Why the South African High Court ruling against Shell’s oil exploration plans is a victory for local communities and the environment

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

Shell was prohibited from starting seismic surveys along the South African Wild Coast thanks to a South African High Court decision in the Eastern Cape Town of Makhanda on December 25 (BBC, 2021). Seismic tests are part of Shell’s oil exploration in the Wild Coast area. During the procedure, shockwaves are blasted into the ocean every ten seconds (Louw, 2021). This has devastating effects both on the environment and on local communities.

The South African High Court in the Eastern Cape Town of Makhanda had ruled against a different High Court ruling from December 3 which had previously given Shell a green light for the seismic testing (Reuters, 2021). Shell is now obliged to pause the survey. The decision against Shell on December 25 was perceived as an important victory from numerous environmental organizations (BBC, 2021). Shell, however, already announced a review of the court’s decision (BBC, 2021).

Before the court’s ruling, many South Africans were protesting against Shell’s oil exploration plans on the Wild Coast as seismic surveys can cause important harm to local communities. Many South Africans are economically dependent on fisheries and the shockwaves of seismic surveys either cause death to the fish or scare them away (Sishi, 2021). This would mean financial ruin for local people depending on fisheries. Moreover, the coastal wilderness is a tourist attraction and many South Africans are economically dependent on tourism (Louw, 2021). The seismic blasting would destroy the undisturbed wildlife and thus cause a drop in tourism – an economic sector important for local people. Seismic surveys also cause non-economic harm to the local population: The Wild Coast has a special meaning and importance with regards to the spirituality of many local communities (Louw, 2021).

Environmental groups stressed the devastating impact of seismic surveys on coastal wildlife. Whales use the coast as breeding grounds. Shell’s oil exploration procedure can have devastating effects on the whales’ feeding, breeding and migration behaviour as their sense of hearing can be massively disturbed by the shockwaves that are blasted into the ocean during the procedure (South China Morning Post, 2021). Not only whales, but also other endangered species can be affected (Louw, 2021).

Shell argued that finding oil on the Wild Coast “could significantly contribute to the country’s energy security” (Reuters, 2021). At the moment, South Africa is still dependent on importing to meet national energy needs (Ambrose, 2021). Greenpeace Africa, however, said the focus should be on promoting the transition to green energy and not on burning fossil fuels. Especially with regards to worldwide efforts to reduce CO2, Greenpeace makes an important point. Projects like the Just Energy Partnership with Europe and the US already pave the way to realizing a green transition. The decision of the South African High Court on December 25 was thus a (small) step towards an environmentally friendly future.

white and blue wooden signage
Picture by Jethro Carullo published on Unsplash


Ambrose, J. (1 December 2021). Last-minute attempt to stop Shell’s oil exploration of whale breeding grounds. Retrieved on 18 December 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/dec/01/last-minute-bid-to-stop-shells-oil-exploration-in-whale-breeding-grounds-in-south-africa

Ambrose, J. (3 December 2021). Shell to go ahead with seismic teests in whale breeding grounds after court win. Retrieved on 18 December 2021 from https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/dec/03/shell-go-ahead-seismic-tests-whale-breeding-grounds-court-oil-south-africa

BBC (28 December 2021). South Africa court blocks Shell’s oil exploration. Retrieved on 14 January 2022 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59809821

Louw, A. (10 December 2021) . Shell in South Africa: fossil fuels at full blast. Retrieved on 18.12.2021 from https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/51645/shell-in-south-africa-fossil-fuels-at-full-blast/

Reuters (3 December 2021). Shell wins court case to start seismic surveys offshore South Africa. Retrieved on 18 December 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/shell-wins-court-case-start-seismic-surveys-offshore-south-africa-2021-12-03/

Reuters (28 December 2021). S. African court halts Shell’s offshore seismic survey. Retrieved on January 12 2022 from https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/safrican-court-halts-shells-offshore-seismic-survey-2021-12-28/

Sishi, S. (6 December 2021). S. Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area. Retrieved on 18 December 2021 from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/safricans-protest-against-shell-oil-exploration-pristine-coastal-area-2021-12-05/

South China Morning Post (6 December 2021). Environmentalists protest on South  Africa beaches to oppose Shell oil exploration. Retrieved on 18 December 2021 from https://www.scmp.com/news/world/africa/article/3158562/environmentalists-protest-south-africa-beaches-oppose-shell-oil