy back slide and reveals a penchant for controversy over a desire for coherency.

Lewis Pugh, a critic of environmental degradation and a spokesman for Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG), challenged Shell—and other gas and oil companies—about its plan to frack in the Karoo and in so doing made a speech that was widely reprinted and replayed on various digital channels. For some it was rousing. For others, it was “propaganda” and “alarming”. The latter determined that what Pugh was saying was that there would be war over water.

What he said was: “If we damage our limited water supply—and fracking will do just that—we will have conflict again here in South Africa. Look around the world. Wherever you damage the environment you have conflict.”

That should set off alarm bells. But by “alarming”, the righteous voices of reason make out that Pugh is shouting “fire” in a crowded auditorium. Yet, just a few days ago in Ficksburg, the Meqheleng Concerned Citizens group handed to the municipality of Ficksburg a list of demands that included “proper water supply, repairs to sewerage drains and waste removal”. Their environment had been damaged by untreated sewerage and uncollected waste. Their letter was ignored and so they marched in their thousands to make their voice heard. The tragic result was the shooting to death of Andries Tatana, a concerned citizen, a father and and a respected teacher, who wanted water and clean streets for his family.

That is the conflict of which Pugh warns. To think of conflict only in terms of war indicates an intellectual shallowness more common to tabloid headlines—”Vegan Vampire Eats Kirstenbosch Gardens!” or “Fracking Scandal Exposed!”—than a purported “closer inspection” would indicate.

The voices of reason fail to acknowledge the human rights dimension of this debate being more intent of disparaging—but not refuting—the arguments of those opposed to short-term corporate gains at the expense of the future. We are a member of the United Nations and uphold its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The World Health Organisation in its document “Water, health and human rights” states: “The content of the right to water may be generally defined as a right to access to water of sufficient cleanliness and in sufficient quantities to meet individual needs… While drinking and cooking water would be protected, water for food production would probably not be covered under the minimum needs in arid areas, as agriculture production requires such high amounts of water that individual household needs must first be ensured. The same goes for water for industrial use: although industry and electricity are important for ensuring an adequate standard of living, these uses must not infringe on the right to household water. For both agriculture and industrial uses, contamination of drinking water must be prevented.”

The proponents of fracking cannot in any way show that fracking will not contaminate the Karoo aquifers. What they do say, repeatedly, is that there is “no known link” between fracking and aquifer and groundwater pollution. And they cite only their own expert testimony.

The level of political naivety revealed in the statements of the voices of reason when commenting on Pugh’s speech recurs throughout their “close inspection” of the claims of Pugh and others opposed to fracking in the Karoo and elsewhere. Vegter wrote of Pugh’s speech: “Then he [Pugh] invoked the political tyrants being toppled in north Africa, and deftly juxtaposed ‘corporate tyranny’ as if it’s the same thing.”

That’s a bit embarrassing, really. Like when your partner’s just spent R850 at the hairdresser and you still have to ask: “Really? What’s the difference?” To think that so-called democratic countries such as the USA are not dictated to by the corporate tyranny of big business is like still believing Ralph Nader was a Satanist for challenging GM on its car safety.

For those who don’t remember, Nader took on the automotive giants with his book “Unsafe at any speed” (1965) and successfully sued GM and its posse of righteous voices of reason for the subsequent “dirty tricks” campaign they launched to smear his credibility. He got a payout and a public apology from the then CEO of GM.

That’s the interesting thing about comfort zones and voices of reason. Take cars: most of those reading this drive a car and some of you may smoke. Cigarette lighters have been a standard feature in cars since the 1920s but automobile manufacturers were only forced to make safety belts a standard feature in the late 1950s. More people were dying from the effects of cigarette smoking than were dying in car crashes. Doctors, dealing with the trauma of patients involved in car crashes, helped push through seat-belt legislation, despite the assurances of experts saying they were not necessary. Tobacco manufacturers hid behind a fortress of lawyers, corrupt politicians and compromised scientists for more than 40 years to hide that fact that nicotine is addictive and that smoking kills. They also denied the effects of secondary smoke.

The naivety continues. Vegter cited reams of outdated research regarding “signed statements from state officials representing Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Alabama, and Texas, responding to these allegations [water contamination]. As a result of our regulatory review and analysis, the GWPC concluded that state oil and gas regulations are adequately designed to directly protect water resources”.

This is so staggeringly naive it’s unbelievable. It is also shoddy research. These legislators were making a political argument, not a scientific one—in other words, they were covering their backs. The reason why the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is re-opening the debate on the use of hydraulic fracturing—hearings are being conducted as this is being written—is because whistle-blowers within EPA confirmed that political pressure had been brought to bear on the original reports. As Wes Wilson, one of the E.P.A. whistle-blowers, said in a recent interview about that report, five of the seven members of the study’s peer review panel were current or former employees of the oil and gas industry.

Numerous complainants petitioned the USA government to get the EPA to review the earlier decision on hydraulic fracking. One of them, from Neil Zusman, Ithaca, NY, is particularly poignant:

I have read widely on this topic and it is of personal interest to me. I am not a scientist. I observe the events along the historical timeline that includes civil rights, anti-war protest, and the environmental movement. I believe they are inextricably linked. I am the son of a Holocaust survivor and a proud American, yet I know the health and democratic dangers faced by a nation whose over arching motivation involves economic benefits especially in times of economic distress.

The EPA has failed to act on the evidence of public danger caused by toxic materials released into the water as a result of hydraulic fracturing. This failure first occurred in the 1990’s [sic] in Alabama, in a case brought by LEAF. Alabama was the only state to come under the regulations of the UIC program. Among the stakeholder case studies mentioned in the Appendices of the Draft Study, Alabama is notably absent. This concerns me.

The legacy that this study follows is onerous: The 11th Circuit Court originally scheduled oral arguments for the LEAF II case for the week of February 26, 2001. This schedule was changed and the oral arguments were conducted on March 12, 2001 in Atlanta. The National Energy Policy Development Group was a group, created by Executive Order on January 29, 2001, that was chaired by Vice President Richard Cheney.

While he was US vice president, Cheney backed a series of measures favouring his former employer, Halliburton, whose hydraulic fracturing technology generated $1.5-billion a year for the company, “about one-fifth of its energy-related revenue”. LA Times’ reporters Tom Hamburger and Alan Miller pointed out in 2004: “Halliburton and other oil and gas firms have been fighting efforts to regulate the procedure [fracking] under a statute that protects drinking water supplies. The 2001 national energy policy report, written under the direction of the vice president’s office (Cheney), cited the value of hydraulic fracturing but didn’t mention concerns raised by staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the administration has taken steps to keep the practice from being regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which Halliburton has said would hurt its business and add needless costs and bureaucratic delays.”

Neil Zusman goes on to say:

Americans were fortunate to have whistle blowers bring important national health issues to the press. This study you undertake, as other EPA studies in the past, have fallen short of protecting public health. In fact, Congress has recently found that the gas industry has failed to uphold its agreement not to use diesel in wells. Yet, little enforcement of EPA regulations has made Americans more vulnerable to the toxic practice of gas drilling. The States have not shown that they can adequately regulate gas drilling, especially in more populated areas. Federal Regulations are clearly needed. Time and time again, as noted by a Pew Research Group report, a wide variety of industries, in seat belts, lead paint, cigarettes and many others, have fought federal regulation only to have history prove that it never hurt their bottom line.

Water is at the heart of this debate—fracking requires large amounts of water—and the voices of reason latch on to it, as they should. Yet, again, the poor writing and shoddy research of the proponents of fracking reveal at best a lack of rigour and at worst obfuscation worthy of Cheney.

One of the objections raised against Pugh was that he quoted the amount of water required for fracking in litres. The figures were given—in litres—to reporters by Kim Bye Braun, media communications manager of Shell. Most of the studies on hydraulic fracturing emanate from the USA, which uses gallons (US). The conversion was to litres because SA doesn’t use the imperial measure. This is a red herring. But OK, let’s talk of 7 000 to144 000 cubic metres of water. Does it now sound like nothing?

But, let’s take these numbers that the voices of reason have supplied and unwind the spin therein (and here I am indebted to comment from a concerned reader). US reports frequently give the amount of water per well as between 1-million to 8-million gallons, approximately 4 000m³ to 30 000m³. Shell South Africa says roughly 7 000m³ to 144 000 m³.

(The figures given by the oil companies about the amount of water needed for fracking are, however, questionable. Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University—that hotbed of socialist, bunny hugger thinkers—says each well will require on average 44 000 000 gallons of water. That’s 166 558m³ of water.)

