The Legal Requirement to think about Global Warming

During March 2017 the High Court of South Africa in Pretoria, handed down a decision that has been hailed in some quarters as a victory in the fight against dirty energy and global warming. The court’s decision in isolation isn’t a decisive victory for the proponents of clean energy, but it does add an important tool that can be used in future fights, not only against coal fired power stations, but also in broader environmental challenges against the dirty energy and extractive sectors.

Earthlife Africa Johannesburg asked the court to set aside the Department of Environmental Affairs’ decision to grant an environmental authorisation to the preferred bidder, Thabametsi Power, that was selected to build a 1,200 MW coal fired power station near Lephalale in the Limpopo Province. If set aside, construction would be delayed until a new environmental authorisation could be applied for and granted.

Earthlife argued that the environmental authorisation should be set aside because a climate change impact assessment had not been conducted, meaning firstly that all the relevant environmental factors had not been considered before the environmental authorisation was granted, and secondly that the decision to grant an environmental authorisation without considering a climate change impact assessment rendered the decision irrational and unreasonable.

The court decided in Earthlife’s favour, setting aside the environmental authorisation. The matter was referred back to the minister’s internal appeal process, giving the minister the opportunity to consider the climate change impact assessment report that had been prepared by Thabametsi Power after its initial environmental authorisation was granted.

The court didn’t, however, prohibit the construction of coal-fired power stations, and didn’t make any decision on whether the construction of additional coal-fired power stations should be permitted or restricted in the future. This allows the minister to decide to grant an environmental authorisation after weighing up all the relevant factors, which now includes the potential global warming impacts and South Africa’s international commitments on climate change.

The narrow questions that the court considered was if the minister had a legal obligation to consider global warming impacts of the project, and if so, did the minister have sufficient information when taking the decision to properly consider global warming as a relevant factor.

Earthlife argued that before the minister grants an environmental authorisation, all criteria set out in the National Environmental Management Act, No 107 of 1998 (NEMA) must be considered. The act requires the minister to “take into account all relevant factors, which may include …” going on to list various factors including pollution, environmental impacts and environmental degradation (section 24O). Earthlife argued that even though the section doesn’t specifically list climate or global warming impacts as a factor, these impacts fall into the non-exhaustive list of “relevant factors” and must be considered.

The department argued that there was no South African law requiring the preparation of a climate change impact assessment. It also argued that South Africa’s international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were broadly framed and in the discretion of the government, which must take into account the government’s over-riding priority to address poverty and inequality. Thabametsi Power added the arguement that to introduce a mandatory assessment the entire legal regime governing environmental impact assessments must be challenged.

The court agreed with Earthlife; NEMA’s list of “relevant factors” is non-exhaustive, meaning that the minister must consider any relevant factor even if it is not specifically listed.

The court examined the legislative and legal framework that governs South Africa’s climate change and energy policies to determine if climate change impacts are “relevant”. It considered domestic policies such as the National Climate Change Response White Paper of 2012, the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity 2010-2030 (“IRP”) adopted by the South African cabinet, the Department of Energy’s binding determination on the mix of energy generation technologies that was adopted in terms of the Electricity Regulation Act No 4 of 2006, and South Africa’s international obligations. The legal framework overwhelmingly supports the argument that the assessment of climate change impacts and mitigation measures are relevant factors that must be considered as part of the environmental authorisation process.

After finding that the minister must consider climate change impacts, the court turned to the question of if the minister had enough information at the time to properly consider this factor.

When the minister granted the environmental authorisation, only an environmental impact assessment reports (EIR) was considered. The EIR didn’t quantify the greenhouse gas emissions, stating only that “while quantification of the relevant contribution … is difficult, the contribution is to be considered to be relatively small in the national and global context”. It also didn’t consider the impact that the coal fired power station could have on global warming, and the effects that global warming would have on water scarcity in the region. The EIR was also directly in conflict with a later climate impact report that found that the emissions from the power station could constitute up 3.9% South Africa’s total emissions after 2025.

The court found that the minister didn’t have all the legally required information when making the decision to grant the environmental authorisation, and was unable to weigh up the competing factors before making the decision.

The court didn’t prohibit the building of the coal powered power station, but only ordered that the decision to grant the environmental authorisation was to be remitted back to the minister so that the minister could consider the climate change impact assessment report and comments on the report submitted by any interested and affected parties.

The decision in this case should serve as a call for all parties to fully consider potential impact that projects may have on South Africa’s commitments to curtail global warming.


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 The unedited featured photograph by Veeterzy was published under a Creative Commons Zero Licence.

Protecting Important Land Areas

During March 2017 the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa handed down a decision ensuring the continued environmental protection of the Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga (also known as the Barberton Greenstone Belt). This was necessary despite the area being placed on South Africa’s tentative list of world heritage sites in 2008, and despite the provincial government taking three separate actions in 1985, 1996 and 2014 to ensure that the area was protected.

In the case of Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency v Barberton Mines (Pty) Limited ((216/2016) [2017] ZASCA 9 (14 March 2017)) the court was asked to decide if the Makhonjwa Mountains had legal protection from mining activities, or if a single flawed government notice meant that the government’s ongoing efforts to protect the area was for nothing.

Barberton Mines was granted a prospecting right in terms of the Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act, No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA). When the company wanted to start their prospecting operations they were denied access to the area by the Parks Agency. The Parks Agency alleged that the company’s prospecting right was invalid and fell to be set aside because it was granted over land that formed part of a protected area in terms of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, No 57 of 2003 (NEMPAA).

The Parks Agency appealed the Minister of Mineral Resource’s decision to grant the prospecting right using the department’s internal process, but the minister rejected this appeal. Barberton Mines then launched a court application in the North Gauteng High Court. The court held that the Makhonjwa Mountains were not protected under NEMPAA, granted Barberton Mines a court order affirming the company’s rights to prospect in the area, and ordered the Parks Agency not to prevent or interfere with the company’s prospecting activities.

Appeal to the Supreme Court

The Parks Agency took the High Court decision on appeal. It argued that the Makhonjwa Mountains is protected under NEMPAA because it is a declared, or designated, protected area. This protection prohibits anyone from conducting commercial prospecting, mining, exploration or production within its boundaries (see section 48).

Barberton Mines counter argued that the actions taken by the provincial government in 1985, 1996 and 2014 were insufficient to declare the Makhonjwa Mountains a protected area in terms of NEMPAA. It argued that the 1985 resolution was invalid because was not issued by the correct authority or published as required, and that the 1996 proclamation was void because it did not adequately describe the area – the resolution only identified the area as “Barberton Nature Reserve”, without any accompanying map or detailed area description.

The Supreme Court of Appeal affirmed that NEMPAA binds the state and trumps any other legislation if there is a conflict on the management or development of protected areas – if an area is validly declared or designated protected area then prospecting operations in the area is prohibited.

The only question that the court had to decide was whether the Makhonjwa Mountains was validly declared as a “protected area” as contemplated by NEMPAA. For this, the court placed emphasis on the 1996 proclamation, finding that it was sufficient to be considered a “declaration” or “designation” required by NEMPAA, albeit that this declaration took place before NEMPAA came into force. The court then turned its attention to Barberton Mines’ argument, and the High Court’s finding, that this proclamation must be found to be void because its description of the area was vague.

The court considered previous cases that dealt with actions to declare laws void for vagueness, including a 1955 Appellate Division case of R v Pretoria Timber Co (Pty) Limited (1950 (3) 163 (A)) that held that “[t]he degree of certainty, clarity or precision that must be present … depends on the circumstances. … The law requires reasonable and not perfect lucidity …”, and a 2006 Constitutional Court case of Affordable Medicines Trust v Minister of Health (2006 (3) SA 247 (CC)) that added that “[t]he doctrine of vagueness must recognise the role of the Government to further legitimate social and economic objectives [a]nd should not be used unduly to impede or prevent the furtherance of such objectives”.

The court stated that common sense must prevail, finding that the 1996 proclamation did not need a “faultless description couched in meticulously accurate terms in order to be valid”, only that the area should be indicated with sufficient certainty.

The court noted that the provincial government had given a particular meaning to the “Barberton Nature Reserve” since 1985. Because the 1996 proclamation is related to the detailed 1985 resolution it couldn’t be argued that people wouldn’t know what area the 1996 proclamation refers to. It is therefore valid for the 1996 proclamation to refer to the area only by name without detailing the exact area description.

The common sense approach adopted by the court is ultimately correct because minor errors in a government declaration shouldn’t prevent the government bodies from performing their important constitutional duties and achieving their social and economic objectives. The Nature of the error is, however, an important consideration. In this case the error had no real effect on the public’s ability to understand the declaration, but this doesn’t mean that in the future the court would turn a blind eye an error that truly introduces uncertainty.