Vegter says that the projected use at Medupi is 14-million m³, which is roughly 100 times as much as will be used in the Karoo. That’s true if you are talking about one well. Shell alone plans 24 wells in its exploration phase. Thus, that first fracking phase alone will use the equivalent of 25% of what Medupi will use annually.

If those 24 exploratory sites are developed into production sites, it is possible that there may be as many as eight wells on each site, each one requiring fracking at three to five year intervals. This alone would then begin to rival Medupi’s water usage. And if you factor in the possibility that each well can use up to 16 multiple horizontal fracture drills fanning out from the vertical shaft, the amount of water per well increases considerably.

Each of those sites can exploit possibly a maximum of 10km², probably less (In the US they talk about 80 acres—three sites per km²) . If only 10% of the 90 000 km² under consideration in the Shell application is exploited that means something like 9  000 sites, each using 144 000 m³, the amount of water required will be in the region of 1.296-million  m³—let’s say thousand million cubic metres. The Gariep Dam has a total storage capacity of approximately five thousand million cubic metres. You’re talking about perhaps 10% of the entire country’s water supply—that’s a lot whether measured in imperial or metric units.

Now, what happens when all this, chemically toxic filthy, water comes back up out of the ground. What do we do with it then? The voices of reason are as silent as lambs on this.

Vegter’s claim that Eskom’s Medupi at Lephalale uses vastly more water than fracking ever would is not simply disingenuous it is blatantly false. TKAG is arguing against using the scarce water resources (almost entirely aquifers) upon which the Karoo depends. The comparison is false and as such there is no dichotomy.

Voices of reason always throw up the phrase “false dichotomy” when labelling their objections to a particular point of view. They also begin sentences with the word “Indeed”—which is up there with profile writers who call their subject “insightful” and food writers who describe meals as “wholesome”.

The voices of reason also claim that “Shell has long since agreed to ensure it will not compete with local residents or farmers for water”. Shell may say this, but Shell has not answered the question of what water it will use. Nor has it answered the question of what it will do if its actions do contaminate the Karoo’s aquifers. You can’t flush contamination out of an aquifer without using more water—which the Karoo does not have in the first place.

Recently, 13 groups, including Lawyers for Human Rights, WWF South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, petitioned the government because the existing rules controlling mining gave “inadequate time to assess the environmental impacts of mines and imposed penalties that are so low as to be no disincentive whatsoever for mining companies”. They cited the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) which sets a maximum fine of only R500 000 compared with R5-million for similar offences in other environmental legislation.

The Shell EMP (produced by Golder Associates) states: “Shell commits to establishing mutually acceptable protocols for the independent monitoring of the water quality in existing water wells and surface water surrounding Shell’s activities. However, in the highly unlikely event of aquifer pollution, rehabilitation is covered by Shell’s insurance policies, specifically Third Party Liability policies, which includes consequential damage. The financial provision as proposed to PASA will cover any remedial exposure (if any).”

Most of us can’t get any joy out of our small insurance claims. Can you imagine the task of a small farmer in the Karoo trying to take on Shell’s insurance company about his borehole being contaminated?

The voices of reason refer to plans of trucking in sea water. By Shell’s own estimates, 300 trucks carrying 20 000 litres each will be needed to bring in that amount of sea water for each fracking site. They propose 24 sites. The dust and damage to the environment from that many vehicles is enormous. And, remember, they may use each site to perform up to 16 “frac stages”.

Expert testimony says that salt water used in hydraulic fracturing can lubricate the rock surrounding it, possibly leading to earthquakes. This may be happening in Arkansas, “which has experienced a sudden surge in seismic activity, including the biggest earthquake recorded by the state in more than three decades”. According to Fox News—not exactly a hotbed of socialist commentary—90% of the earthquakes recorded in the state since 2009 have occurred within six kilometers of salt water sites associated with fracking operations. Steve Horton, an earthquake specialist at the University of Memphis and hydrologic technician with the US Geological Survey, told Fox “the coincidence is too big to ignore”.

But why should we believe Shell? Or rather, how can we believe Shell—or any other company wanting to frack the Karoo. Shell has a track record of bribery and corruption, especially in Africa. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” says Pugh. “Shell, has a shocking record in Africa. It has spilt more than nine-million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta—almost twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. It was found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials—and to make the case go away in the USA—it paid an admission of guilt fine of $48-million. To top it all, Shell stands accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner—Ken Saro-Wira and eight other activists. If Shell was innocent, why did it pay $15.5-million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?”

The worst that the voices of reason can come up with on TKAG is “being emotional”. The stiff-upper-lip-I-won’t-cry attitude is, however, no longer a required attitude as a reflection of honesty in the adult world.

Shell hired Golder Associates, a “global company providing consulting, design, and construction services in earth, environment, and energy” to produce a draft Environmental Management Plan (EMP). This document running to more than 250 pages was what farmers and people in the small towns of the Karoo were asked to comment on.

TKAG worked with Havemann Inc., to prepare a response, which was written by Dr Luke Havemann, Havemann Inc, Specialist Energy Attorneys, Cape Town; Prof Jan Glazewski, Professor in the Institute of Marine & Environmental Law, University of Cape Town; and Susie Brownlie, Environmental Consultant, de Villiers and Brownlie Associates. They headed up a team of 22 specialists and experts in preparing the study.

Dr Havemann holds a Masters Degree in Marine and Environmental Law from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in the Enviro-Legal Regulation of Oil and Gas from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Prof Glazewski holds a BComm LLB from the University of Cape Town, an LLM from the University of London, a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Cape Town as well as an LLD by published work from the University of Cape Town. Ms Brownlie holds a BSc Honours in Zoology from the University of Cape Town and a Master degree, with distinction, in Environmental Science from the University of Cape Town.

The voices of reason, not unexpectedly, dismiss the 104-page document. A shallow reading of most documents is often revealed in the responses to that document. First, they look to the Netherlands where fracking has been used for 40 years—citing the Netherlands as a “an extremely densely populated, environmentally conscious and highly regulated society”. What they fail to point out is testimony about the effects of fracking.

As one Dutch commentator said: “In the Netherlands they’ve been extracting gas, oil, and salt from subterranean layers for over 40 years. In the area, earthquakes have become common while ground levels are sinking. It is a folly to think you can extract anything from deeper levels without the upper levels—eventually—caving in. Even if those levels are deemed impermeable, they’ll fracture as they come down. The logical consequence is that mainly lighter constituents (water, gas, oil) will rise through those cracks. Go dig—the bill is due only in another 50-100 years.”

While it may be safe to collude with the proponents of hydraulic fracturing when you are sitting on the Cape coast; it is perhaps a bit more acceptable if you speak to the people who are directly affected before declaring them “safe”.

Let’s segue to another oil giant: BP, the company responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Yes, I know we are talking about shale gas but this is about big corporates and their willingness to cut corners. According to an interview with Jeanne Pascal, who worked in the EPA for 26 years as an environmental lawyer, “BP’s flagship $1-billion Thunder Horse drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico nearly sank in 2005 after engineers installed ballast valves backward. And a federal lawsuit over safety concerns on another BP rig, Atlantis, was making its way through the courts even as the Deepwater Horizon exploded”.

Journalists investigating BP corroborated and expanded on Pascal’s concerns and found the the company emphasized a “culture of austerity in pursuit of corporate efficiency, lean budgets and shareholder profits”. They found that current and former BP workers and executives said the company “repeatedly cut corners, let alarm and safety systems languish and skipped essential maintenance that could have prevented a number of explosions and spills”. Apparently, internal BP documents support these claims.

Why should we trust Shell to act differently? Because, according to the righteous voices of reason, Shell et al, really care. To put it in Vegter’s words, people aligned with TKAG are the “ecomentalists, with their 4x4s and bicycles and hemp hand bags and enough free time to organise petitions, protests and PR campaigns, might not care”. (The “might” is rhetorical.)

Vegter misquotes the Havemann report. “Indeed, the Haveman [sic] report quite openly bemoans the ‘real paucity of information’ about environmental or health impacts.” The extract from which Vegter quotes is actually Havemann quoting from the Tyndall Report produced in the UK about hydraulic fracturing, and it was that report’s preamble to why there should be a moratorium on fracking—not enough is known about its deleterious effects.