The Parks Agency’s appeal was ultimately successful, effectively preventing Barberton Mines from conducting prospecting in the area which, if not certain before, is now a confirmed “protected area” under NEMPAA.

On a side note, the Supreme Court of Appeal appears to endorse the view that mining operations in a protected area might be permitted in under the MPRDA if the activities are in the national interest (section 48). The court wasn’t asked to decide this issue, but this may be an area of the law open for future debate.


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Prospecting Right Applications: The Queuing Conundrum

The laws governing mining rights in South Africa is founded on three principles: (i) the State is the custodian of all minerals; (ii) any person may apply for a right to prospect on a first come first served basis; and (iii) a use it or lose principle applies to rights. These principles ensure a system that encourages active prospecting and prevents people from holding onto rights without using them to prevent others from actively prospecting.

The application procedure is a system of queuing – the first to submit an application is in the front of the queue, and all subsequent applications form a queue behind the first which can only be considered once the first application has been rejected.

An unresolved legal question was whether a company can submit a non-compliant application as a placeholder in the queue, and then later amend the application to make sure it is compliant.

The recent Gauteng High Court decision in Aquila Steel (South Africa) Limited v the Minister of Mineral Resources and others (72248/15) promised guidance on the proper application of the principles governing the application procedure, which it indeed gave, but an important aspect of the decision mustn’t be overlooked. The laws that the court applied to come to its decision have been amended.

In this note I’ll consider if the court’s decision, and if the amendment of the the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) will affect its application.

The Courts Reasoning in the Aquila Steel Judgement

This case dealt with two conflicting prospecting rights granted over the same land for the same mineral.

On 19 April 2005 Ziza Limited (Ziza) submitted a prospecting right application. The application was, however, incomplete because it didn’t comply with the prescribed requirements – it omitted the prescribed plan showing the land over which the application applied.

On 18 April 2006 Aquila submitted prospecting right application, which was granted on 11 October 2006.

On 26 February 2008 Ziza’s prospecting right application was granted. There were now two rights granted over the same land for the same minerals.

On 14 December 2010 Aquila applied for a mining right. This application was, however, now refused by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) because of Ziza’s prior application that the DMR said was in queue before Aquila’s.

The court had to decide which application was first in queue and should be considered.

Aquila argued that Ziza’s application was not complete and that the defects meant it had to be rejected by the DMR – this rejection would result in the application falling out of the queue and leave Aquila’s application as next in line. Ziza counter argued that a defect in an application doesn’t mean that the application automatically fails and has to be rejected by the DMR, but that a defective application can be amended to remedy defects without losing its place in the queue.

Does a prospecting right applicant lose their place at the front of the queue if their application doesn’t comply with the formal requirements of the MPRDA? To answer this question the court applied the wording of section 16(3) of the MPRDA as it read at the time when the applications were submitted and decided:

If the application does not comply with the requirements of this section, the Regional Manager must notify the applicant in writing of the fact within 14 days of receipt of the application and return the application to the applicant.” (own emphasis).

The crux was to determine what notifying and “returning the application to the applicant” meant. Did this mean the application was rejected, or that the process was merely suspended to allow the applicant to amend the application without losing its place in the queue?

The court considered the objective of the act to prevent sterilisation of minerals. This would be hindered if the return of the application allowed the applicant to amend a defective application – the act didn’t specify any timelines that the amendment must be done, meaning that an applicant could delay the entire procedure by not amending the application (or taking years to amend as in the present case), effectively sterilising the minerals by preventing other companies from applying for prospecting rights over the land.

The court also considered the practicalities of “returning the application”. This means the DMR has no record of the application other than the day that it was received and returned. Crucially the DMR wouldn’t have records of the minerals or land that the application related to.

The court concluded that a “return” was a rejection meaning the application fell out of the queue. An applicant could amend the application but the resubmitted application must be treated as a new application and fall behind any other applications in the queue.

Ziza’s non-compliance meant that its application fell out of the queue. Aquila’s application would accordingly have to be considered because it was the next application in the queue.

Current Position under the MPRDA

The Aquila case applied the provisions of the MPRDA as they read between 2005 and 2013, the years when the decisions were taken. This means that the court’s reasoning may not apply to decisions taken after the amendment of the act.

The MPRDA was amended on 13 June 2013, and the amended provisions must be applied to any decisions taken by the DMR after this date. Section 16(3) now reads:

If the application does not comply with the requirements of this section, the Regional Manager must notify the applicant in writing of the fact within 14 days of receipt of the application.” (own emphasis).

The amendment removes the requirement to return a non-compliant application – the very requirement that the court considered when deciding the Aquila case.

Under the amended section the DMR must only notify the applicant that its application is non-compliant. The DMR still can’t accept non-compliant applications, but it now doesn’t have an obligation to return them. Does the non-return of the application change the application of the Aquila judgement and mean that there is no rejection of the application? Does this now give an applicant an opportunity to remedy its applications non-compliance without losing its place in the queue?

In my opinion the amended section 16 of the MPRDA does not change the application of the Aquila decision. The amended section doesn’t alleviate the concerns in the Aquila judgement around the sterilisation of minerals if the applicant possibly has an unlimited period to remedy its applications non-compliance.

In terms of the amended section the applicant is still notified of the non-compliance. This notification itself would be an administrative action taken by the DMR, and would be a rejection of the application in line with the Aquila judgement. The non-return of the application merely alleviates the DMR’s burden and costs associated with returning voluminous applications.

Conclusion

The Aquila judgement highlights the need for prospecting right applicants to make sure that their application complies with all the formal requirements of the MPRDA before submission.

If an application is non-compliant the DMR must reject the application. The applicant can remedy the defects, but the resubmitted application will be regarded as a new application, and fall last in the application queue.

There have been amendments to the MPRDA removing the DMR’s obligation to return the non-compliant application, but this amendment would not alter the application of the legal principles decided in the Aquila judgement.


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Suspending Overbroad Safety Instructions that Halt Mining Operations

If an inspector has reason to believe that there is an occurrence, practice or condition on a mine that endangers any person, then section 54 of the Mine Health and Safety Act, No 29 of 1996 (MHSA) allows the inspector to issue any safety instruction necessary to protect the health and safety of persons at a mine.

These safety instructions can have severe consequences because inspectors are empowered to halt operations at the entire or part of the mine, halt any act or practice at the mine, or require the employer to take acts to rectify the occurrence, practice or condition (section 54(1)).

Unfortunately a practice developed where inspectors issued broad instructions going beyond what is needed to protect the health and safety of persons, often halting the operations of entire mines for very minor or isolated infractions.

This practice has now been scrutinised and severely criticised by the Labour Court in the case of Anglo Gold Ashanti Limited v Xolole Mbobambi and others, where the court granted an order to partly suspend the safety instructions pending an appeal. This order allowed the mine to restart operations after being closed for a time.

I hope that the court’s criticism will curb overbroad safety instructions and undue production stoppages, but even if it doesn’t, the decision clarifies the grounds that can be relied on to have the safety instructions suspended pending an appeal.

Facts of the Case

An inspector observed two safety infractions on a single level of the mine that employed 2% of the mine’s workforce. The infractions were:

    • 43 explosive charges had not been placed in an explosive box; and
    • 4 rail switches didn’t have rail switching devices.

The inspector issued a safety instruction that prohibited the use of explosives throughout the whole mine and halted all tramming operations. This effectively closed the entire mine.

The mine launched an urgent application to suspend safety instructions pending a full appeal. The mine argued that the safety instructions were erroneously issued, contending that:

    • the non-compliance connected with the explosive charges was an isolated incident;
    • no circumstances existed on 44 level that rendered the whole level unsafe;
    • no circumstances existed that rendered the entire mine unsafe; and
    • the absence of rail switches doesn’t constitute a danger.

The Court’s Decision to Set Aside the Safety Instructions

The court applied two separate, but connected, lines of questioning in its analysis.

First, did the inspector comply with the requirements of section 54(1) when he issued the safety instructions?

Secondly, was the safety instruction itself an administrative action regulated by the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act 3 of 2000 (PAJA)? If so, then did the safety instructions comply with the legal requirements of (i) lawfulness; (ii) reasonableness; and (ii) procedural fairness?

The court said that there are two requirements in section 54(1) for the issuing safety instructions:

    • an inspector must objectively to establish a state of affairs which would lead a reasonable person to believe that there is a danger to the health or safety of any person at the mine; and
    • the instruction must be limited to the extent that it is necessary to protect the health and safety (paragraph 24).

The standard applied in these enquiries is the standard of reasonable practicality required in section 2 of the MHSA.