If Vegter had gone a little further—or a little deeper—he would have also noted the Havemann document states—again quoting the Tyndall Report —‘[i]n itself, this lack of information can be seen as a finding, as along with the growing body of evidence for ground and surface water contamination from the US and the requirement for the application of the precautionary principle in the EU, shale gas extraction in the UK must surely be delayed until clear evidence of its safety can be presented.’ The Tyndall Report goes on to say that, with the considerable uncertainty surrounding the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction, ‘it seems sensible to wait for the results of the US EPA investigation to bring forward further information’

The earlier decision of the EPA has been successfully challenged and is now under review by the US Science Advisory Board (SAB). All fracking activity in New York state and 160 other locations across the USA have been suspended pending the SAB report.

One of the favourite arguments of the voices of reason rests on the assurances given by the drilling companies that the casement technology used in fracturing is safe. They cite a report prepared for the US Department of Energy which states: “Ground water is protected during the shale gas fracturing process by a combination of the casing and cement that is installed when the well is drilled and the thousands of feet of rock between the fracture zone and any fresh or treatable aquifers.”

The voices of reason lay this out as if this was a statement of fact when it is description of best practices. The document cited here also carries the disclaimer: “The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof.” This document was a position paper, which it clearly states: “This Shale Gas Primer was intended to be an accurate depiction of current factors and does not represent the view of any individual state. Knowledge about shale gas development will continue to evolve.”

TKAG and its allies are, however, representing the views of an “individual state”—the Karoo. This region is unique in many ways. Let’s take its geology, which begins with the ancient glacial Dwyka tillite and ends 48-million years later in the middle Beaufort time. The edges on the south—the Outeniqua mountains—and the north—the Swartberg—are hard, quartzitic sandstone of the Table Mountain Group. In between are the Precambrian and younger Jurassic formations, weathered and worn into vast flat plains. Aeons later, Gondwana started its dismemberment and triggered tectonic forces below the mantle of mountains to form the main fault-bounded basins, which today we call the Little Karoo.

The terminology of the geological landscape is as rich as the earth of which it speak: marine sediments, limestone, greywackes, turbidites, the thick conglomerates of the Kansa Group, all lithified and ancient and filled with stretched pebbles.

Through this runs the country’s most extensive fault system, beginning 100km west of Port Elizabeth and ending in Tulbagh. Not only is the fault system extensive, it is active—as Tulbagh experienced in 1969. And there’s no telling what impact fracking will have.

As Shell states in its 2010 Annual Report, “We [Shell] operate in environments where the most advanced technologies are needed. While these technologies are regarded as safe for the environment with today’s knowledge, there is always the possibility of unknown or unforeseeable environmental impacts.” By its own admission, Shell could face a situation while fracking where the groundwater is contaminated.

Vegter draws a contorted conclusion from the fact that TKAG, through the Havemann commissioned report, is calling for a stop on fracking, and quotes the report. “The underlying argument of this Critical Review is that an immediate halt should be imposed on Shell’s application for an exploration right as well as on any other application for any other form of permit, right or authorisation that, if successful, may bring the advent of fracking in South Africa a step closer to fruition.”

He then says: “It helps having your conclusions written before you draft the report itself.” Such a banal level of argument begs description. Not only is it illogical to use the executive summary of a 104-page document as evidence of bias, it is vaguely paranoid or sensationalist. To go on and label Havemann document as a sham reveals the shallowness of this argument. In the UK, the Tyndall Report also concluded:

See the evidence given by Prof Anderson where, for example, he stated as follows: “What we [the United Kingdom (“the UK”)] require, I think, initially would be to learn from history. It seems a reasonable approach to take, yet we have not done that. We have not looked in detail at what has happened in the US. What we know in the US is that some of the states there now have a moratorium on further development pending an inquiry – an independent scientific inquiry. That seems the reasonable route to go. It is hard I would suggest to argue different to that, in the absence of independent scientific inquiry, we will go ahead. It would seem a strange position to hold. I think that we should at least wait to hear back from the EPA in the US. As the previous witnesses [Nigel Smith (Geophysicist, British Geological Survey) and Professor Richard Selley (Petroleum Geologist, Imperial College Lond)] suggested, shale is not necessarily shale. They vary in their petrochemical properties very significantly. I think you would then have to say we needed one in the UK that looked at the types of shale we have here and the differences across the shale here, and try to draw lessons form the US study once that is published. All these are very good and sound reasons why a prudent nation would not rush ahead with it [it being fracking].” Significantly, the final question posed by the E&CCC was “[S]hould there be a moratorium on shale gas exploration in the UK until 2013, when the EPA is likely to have its report out?” In response to this question, Professor Anderson answered as follows: “Yes, for environmental reasons, and the moratorium should last for probably another few decades for the climate change best perspective.”

If there was any intelligence behind the voices of reason, the worst that could be said is that they are simply arrogant. Unfortunately, it seems they are simply simple. Put it down to naivety.

Vegter says that “hydraulic fracturing reduces the usual impact of drilling, since multiple horizontal shafts can be drilled from a single vertical well, dramatically reducing the footprint of drilling operations on the surface. By that standard, hydraulic fracturing is the most environmentally friendly means of drilling and is perfectly suited to a relatively unspoilt wilderness such as the Karoo”.

What this really means is that instead of pumping between 144 000m3—167 000m3 for each fracture (including the horizontal shaft), the oil companies will pump the same or slightly for each multiple horizontal shaft—what is known as a “frac stage”. This makes it “friendly”? So, from a vertical well—referred to as a “pad”—there could be as much as 16 frac stages. As Cornell University Professor Anthony Iggraffea says: “It’s not the number of pads that’s important, it’s the number of frac stages.” He points out that it’s “a chimera to say ‘we’re having fewer pads therefore we’re having less impact'”.

Hate to ask, again—but the voices of reason don’t tackle this—where is the water going to come from for this “environmentally friendly means of drilling” involving multiple frac stages? In addition, this ignores the question of trucking and pipelines, and attendant damage. It ignores the dust pollution, the carbon emissions, the construction of roads across pristine land and burial sites of our ancestors. But mainly, it ignores the issues of water. Of course, concern about burial sites,say the voices of reason, is such “charming clean, green waffle”.

Vegter concedes that it “is true that isolated incidents of pollution do occur. Some have been cited above. They do not, however, occur as a result of hydraulic fracturing, but in the normal course of drilling.”

He fails to explain the what the difference is between hydraulic fracturing and “the normal course of drilling” during which such “incidents of pollution occur”. The question that should be asked—and not dismissed with a meaningless phrase about the “normal course of drilling”—is to what standard should we hold any industry to acceptable risk for its operations (i.e. drilling). No one in their right mind—neither the righteous voices of reason or the “obstructionism of angry greens”—would demand and expect 100% accountability

Figures gathered in Pennsylvania over a three-year span, show that shale gas drilling averaged a 0.3% error factor. In 2010 there were 1227 violations—i.e. environmental violations—for 1386 new wells drilled in Pennsylvania alone. That’s a violation rate of 0.89%— almost one per well.

Take the airline business: it is held to a 99.9999% acceptable risk. This means that if one aeroplane in a million goes down—the shit hits the fan. If the airline industry were held to the same standards of acceptable risk as the gas and oil companies, then it would tolerate 870 plane crashes every day. (These figures are based on the average US flight information of 87 000 flights each day across the skies of America.)

The voices of reason then go on a more risible pursuit: “Why would it ‘destroy the environment’ to permit drilling for shale gas, when drilling for other purposes is celebrated?” Where does TKAG say it celebrates drilling for other purposes? The voices of reason seem a little unhinged. Vegter openly announces that what the TKAG and its supporters really want—in addition to possible access to vast amounts of moolah that they can extricate from the oil companies or even more vast splonges of wonga to be made from cashing in on renewable energy—is a shift from pursuing short-term fossil fuel to sustainable renewable energy.

Woah! How did the voices of reason manage to expose this scandalous plot? At one point, Pugh does say: “Now is the time for change. We cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis. The era of fossil fuels is over. We must invest in renewable energy.” ? Could that have been the clue? Perhaps, but it’s not a complex sentence structure to grasp.

Ironically, the righteous voices of reason have got it right. TKAG and its supporters do want sustainable renewable energy. There, it’s out. Confession. As has been pointed out before, the oil companies want to frack for shale gas for a number of reasons. First, it’s profitable; second, the drilling technology, while relatively young, has proved effective (though not environmentally sound); and finally, especially in the case of Royal Dutch Shell, big oil does not believe in developing renewable energy resources. As the chairman Jorma Ollila stated, “we believe that [renewable energy sources] could provide no more than 30% of global energy by 2050”. And they want to be in the 70% market.