The court considered the safety instruction issued because of the absence of rail switches, holding that the inspectors didn’t satisfy the legal requirements; there were no objective facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the absence of rail switches poses any danger to any person at the mine (paragraph 19 and 32).

The court’s enquiry into the safety instruction that prohibited the use of explosives went further. Here the court accepted that there were objective facts that could lead a reasonable person to believe that the safety infraction posed a danger to persons at the mine, but that was not the end of the enquiry.

The court confirmed that a safety instruction issued by an inspector is an administrative action, and as an administrative action must, in terms of PAJA, be exercised (i) lawfully; (ii) reasonably; and (ii) in a procedurally fair manner (paragraph 57).

The court emphasised the requirement of reasonableness and applied the principle of legal proportionality (paragraph 27 to 33). This principle holds that if an action is not proportional to what it seeks to achieve, then the action is unreasonable and subject to review under PAJA.

A court looks at three elements to determine if an action is proportional, and consequentially reasonable:

    • was the measure suitable for achieving the desired aim (the suitability element);
    • was the measure necessary, or was there a lesser measure that could achieve the same desired aim (the necessity element); and
    • does the measure place an excessive burden on the individual that is disproportionate to the public interest that is protected (the balance element); (see de Ville, JR. 2003. Judicial Review of Administrative Action in South Africa. Durban: LexisNexis Butterworths, at pg. 203).

Accordingly, all safety instructions must be proportional and reasonable based on the objective facts. If not, then the affected company can approach a court for appropriate relief.

The court held that the safety infraction involving the explosives was an isolated incident that occurred on a single level of the mine employing a small fraction of the workforce. There was no objective fact that could be relied on by the inspector to infer that the entire level, and further the entire mine, was unsafe (paragraph 16 and 33).

Applying the principle of legal proportionality, the court held that the safety instructions were not proportional to the issues that the inspector identified, and went further than was necessary to protect the health and safety of persons at the mine (paragraph 32 – 33).

The court accordingly suspended the safety instructions issued in terms of section 54, with the exception of level 44 where the infraction had occurred (paragraph 34).

The Court’s Criticism of the Safety Instructions and the Inspectors Conduct

The court criticised the inspectors belief that they are empowered to close entire mines based only on a safety infraction in a single section or level of the mine, where the objective facts do not show that these infractions will render the entire mine unsafe (paragraph 36).

The court went as far as warning the inspectors that it would have seriously considered holding them personally liable for the mines legal costs if the mine had asked (paragraph 37).

The courts criticism is a stern warning to inspectors to exercise their powers in terms of the MHSA lawfully, reasonably and fairly.

Conclusion

The take away from this judgement is that safety instructions issued by an inspector in terms of section 54 of the MHSA must be reasonable, proportional, and limited by the extent to which it is necessary to protect the health and safety of persons at the mine.

An inspector does not have the power to close entire mines or sections of mines unless the objective facts show that the entire mine is unsafe, and total closure is proportional and indeed necessary to protect the health and safety of people on the mine.

Companies should evaluate any instructions issued in terms of section 54 and determine if they are to broad or go further than necessary. If so, urgent action can be brought in court to suspend the operation of the instructions pending an appeal in terms of the MHSA.


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The Protection of Buildings as Heritage Resources

An owner of land automatically has certain legal rights in the property that stem directly from the ownership – the right to use and enjoy the property, modify the property, sell the property, and, if so inclined, to destroy the property. That is, unless the structure is older than 60 years. At this age an owner’s right to modify or demolish his own buildings is automatically restricted by the National Heritage Act, No 25 of 1999 (National Heritage Act).

The National Heritage Act automatically applies to structures older than 60 years irrespective of whether the structure or property has been formally recognised and granted any heritage status. This means that if a development or project is being planned that involves the modification or demolition of a building older than 60 years, then the required permits must be acquired for before modifying or demolishing the structures. It is not a foregone conclusion that the permit will be granted, and even if the permit is granted the permit can contain restrictions limiting the right to develop the property in the future.

The application of the Heritage Act to buildings was demonstrated in the recent case of Peter Gees v the Provincial Minister of Cultural Affairs and Sport ((974/2015) [2015] ZASCA 136 (29 September 2016)) where a property owner applied for a permit to demolish a building. The building didn’t have any formal heritage status, but it was more than 60 years old. A demolition permit was granted, but as part of the permit the minister imposed restrictions on the future development of the property that included the requirement to have the future building plans approved by Heritage Western Cape before starting construction.