In 2005, Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit on renewable energy, investing an average of $200-million—just 1.2% its 2005 total capital investment of $17.4-billion. Don’t expect Shell to allocate much of its earnings—a whopping $20.5-billion in 2010—towards renewable energy: more than 75% of capital investment will go to “upstream” projects—such as natural gas. “We think it makes a lot of sense to focus our innovation on natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Ollila.

There’s a fundamental short-sightedness in this focus. It is an illusion—and a human rights travesty—to believe we have another 40 years to plunder resources and damage the environment. Apart from the need to start immediately investing heavily in renewable energy, we need to protect what remains of the existing environment. The Karoo is a pristine and fragile ecosphere, dependent almost entirely on groundwater. Contaminate that water table—the Karoo’s life blood—and you will destroy the land and its people. That’s the reality.

And no matter what the righteous voices of reason say about the oil companies providing jobs, it will be short term. And if the aquifers are contaminated, it will be a death sentence. Of course, the righteous voices of reason do bang on a bit about the “cleanliness” of natural gas. If you believe that, you probably also believe the car guard who says he’ll look after you car.

Cornell University—probably high on the list of those “not-to-be-trusted” institutions of learning as they do have such a plethora of social agitators on staff—will publish research in the next month, however, that concludes natural gas produced from hydraulic fracturing contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more. Cornell Professor Robert Howarth argues that “development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production”.

The voices of reason won’t like that. After all, they do not see those opposed to the short-term gains of hydraulic fracturing of the Karoo as real people concerned about the future of the earth. No, such people “aren’t harmless greenies, concerned only with pretty pictures of pristine landscapes and protecting endangered fluffy bunnies”. Instead, we are the sort of people who while they “can afford expensive fuel and other such self-indulgent eco-luxury, most of us cannot”.

Should you ever have the chance—and the iron constitution—to watch a stilted documentary called “The Big Picture”, do so. The film, courtesy of the US Department of Energy and made primarily for the US armed forces, records the detonation of “Shot Priscilla”, a 37 kiloton atomic bomb in the Nevada Desert in 1957 (Hiroshima was a 13 kiloton bomb). In it, you see a military chaplain calming the fears of two soldiers who were part of a contingent exposed to ground zero at a distance of 2 280m (2 500 yards).

“Actually,” says the chaplain, “there is no need to be worried, as the Army has taken all of the necessary precautions to see that we are perfectly safe here.” After witnessing the blast, the soldiers returned to Camp Desert Rock, “bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth”.

The US Department of Energy has a long history of complicity with big business. From 1951 to 1963, it colluded with the Atomic Energy Commission to pursue a “reckless programme of scientific experimentation” that saw the detonation of 126 atomic bombs in the 3.5-million km² Nevada Test Site. “Each of the pink clouds that drifted across the flat mesas and forbidden valleys of the atomic proving grounds contained levels of radiation comparable to the a count released after the explosion in 1986 of the Soviet nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.”

The leaders of the US nuclear weapons industry waged a 30-year battle to cover up this contamination of North America. It was President Jimmy Carter who, in 1978, ordered that the Atomic Energy Commission make its operational records open to the public. It revealed an horrific account of malfeasance and immorality that would make even the most gung-ho corporate shill shudder.

The problem remains one of perception. Do you adopt the myopic it-is-what-it-is as expressed in the voices of reason or do you have a vision of the future—and by future, we mean 50, 100, 300 years from now? As Pugh says, “We cannot drill our way out of an energy crisis.”

It’s as if the voices of reason heard the parrots shrieking “Be here now, boys!” and took it literally, not comprehending the rich depth and context within which that phrase rests. What they miss is that “Be here now” implies an implicit acknowledgement that we must “be here now” in such a manner that we shall also “be here tomorrow”.

The issues around hydraulic fracturing in the Karoo may be local but, in environmental terms, the entire earth is our local. The voices of reason want to confine the debate to the car you and I drive (reliant on oil), the implied need for SA to be “energy independent” (vis a vis that natural gas is our saviour) and that shale gas will warm the homes of the poor. Good points. The real issues, which if dealt with appropriately, will resolve the concerns of the voices of reason are clear.

First, is water. To quote Pugh: “We can survive without gas; we cannot live without water.” The death of Andries Tatania is not an isolated incident of police violence—it is a glaring example of the inevitable conflict that results from the environmental degradation of a person’s environment.

Second, is the matter of human rights. As the environmentalist and writer Wendell Berry said: “the movement to preserve the environment will be seen to be, as I think it has to be, not a digression from the civil rights and peace movements, but the logical culmination of those movements…”

And finally, it is about developing our renewable energy resources. There is no reason to prospect for shale gas in the Karoo. It will not provide us with cheaper energy—energy prices are set by the energy companies, not by the people who use it. Look at Australia.

According to a report by the Australian Industry Group, Australian gas prices stayed relatively low because the industry was isolated from world gas markets. Once the infrastructure is in place to liquefy gas for export—which is what is planned for SA’s shale gas—domestic wholesale prices will converge with global prices. This has already happened in Western Australia and will happen across the continent by 2015. Prices go up.

As history has shown, the cost of all fossil fuels follows an upward trend, and the cost of solar power follows a downward trend. All fossil fuels are dead-end options, finite resources whose end will arrive very quickly.

Vegter describes hydraulic fracturing as “a perfectly ordinary industrial technique that has been in [sic] used safely and successfully around the world for many decades”. Golder Associates—the environmental organisation that prepared the EMP for Shell—says, however, that all hydraulic fracturing technology is “considered unconventional” and that it is an “innovative technology”. They also state in the EMP that because “hydraulic fracturing is a new technology in South Africa, there is little information available on its potential impacts locally”.

Ordinary? Safe? How shallow and shameful to punt this drivel.

Frederick Douglas said: “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” The righteous voices of reason seem prepared to endure the demise of the planet.


Fracturing reality: the illusion of development

When environmentalist and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh joined the dots between fracking for shale gas and contamination of the Karoo aquifer and linked that to environmental degradation and social conflict, some commentators dismissed it as baloney. Perhaps they need to focus on the real picture.

No one word describes Lewis Pugh, but single-minded crops up often. Not that his thinking is dogmatic or his vision blinkered—he’s bright and inspirational—but in so far as he’s focused on halting the destruction of the earth’s resources and providing hope for our children’s future. His decision to raise a voice against prospecting for shale gas in the Karoo comes as no surprise.

The giant oil companies—Royal Dutch Shell is one—use a controversial drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing (fracking). A drill is sunk through the water table and down into the shale rock and then horizontally into the shale. Millions of litres of water mixed with a toxic compound of chemicals is forced down the hole and the pressure fractures the shale, releasing the trapped gas. More than 30% to 40% of the chemical-laden water mix remains below the surface. The rest is pumped out and has to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Fracking will deplete the scarce water resources of the Karoo and may lead to contamination of the groundwater table.

Pugh’s reasoning when he connects the dots between what’s proposed for the Karoo and what’s happening globally comes from first-hand experience. “I swam in the Arctic Ocean—not because I am brave or fool hardy or a show off. I swam because I should not have been able to do so. Global warming is a reality. The Arctic ice cap is melting. I swam in the glacial lakes of the Himalayas beneath Mount Everest, knowing that it should have been solid ice. I have seen the Maldives gradually being submerged by the rising waters of global warming.”

The oil companies want to frack for shale gas for a number of reasons. First, it’s profitable; second, the drilling technology, while relatively young, has proved effective (though not environmentally sound); and finally, especially in the case of Royal Dutch Shell, big oil does not believe in developing renewable energy resources. As the chairman Jorma Ollila stated, “we believe that [renewable energy sources] could provide no more than 30% of global energy by 2050”.

In 2005, Shell spent only 0.87% of its profit in 2005 on renewable energy, investing an average of $200-million—just 1.2% its 2005 total capital investment of $17.4-billion. Don’t expect Shell to allocate much of its earnings—a whopping $20.5-billion in 2010—towards renewable energy: more than 75% of capital investment will go to “upstream” projects—such as natural gas. “We think it makes a lot of sense to focus our innovation on natural gas, the cleanest-burning fossil fuel,” says Ollila.