The landowner, unhappy with the restrictions in the permit, approached the court and argued that the minister did not have the power to restrict future development of a property when granting a permit to demolish a building. The Supreme Court of Appeal had to decide two questions, (i) whether the minister may place restrictions on the future development of property when deciding an application to modify or demolish a building, and (ii) if so, whether this curtailment of a property owners rights to use and enjoy the property is constitutional.

To decide these questions the court did a detailed analysis of the interaction between the formal and general protection mechanisms in the Heritage Act.

Formal and General Protections under the National Heritage Act

The National Heritage Act introduced an integrated system for the management of national heritage resources. The act includes a system of formal and general protection methods.

For the formal protection measures to apply, a formal procedure is followed to identify the place, consult with owners, and then declare the place as protected by publishing a government notice or registering it in the heritage register. Formal protection measures can apply to heritage sites, protected areas around heritage sites, identified heritage objects, or whole heritage areas (section 27 to 32).

The formal protection measures stand in contrast to the general protections that apply automatically, irrespective of whether the place has been identified as culturally significant. The general protections apply automatically to all structures older than 60 years, archaeology sites, palaeontology sites, meteorite sites, burial grounds, graves, and public monuments and memorials (sections 33 to 38).

There is no need to identify one of these sites and consult with the owners before the general protections apply to them.

General Protection for Buildings older than 60 Years

The Heritage Act automatically protects all structures older than 60 years. The provincial resources authority must grant a permit before these buildings, or any part of them, can be altered or demolished (section 34(1)).

The permit procedure and appeal process is set out in the Heritage Act (sections 48 and 49). When a permit is applied for the heritage resources authority may issue the permit subject to conditions, which may include the conditions that security is given for the completion of the proposed work, providing for the recycling or depositing of materials into a materials bank for historical building materials, stipulating that design proposals be revised, or stipulating the qualifications and expertise required to perform the actions (sections 48(2)(a) to (d)).

If a permit is refused, then the authority must consider if the structure should be protected formally in terms of one of the formal protection measures (section 34(2)).

Objection Raised by the Landowner in the Case under Discussion

In the Gees case the a demolition permit for a building older than 60 years was granted, but the minister imposed restrictions on the future development of the property as part of the permit.

The City of Cape Town regarded the area that the building was located in as a significant “well-preserved art deco streetscape”, and thought that the character of the area should be conserved. The particular building itself was not deemed worthy of protection – the building was classified by the city as an “IIIC heritage resource” that only derives its significance from its contribution to the character of the surrounding area.

The building was not protected by any of the formal protection methods. It was not part of any declared national or provincial heritage site (section 27), in a heritage area (section 31), under provisional protection (section 29), listed in any heritage register (section 30), or declared a national heritage object (section 32). The only protections in the Heritage Act that applied to the building in this case were the general protection measures that apply automatically to all buildings older than 60 years.

The landowner argued that the act did not authorise the heritage authority to place conditions on the future development of a property when it was considering an application to demolish a structure that had no formal heritage status.

This argument was rejected by the court. The court held that if the imposition of permit conditions was limited only to areas that were formally protected, then the ambit for the protection of heritage resources would be reduced to small declared areas only, leaving large areas open for possible abuse.

The court evaluated the objectives of the Heritage Act, finding that the conditions imposed were designed to enable the heritage authority to fulfil its duties. The imposition of the conditions on the future development of a property when it was considering an application to demolish a structure that had no formal heritage status was found to be lawful.

The court briefly considered the landowner’s second argument that the curtailment of his rights to use and enjoy the property was unconstitutional. The court found that the conditions imposed in the demolition permit was a curtailment of property rights amounting to a deprivation of property, but that the deprivation was in the interests of the community, and constitutional.

Conclusion

This case illustrates the importance of considering and applying for all necessary approvals before undertaking any project or development.

If a project or development involves the alteration or demolishing of any structure or part of a structure that is older than 60 years then a permit must first be obtained in terms of the Heritage Act.

It must be borne in mind that if a permit is granted to alter or demolish a structure, the heritage authority does have the power to impose conditions on the future development of a property, limiting the landowner’s right to fully use and enjoy their ownership rights.


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A Judicial Opinion on the National Forests Act

The recent high court decision on an application to remove ten milkwood trees from a property in the case of Nanaga Property Trust v Director-General of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and others ((4689/2014) [2016] ZAECGHC 18 (16 February 2016)), is legally unremarkable yet at the same time highly informative.