There’s a fundamental short-sightedness in this focus. For starters, it is an illusion to believe we have another 40 years to plunder resources and damage the environment. Apart from the need to start immediately investing heavily in renewable energy, we need to protect what remains of the existing environment. The Karoo is a pristine and fragile ecosphere, dependent almost entirely on groundwater. Contaminate that water table—the Karoo’s life blood—and you will destroy the land and its people. That’s the reality.

Shell claims fracking will not contaminate the water table. Yet, the company could not explain why the corporations involved demanded that fracking be exempted—and got the exemption—from the regulations of the Federal US Safe Drinking Water Act, an Act aimed specifically at protecting groundwater?

When questioned about fracking technology, the oil companies point out that the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that fracking does not pose a danger to the environment. However, the earlier decision of the EPA has been successfully challenged and is now under review by the US Science Advisory Board (SAB). All fracking activity in New York state and 160 other locations across the USA have been suspended pending the SAB report.

Shell claims that fracking is a tried and tested technology and is being used throughout the world. However, they cannot explain why the technological process has failed in the past and caused serious problems to the aquifers in areas where it has been employed. There have been more than 1 000 documented cases of groundwater contamination in the USA due to fracking. Shell’s answer that the other companies simply “made mistakes” implies that it won’t .

Yet, Shell’s 2010 Annual Report states: “We operate in environments where the most advanced technologies are needed. While these technologies are regarded as safe for the environment with today’s knowledge, there is always the possibility of unknown or unforeseeable environmental impacts.”

By its own admission Shell could face a situation while fracking where the groundwater is contaminated. Shell was asked if, in such an event, what it could do about it? As was pointed out, you can’t exactly flush contamination out of an aquifer.

Pugh says we can’t trust Shell. “Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP,” he says. “Shell, has a shocking record in Africa. It has spilt more than nine-million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta—almost twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. It was found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials—and to make the case go away in the USA—it paid an admission of guilt fine of $48-million. To top it all, Shell stands accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria’s leading environmental campaigner—Ken Saro-Wira and eight other activists. If Shell was innocent, why did it pay $15.5-million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?”

Shell has avoided the questions, and continues to claim that fracking is “not known to harm” the environment. Disingenuous. But the issue is more than fracking. The issue, as Pugh says, is pursuing renewable, safe energy. “We can survive without gas—we can’t live without water.”

That’s why the reality is the pursuit of renewable energy and not the illusion of so-called “cleaner” fossil fuels. Pugh says it is a civil rights issue, and is prepared to take Shell all the way to the Constitutional Court. “Enshrined in our Constitution, is the right to a healthy environment and the right to water,” says Pugh. “The Constitution clearly states that we have ‘the right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our generation and for the benefit of future generations.'”

It will be a hard fought battle, but the reality is we can’t afford not to fight it.

Donald Paul is a freelance writer. Disclaimer: He is an admirer and friend of Lewis Pugh. [This story first appeared in City Press, Sunday, 10 April, 2011.]

Disappointed idealists or just plain cynics?

Last year, I gave talk to a group of international managers at their company’s annual conference in Cape Town. They came from Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Poland, Rumania, Lebanon, France and, of course, South Africa. Their company has invested heavily in South Africa. I spoke, in my personal capacity, about the country. Only two of the managers present had any experience and knowledge of this country.

I provided some personal background. On my father’s side of the family, I am second-generation born in Southern Africa, and fourth generation on my mother’s side. I was born in Zimbabwe—then called Southern Rhodesia—and, after Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, we moved to Zambia. Eventually, my parents moved back to South Africa, where I finished my high school and university. In the early 1970s, every white South African male was required to serve in the South African Defence Force. I refused and left for England.

Two years later I found myself in the Sudan, working as an English teacher in a high school just north of Darfur province. I then joined the Omdurman Islamic University—the first non-Muslim academic ever to be hired by the institution. Eventually, I ended up as the Sudan field director for an NGO. When I left the Sudan, I returned to London for a few years and subsequently lived in Greece and the USA before returning to SA in December 1995. I had been gone 20 years.

South Africa was now a democracy. It was the beginning of a new story. South Africa has many stories. But too often they are simply and easily reduced to the 46 years of apartheid and the struggles against it. And now it is also true that the story is being reduced to the 16 years of democracy and the struggle to maintain it. Or not.

But, one of our writers put it, there are other stories as “stories as interesting and even more revelatory of the dilemmas of the 20th and 21st century.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the phrase “rainbow nation”—a metaphor that meant many things and I covered some of the factual numbers. We are a nation of 50-million people. 39.6-million blacks (almost 80%); 4.6-million whites, 4.4-million coloureds and 1.3-million Indians—or rather descendants of people of Indian sub-continent. The black population is divided into four major ethnic groups, speaking nine languages. There are numerous subgroups of which the Zulu and Xhosa subgroups are the largest. The majority of the white population is of Afrikaans descent (60%), with many of the remaining 40% being of British descent. The coloured population—the term used for mixed race people—mostly speak Afrikaans. Almost 15-million people are aged between 15 to 29 years old.

This is important.

What is also important, I told them, were two names, which they should remember: Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale.

What’s changed?

So what makes South Africa today so different from South Africa 20 years ago? Let’s look at the details, the small things against which we can measure individuals. Yes, we have the world’s most comprehensive constitution; yes, we have democracy. But what about at a personal, everyday level?

Our national sportsmen and women are on tour in the rest of the world.

Our ballet, opera and stage companies are filled with black and white performers as are the audiences.

Big international acts come our way.

Our restaurants are up there in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s list

Our winemakers and their wines are welcomed abroad

Our beaches are packed. (When I left SA, most of the public beaches were reserved for “Whites Only”. Hard to believe, yes, but it was so.

And we hosted the FIFA World Cup 2010. Did that benefit us? (Of course not. It is an event designed for the benefit of FIFA.)

Our writers, artists and musicians are globally recognised—Vusi Mahlasela played in New York city at John Lennon’s remembrance party in October.

What else is different? The current question at dinner parties in South Africa is whether we will see development or decline in the future. But let’s put that in perspective

The economic situation in SA from 1980 to 1994 was one of prolonged and steep decline.

The 16 years that followed the advent of democracy have been called “the second golden age”.

But what now?

There are 283 municipalities.

In 2008/2009, 89 received disclaimers or adverse opinions for their annual audit.

An additional 36 could not finalise their audits.

In 2010, 57 municipalities got disclaimers and adverse opinions.

An additional 47 failed to finalise their audits.

There used to be 21 civil engineers for every 100,000 people in the municipalities. Today there are three for every 100,000. This was largely due to the passing of the Municipal Systems Act in 2000. The Act allowed mayors—an elected position—to govern in secret with a hand-picked executive committee. The ANC used it to “deploy”—i.e. find jobs for—its loyal followers. Zuma has now set about dismantling that structure to ensure municipalities are run by professionals.

There are only 800 anaesthetists working in the country.

We train 30 surgeons a year when the medical system needs a minimum of 120

We are bottom of the log in maths, maths literacy and science in our schools out of a sample of 133 countries.

80% of our schools are dysfunctional yet we spend 6.1% of our budget on education, much more than many other nations.

We have become a conduit for money laundering, the drug trade and human trafficking.

We have more than our fair share of murder and rape.

Another country

Let’s tell the story of an African country, I said. Let me describe a country to you and you tell me whether this is taken from fiction or reality and whether it is the the future, the present or the past. Here’s some pointers about this “country” I want you to imagine:

This country’s capital is the hub for the largest African airline.

It’s ports are served by fleets of ocean going liners.

There is an efficient railway network that connects it to its neighbours and which carry trade.

Publishers launch tourism travel guidebooks to the country which run to more than 800 pages long and lists hundreds of smart guest houses and things to do.

The game parks are vast, with plenty of game and accessible.

The country’s road network—more than 120 000km of it—is extensive and clearly marked maps are readily available in book shops.

The bus system covers the country and the buses run on time.

The country has vast areas of rich agricultural land.

The country’s education system produces some of the continents finest experts.

The country has unmeasured deposits of diamonds, gold and other minerals.

Fact or fiction?

Does such a country exist on the African continent?

Is it a future projection of what we’d like to see?

Is it a description of the state of the South African nation today?

Well, it’s fact, for starters.

Some of you may recognise the country about which I am talking. And no, it is not present day South Africa (though it could be). The country I have described is what the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was in 1960.

Between 1965 and 1997, this country I have described—the DRC—was run by Mobutu, a man who developed the cult of the personality and presented himself as a god-sent saviour for the country. He was assassinated in 1997 and Laurent Kabila took over. He in turn was also assassinated, and in an ironic salute to the country’s name, his son Joseph was installed as President. Elections were held six years later at a cost of US$500-million (paid for by the USA and the EU) and Joseph was installed as the legitimate elected leader.

Today, the DRC is a little different.

It’s airline is now dilapidated and unsafe.

It’s ports are unused.

The railway system has entirely collapsed.

There are no tourist guidebooks and there are no tourists.

It’s game parks are run down. People who have been there speak of the eerie silence of the forests. Everything has been hunted for food. There are not even the sounds of birds.

It has less than 1 000km of passable roads and those must be traversed in a 4×4.

It has no bus system.

More than 17% of the population are malnourished and 10% of the urban population. The rural people live on cassava, the staple diet, low in nutritional value.

The education system has collapsed.

It still has vast mineral wealth. But that is not going to solve the economy of the country. Think about cobalt. There are vast reserves being mined as we speak. Mined by hand by extremely low-paid labourers, packed into sacks and trucked out the country and shipped out of South Africa’s ports to China where it is then processed.

And that is where the money is made.

None of the money stays in the DRC. The mining companies don’t pay taxes (they say that paying bribes is simply a form of tax).

Frog in the water

There is a scenario that everyone likes to quote, and I am no different. It is the story of the frog in a pot of cold water. It will sit there happily. Place the pot on a very light gas flame and the frog will continue to sit their until it boils to death because it is oblivious to the gradually increasing heat of the water.

The question we must ask is: are we the frogs in the water? The controversial financial advisor Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, visited here recently. He was very popular. But when he was asked about future investments in the country he cited the story of the frog. It was not well received.

There are two problems with the question: Are we the frog in the water?

First, it is politically incorrect.

Second, to give a politically correct answer will be simply to avoid the issue.

Let’s look at some examples of why we may or may not be frogs. I was born in Zimbabwe. And though I left there when I was still a boy, people in South Africa—both black and white—often ask me if I think South Africa will become another Zimbabwe? Do I know the answer? No. But let me tell you three stories:

A few years ago, the then editor of a prominent women’s magazine—you know the kind, a very glossy, high fashion, lots of bling on every page—was at a very smart dinner for Gauteng’s elite and powerful females. Now, let me tell you about the Gauteng elite—named by the Unilever Institute of Marketing as “Black Diamonds”—they are wealthy, poised and powerful. At the dinner party was the Grace Mugabe, the wife of President Robert Mugabe. This was at the start of the “land reclamation” that Mugabe had launched against white farmers. The editor was seated at Grace’s table. During the evening, most of the black South African women approached Grace and praised her for what her husband was doing: taking back the land.

The second story is about a project I was working on about land reform in South Africa and its relation to small-holder farmers and food security. I was at a panel discussion chaired by the chairman of the Parliamentary Land Reform Commission. The audience was mostly young black students from the University of the Western Cape and the University of Cape Town. A film was shown in which two incidents of land reform were depicted.

One told the story of a group of people who had laid claim to land, which was not challenged. The claim was recognised and the group were now debating endlessly among themselves as to how it should be managed in the future. The second film was about a land claim that was challenged. A family living in Soweto claimed a 500ha piece of land north of Gauteng. The white farmer, whose family had been there for four generations challenged the claim.

One thing you must understand about land claims in SA is that the Land Reform Act of 1994 says that only land that was settled after 1913—the date when laws were passed to forcibly remove blacks off their land, can be claimed.

The white farmer said his family had bought the land from a local chief in the late 1800s. The black family said, no, they were there in 1913 and the land had been taken from them, not bought. They won. The white farmer said: OK, I have built a multi-million rand slaughter house on the farm and have a successful meat supply business. I will relinquish the land but leave me with the butchery and I will guarantee to buy your cattle and share the profits from the butchery.

The family refused. They visit the farm once a month usually on a Sunday for a picnic and the butchery has gone to ruin.

A student stood up and said that the white man should not have argued about the claim. I posed the question as to whether, given our limited land resources—and SA only has 11% of its land mass that is arable—wouldn’t it have made sense to negotiate with the white farmer, keep the land and butchery working (it provided employment) and that it was a matter of management of resources that was most important.

Well, I was shot down in flames. The chairman said he would not tolerate listening to another white man saying blacks could not farm the land and besides, it was not the management of the land that was at issue. Justice was the issue, and it was justice to give back the land even if it was not used for “20 or 40 years”.

Land reform is a very, very emotional issue in SA, and it is a potential time bomb.

The media in Europe and South Africa made much of the devastation and starvation that followed Mugabe’s land claims. However, some years on and Zimbabwe is producing 60% more food than it did before the land claims, mostly from small farmers who are moving back onto the land. It is also producing more tobacco than it did, again from small farm holders. Admittedly, the land is owned by absentee landlords mostly generals in the army. It’s reverted back to a feudal system, but it is feeding the nation.

So when you ask me are we frogs? Are we going to become another Zimbabwe?

I don’t know.

I do know that we need to ensure that our farms guarantee our food sovereignty.

So, what does it mean to be a South African and an African.

Even the word “African” is a big issue. I write opinion pieces for various corporations. Often they will want me to say: “African chartered accountants” when they mean “black” chartered accountants. I consider myself as an African. I was born here. My father’s father was born here; my mother’s grandfather’s father was born here. I have lived on the continent for more than two thirds of my life. This is my country.

We must make it work. One of the common arguments made by African apologists is that Africa was colonised and that the destruction is still being felt. The usual argument against this is to point to the Far East. Much of this argument is well-covered in Tim Butcher’s two highly recommended books: “Blood River” and “Chasing the Devil”.

The Malaysia scenario

Malaysia was colonised for centuries, including by the British, who, true to form were cruel and racist. It got independence in 1960 (about when the Congo became independent). It was also drawn into the Cold War. But Malaysia got through it. The Congo and much of Africa did not. Malaysia is a successful country, part of the bigger world.

The Hong Kong scenario

Also colonised by the British for centuries. Freetown in Sierra Leone has a natural harbour that is bigger than Hong Kong’s; it has raw material nearby, and it lies dormant; Hong Kong traded. Trade made for more trade. It prospered. In Sierra Leone trade led to rivalry, stagnation and ultimately a bloody and vicious war. Why?

So, is Africa doomed? I don’t know. I do know that there are many young people of all colours who are making it work. I have a friend. He’s white, he’s in his late 20s and he makes music videos. His friends are mostly black because there’s is the sort of music he likes and he hangs out with them. When one of the band’s became successful, they asked him to make the music video. He did. He was over at the house of his friends—black—and he’s introduced to the father of the friend. This is the guy who made the video. The friend’s father—an ex activist—says, why didn’t you use a black guy? The kids just laugh and tell him he’s out of touch. We used him because he’s the best, says the son. End of story. This is the sort of thing that will make this country work.

I’ll tell you another story why I think it may work. I edited a magazine called The Big Issue. It’s a job creation scheme. We produced a magazine which is then bought by unemployed and disadvantaged people. They buy it for R7 and they sell it for R14. I had an internship programme, helping to train young wannabe journalists. I had two young guys and they wanted to write about restaurants and good stuff that was happening in the townships. I said OK, but I want you to write about new stuff, not the restaurants that everyone has written about—like Mzoli’s in Gugs. But they wanted to do the easy stuff, the stuff that had been done.

I looked out my window. There was a building going up about 100m away, and outside on the pavement were two black woman with a gas cooker and pots of food and they were preparing food for the building site workers. They knew they had a market.

I said to them: “Those women are entrepreneurs and they are doing food. Interview them/ eat the food. Find out what it takes for them to get their stuff there.”

That proved to be a great story.

And that’s my point. These are the people who do make a difference. In my very emotional moments, I think Africa—the world—will be saved by the women of the continents.

And then I think of Sarah Palin or Carla Bruno and I am not so sure it is a gender thing.

Where does our political future lie? And where will our cultural future go? Those are huge questions, but let’s take two very important people and talk about the political future. It will also go a long way to explaining our cultural future.

Julius Malema and Tokyo Sexwale. The two represent opposite sides of the political spectrum within the ANC. Both have presidential ambitions.

Julius Malema is the current president of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and has been likened by both black and white commentators as a “Hitler”.

Sexwale is a billionaire, a long-serving ANC political activist and is currently the Minister of Human Settlements.

The accusations against Malema are not just random comments. He has huge appeal to the young and the dispossessed. At an impromptu rally on the UCT campus, he drew more than 800 people, and his rhetoric was wildly cheered. The ANCYL claims it can bring 3-4-million voters to the polling booths for the ANC. He talks of nationalising mines and recently they have started targeting banks with their criticism. The arguments are at best flawed and at worst rubbish. But they stick. His notion of nationalising is closer to a form of fascism.

I mentioned that significant figure of nearly 15-million people in SA are between the ages of 15-29. They form the bulk of the unemployed and dissatisfied.

Let’s look at some other important statistics.

One third of the population is food insecure. i.e. they have no sure knowledge of where their next meal is coming from.

More than 25% of children under the age of six are malnourished.

Sexwale is an urban, smart politician. But he’s old school. He does command respect and he is a great orator, but he’s not a populist. He will have big business behind him and he does know how to negotiate with COSATU, the trade union body. When I left SA, he was sitting in prison on Robben Island.

Another consideration. The right to know versus national security. The government is making strong moves to restrict the freedom of the press. It’s most draconian proposal is the Protection of Information Bill, which has been almost unanimously condemned. The government is adamant it won’t back down but the law will basically enable any one within a department to refuse to release information on the grounds of “national security”. The critics of this Bill say it is being pushed through to protect corrupt officials. They say that the ANC’s national democratic revolution is no more than a national tender revolution.

Media Appeals Tribunal. A government appointed watchdog that will give government control of the news rooms through coercion and fear.

But these are relatively inconsequential matters when compared to the problem facing the judiciary. There are sustained and serious attempts to undermine the judicial system through the appointment of people better known for their political shrewdness rather than their legal acumen. People such as Dumisa Ntsebeza, an “influential member of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) and plays a decisive role in who gets appointed”. He’s also very pro-Zuma.

Zuma reinforced this view of the undermining of the judiciary’s independence when he recently appointed Nomgcoba Jiba and Nomvula Mokhatla as Deputy National Directors of Public Prosecutions*. Another controversial move was his choice of director of National of Public Prosecutions Menzi Simelane, still a hotly debated issue.

Jiba’s husband, a lawyer, was apparently convicted on charges relating to him dipping into the trust fund of his firm of attorneys. The senior prosecutor who pursued the husband was reputedly Advocate Gerrie Nel who, it is alleged was targeted by Jiba in what was called “a personal and political” vendetta and an attempt at “what appeared to be a bid to disrupt the investigation into former national police commissioner Jackie Selebi”. Selebi was later convicted.

So what are our strengths weaknesses obstacles and threats? We cannot assume that because the economy is growing at 5% per annum (GDP) that is not performing poorly. There has been massive industrial decline, outsourcing has weakened the labour class. The challenge is how to boost growth to 6% yet ensure equitable distribution of wealth and eradication of poverty. Our growth goals, however, are not predicated upon the health and durability of our natural resources and ecosystem services.


Constitutional democracy with an effective Bill of Rights;

Independent courts

A media that is still free—despite current threats;

Generally sound macro-economic management

Public debt is less than 36% of GDP—and external debt is only 16% of GDP.

Vast natural resources.

Tourism, which now contributes 8.3% of GDP—much more than mining. (Automobile production contributes as much to GDP as mining. In 2008 we produced 600 000 vehicles of which 170 000 were exported.)

Strong auditing and reporting standards and regulation of securities exchanges are the best in the world.


No progress in eliminating inequality since 1994.

Poverty: 42% of our population lives on less than two dollars a day. Almost 15 million South Africans subsist on children’s, old-age and disability allowances.

Between 35% and 40% of black South Africans are unemployed or have given up their search for employment.

The failure of our education system. Only 22% of children who entered the school system in 1995 passed matric in 2007 and only 5.2% did so with university exemption. Only 1.5% passed maths at the higher grade.


The growth of a multiracial middle class.

The spirit of individuals


Opportunism pretending to be ideology. Policies should be based on pragmatism, consultation, the rule of law and concern for ordinary people.

Imposing demographic representivity in the economy, coupled with deployment.

Global environmental and economic threat.

Land reform. It is not being tackled.

Corruption. On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions we have gone from 23rd position in 1996 to 54th place 2008.

AIDS continues to kill five thousand people every week.

Attempts to regulate the press through the Protection of Information Act and the Media Appeals Tribunal are serious threats to our democracy.

Loss of skills. Since 1990 between 750 000 and a million South Africans have emigrated.

Undermining of judicial independence.


There is no conclusion to the stories of Africa.

But I will leave you with one. There’s a woman I know—we shall call her Nomkhita. She is 70 years old, and lives in Khayelitsha. Ten years ago, the HIV and Aids epidemic was sky-rocketing in South Africa. Nomkhita is a crèche owner serving children up to six years of age, saw how this epidemic affected the children and how ashamed their parents were to ask for help.

So, she looked around and then went to a workshop run by an organisation called Abalimi Bezekhaya — farmer’s of home. Nomkhita and two other women started a gardening project. She now grows vegetables for her family, her creche and enough to sell in the market.

I know it’s a woman story but it’s one of hope. And she is making a difference. The thing is: we all can. It’s whether we choose to or not.

* Additional information added after the talk.

Review of “The Music in the Ice”

This review originally appeared in the Cape Times Friday book section. The Music in the Ice: On Writers, Writing & Other Things by Stephen Watson

Reviewed by Donald Paul

Picking up a collection of essays, invariably invokes the lines of a Jimmie Dale Gilmore country and western song: “She said, Babe/you’re just the wave/not the water.” Stephen Watson’s collection of 18 “essays and other pieces”,The Music in the Ice, is mostly the water.

He opens with an exploration of Leonard Cohen, whose poetry he describes as “resolutely minor” and of whose songwriting ability he says is “truly original”. The problem with writing about Leonard Cohen is that Cohen has already said most of what can be said, and that which can’t be said, he’s done for all to see. Watson attempts to override this by approaching Cohen through a study of longing, which he defines as a feeling that “inducts us into an awareness of human need while leaving us so wholly incapable, as it seems, of fulfilling or otherwise staunching that need.” He goes on to say of Cohen: “Almost everything he touches is determined by the architecture, inner and outer, that longing creates.”

This is an intellectual conceit that goes beyond simply saying Cohen’s songs are a melancholic teenager’s untapped inner thoughts that reverberate on into old age. Most love songs have a yearning edge to them, that’s why they’re love songs. But to encapsulate Cohen in longing doesn’t capture the brilliance of his songs or the breadth of his voice. His ability to fuse reconciled love with religious confession (“Lady Midnight”) or the gracious unbundling of emotions in “Sisters of Mercy” are sly and complex. Cohen’s songs are inclusive discourses: they draw you in to a world he wants to share and which as a listener you want to be part of. Not because you recognise these places or situations but because he makes you think you are somehow part of the story. The essay seems to miss the minimalism of Cohen that lies at his heart.

The essay, “The Clarities of Hemingway” should be required reading for even the most pro-Hemingway fan and compulsory for his detractors. It is a crafted piece that drives home Hemingway’s genius, a man who “possessed a power of concentration which mathematicians of genius commonly possess”, a man of action who “was in fact as contemplative as a Trappist”.

“The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry” is particularly relevant given the current legal debate about the song “Kill the boer” and our President’s penchant for calling for his machine gun every time he gets on a stage. Watson cites Simon Schama’s Citizens, A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and points out that Schama portrays the “Terror and its carnage not as a mistake, an aberration… but as much a product of a certain kind of language as any other single factor”. Beware the songs of the revolution — and read this essay.

These are erudite, dense and compelling essays — in one section of an essay in the space of 11 pages he quotes or refers to more than 20 other philosophers, writers and critics. Sometimes you just want Watson’s unreinforced voice. But while they require application, concentration and a willingness to allow the writer his desire to “say unforgettable things”, there is more here between the lines on what it means and what is required to become a poet, writer and an artist than you’d find in any book on the craft of writing.



Roundhouse knockout

Courtesy of Cape Etc.One-time Gordon Ramsay protege PJ Vadas has found his place in the sun at The Roundhouse in Camps Bay. Donald Paul talks about mentors, food and what it takes to be a chef.

Don’t underestimate the power of television, especially on the young. This is what happened to one youngster. and what you read next might make you reach for the child helpline. don’t. This is a story about a boy watching Gordon Ramsay performing on kitchen TV. Yes, even adults are affected watching this tow-headed, grimacing, head-banger describe to viewers what looks like an ordinary boulangaire as an expletive-riddled mash of unspeakable crud.
Was the child unsupervised, you ask?
But this is not a story about copycat adolescent thugs pushing their lunch away with four-letter words. The 14-year-old boy was PJ Vadas, who thought that what Ramsay was doing was a lot of fun. and he wanted to be part of it.
Eight years later, PJ (Peter John) knocked on the kitchen door of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant Petrus in London and said he’d do anything needed of him in the kitchen. He was hired. His tasks were menial and stayed that way for a few months. But eventually he was moved up the hierarchy and was soon peeling vegetables. Cutting them came later. Much later.
‘It was long, hard hours,’ says PJ. ‘I lost about 15 kg. But I needed to.’ He’s sitting in The Roundhouse, where he has been executive chef for the past three years, sipping coffee. ‘And, yes, Gordon was a force to be reckoned with. You could be standing in the furthest corner of the kitchen quietly peeling a baby potato or scraping a little carrot with your back to the door and you would know he had entered the kitchen. You’d just know.’
But you don’t get into Ramsay’s kitchen because you knock on the door and offer to mop floors and wash plates. every Polish panel beater can do that. What you do need is savvy, a bevy of credentials and a childhood dream. PJ’s got cauldrons of those. His father owns Pembreys (a successful restaurant in Knysna), so he’s no stranger to the industry, and he graduated as a commis chef from Warwick’s Chef school in the coastal town of Hermanus, winning the Best Practical student award in the process. The reward was a three-month spell with Roger Verge at the Moulin de Mougins on the French Riviera.
‘I was so nervous, I was shaking when I got there. But Roger was so kind. He was kind to all his staff, greeting them all by name,’ says PJ.
What seems to have impressed PJ most was the extraordinary generosity of spirit of this grand old man of French cooking – one of the founding fathers of nouvelle cuisine but more famous for his Cuisine de soleil (cuisine of the sun). it was after leaving Verge that PJ went to London and knocked on that door. soon enough he was singled out by Angela Hartnett, who had joined Ramsay in 1994 at Aubergine – the Marco Pierre White venture – before she became his chef patron at the Connaught Hotel. It was to the Connaught that she moved PJ, and the two became firm friends.
‘Angela was something else altogether,’ says PJ. ‘She would never interfere, but when she saw you weren’t handling it she’d give you a look and you knew to step away from the burners. she’d just move right in and sort out whatever it was that needed sorting.’
Two years in London for a boykie from Knysna, however, and the lack of sunshine – and a life – begin to get to you. PJ moved back home. ‘My dad had said in words that even Gordon would never have used that I was mad to want to become a chef. But once he knew that I was going ahead with it he was the most amazing support. There were days in London when I’d get back from the kitchen and I’d be near to tears. I’d call them and say I was coming home. And he’d always listen to me and then talk me through it. Convince me that I could do it.’
Craig Paterson, a colleague of PJ’s from the days when he worked at Parks in Wynberg, was now at the Cape Grace and he needed someone to help out. PJ said yes. While there, he won the Junior Chef Chaine des Rotisseurs Competition, went on to the finals in Bermuda and came second, the highest position attained by a South African chef in the competition.
But Ramsay wasn’t yet done with him. PJ had been marked to go to New York and be in on the opening of the Gordon Ramsay at The London in New York City (so named because it was located in the London NYC Hotel).
So PJ went across to New York and was there through the planning and decorating phases of the new Ramsay restaurant. ‘Look, New York is an incredible place, and it was exciting to be in at that level. But Gordon was hardly ever there once it opened. And it was a huge operation.’
The restaurant was not a success. As an aside, wine suppliers have slapped Ramsay’s New York restaurant with two lawsuits. according to court papers filed by wine merchants, Wineberry, at the supreme Court of New York in May 2010, Ramsay owes them more than $40 000 (R300 000). VOs selections said he owes them $38 000 (R287 000).
After a year in New York and with red tape curling around his work permit, PJ returned to Knysna in 2007 and started working in his father’s restaurant. But Knysna was Knysna, and he’d done it when he was a kid.
‘When the offer at The Roundhouse came up, I said I’d come down and take a look. I had no idea this place even existed. One look at the view and I was sold.’
From the dining room, through the curve of the window-filled walls, you look down on to the beaches of the atlantic Ocean and across to the ragged crags of the Twelve apostles. It’s easy to understand his choice.
The Roundhouse – a 42 ha World Heritage site – was built in 1786 and was used as a hunting lodge by Lord Charles somerset, the governor of the Cape. It has had many incarnations as a restaurant. In 2007 a company called Let’s sell Lobster, owned by Fasie Malherbe and Dale den Dulk and specialising in hospitality training, bought the concession and management.
Chef and restaurant consultant Liam Tomlinson supervised the renovations and extension of the kitchen. It’s a clean, well-lit space. Bright double-bar neon lights, white walls, white floor, scrubbed stainless steel. Even the black metal-framed gas burners gleam sullenly. The only bit of colour is a large pink apron worn by PJ.
It’s a Wednesday night. The restaurant is fully booked but it’s only 7:30 pm. The waiting time. The kitchen simmers in readiness. PJ checks the preparations, talks to the sous chefs, asks a few clipped questions. He’s smiling – which he does most of the time.
His favourite cuisine is Italian. His favourite pastime is buying and reading cookbooks. He runs and cycles for exercise. But cooking is what he loves – and he’s totally in control. The orders start coming in and he stands centre stage, calling them out in a clear voice. Everyone answers ‘Oui, chef!’. If someone is too involved in prepping then he’ll repeat it, until he hears the response. Everyone needs to be on the same plate.
The time spent with Verge and Ramsay has not been wasted. His food is clever, clean and relies on the strength of the ingredients’ innate flavours. He’s not averse to pumping them up, filling a gas-powered Chantilly siphon gourmet whip with the potato and leek veloute so that it emerges as a hot, heavy froth covering for the slow-cooked oysters and bacalhau fritters. He spends time researching suppliers to ensure their produce is the best, such as Jenny’s milk-fed veal (‘I’ve never tasted anything like it’) and local ricotta from Buffalo Ridge outside Wellington.
PJ walks away to see what’s happening at the other end of the kitchen. Nicola, a sous chef five months out of cooking school, when asked if PJ has any of Ramsay’s screamer symptoms, pauses in mid slice of the foie gras and ham terrine. ‘Nah,’ she says. ‘But I’ve learnt a lot more in five months than I ever thought possible.’

The Roundhouse is open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday.

Call 021 438 4347 for bookings.
[This originally appeared in Cape Etc – 2010 Summer Issue]

Michael Snyman: R.I.P.

  • Exactly 141 days after his wife and lifelong partner Lannice died, Michael Snyman suffered a massive heart attack and died at home this morning. Perhaps it seems callous to refer to some numerical measure. Yet it makes me think how fortunate we were to know him for even so long after Lannice died; with her gone Michael was adrift. But he was resolute, held calm and kept afloat among the friends and family who watched from the shoreline. But his heart lines were broken.

Michael came across as blunt on first meeting this tall, handsome man, sure and proud in his bearing, and set in his ways that ruffled my soft sensibilities. But his enthusiasm and generosity always got the better of him and his sense of humour and congenial spirit would emerge. I learnt quickly to pluck out those ruffled feathers and we quickly became good friends.

He was, among many things, a master builder and carpenter and could never walk past a piece of crafted wood without running his gnarled, strong hands – racked with arthritis in later years – without caressing the grain and curve of wood. You could see his hands absorbing the craft within, reckoning, appreciating, wondering how it could be done better or differently. He lead our Weber Braai Team to victory in two successive years, first with the DoMiJo Diners Club and second with the DeDoMi Braai Champs. As team mates, he considered us exasperating, undisciplined and certain to bring shame and ruin upon his reputation. (He was an international champion, going up against the best in the world and winning.) But he led us triumphant and we were always forgiven for our sins.

On Saturday, the fact that Michael had been admitted to hospital complaining of chest pains, came up in discussion. Some one asked me if he was a good friend. I hesitated, not because I did not consider him such, but because it was only then that the impact struck of having a good friend in an intensive care unit.

On one of the many weekends spent at their home in Infanta, Michael and I drifted apart from the group and soon found ourselves a long way down the beach. Talk turned away from rugby and fishing as we walked, and spiralled into matters of heart and bone, moments scraped from raw from memory, bruising events, niggling futilities and the insistent sense of hope. We never mentioned that conversation nor went again into that emotional maze. There was no need for it. We’d taken our measure.

Michael was a fine man, a good friend and will be missed by all.