The case is unremarkable in the way that court applied the principles of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act No 3 of 2000 (PAJA) when setting aside a decision taken by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to refuse an application to remove trees because the decision maker lacked the required authority.

The court, however, went a bit further in its judgement, and Hartle J took the opportunity to express an opinion on how the National Forests Act, No 84 of 1998 (National Forests Act) should be interpreted and applied in the future by DAFF. This was only an opinion (an obiter dictum) and is not binding on the department or on any court in the future, but the opinion could still be useful when assessing similar situations that could arise in the future.

The Facts of the Case

The Nanaga Property Trust (trust) owned property at Kempton on Sea that was zoned for single residential use. The trust wanted to develop the property further and extend the modest residence that was situated on the property.

The trust submitted building plans to the local municipality, which approved the plans subject to the trust complying with the applicable provisions of the National Forests Act, expressed as follows:

“… [P]lease note, the National Forests Act (NFA) / Environmental Conservation Act (ECA) applies – it is up to each property owner to ensure that they familiarise themselves and comply with the provisions of the act prior to the clearing of any indigenous vegetation / tress (milkwoods etc.) The necessary permits can be obtained by filing in an application form at our Department … “.

The trust, assisted by its architect, contacted DAFF and was assisted by Ms Layini, a forester, who sent them what was believed to be the correct application form. The application form that was submitted by the trust was, however, incorrect because it was an application for a licence involving trees in a natural forest in terms of section 7 of the National Forests Act, and not the required application for a licence involving protected trees in terms of section 15.

A site inspection of the property was conducted by DAFF, and afterwards the application was refused. The refusal was conveyed through a letter received from Ms Layini. The reason given for the refusal was that:

” … [e]xtending the building in any manner that will destroy natural forest cannot be allowed. … Section 3(3) of the National Forest Act states that natural forests must not be destroyed saved (sic) in exceptional circumstances, where, in the opinion of the Minister, a new land use is preferable in terms of its economic, social and environmental benefits. … [E]xceptional circumstances referred to in Section 3 are limited to development of national and provincial strategic importance, which excludes residential development” (paragraph 13).

Eight months after the trust addressed a letter of complaint to Ms Layini at DAFF asking for the full record of her decision, the trust launched an application in terms of section 6 of PAJA to review and set aside DAFF’s decision to refuse the application.

The Court’s Decision to Set Aside the Department’s Refusal to Grant a Licence

The National Forests Act gives the minister the power to grant the licences needed in terms of section 7 or section 15 (section 7(1)(b)(i) and 15(1)(b)(i) respectively), but the act also gives the minister wide powers to delegate this power to a named official in the department, the holder of an office in the department, an organ of state, or any person who or which is not an organ of state (section 48(1)).

The questions that the court had to determine were:

  • who made the decision; and

  • was the person who made the decision, whether premised on section 7 or 15 of the National Forests Act, authorised to make the decision by the act itself or any applicable delegation.

DAFF’s answering affidavit in the case was deposed to by Ms Dzivhani, the Deputy Director General for Forestry Regulation and Oversight. Ms Dzivhani did not, however, clarify which official with the delegated authority was expected to consider the trusts application for a licence (paragraph 35 and 38). Later during the proceedings it was alleged that the decision on the trusts application was taken by Ms Sqwabe, the Deputy Director: Forestry Regulation and Support at the regional office (paragraph 30).

The court stated that it was a question of fact whether the decision to refuse the trusts application for a licence was taken by Ms Layini who was the forester that the trust was corresponding with and who had sent the rejection letter, or Ms Sqwabe who was a Deputy Director at the regional office (paragraph 30).

It was alleged by DAFF that the decision was taken by Ms Sqwabe who then instructed Ms Layini to convey the decision, and that Ms Layini was merely acted as a conduit for communication with the trust (paragraph 30 and 44)

The court looked at the facts surrounding the decision that was taken, including that:

  • Ms Sqwabe was only identified as the decision maker once the authority of Ms Layini, the forester, was challenged (paragraph 45 and 49);

  • Ms Sqwabe did not state what day she made her decision (paragraph 46);

  • Ms Sqwabe did not visit the property and did not explain how she could have reached the decision (paragraph 47); and

  • Ms Sqwabe did not state what input she received when making her decision, and what documentation or submissions she relied on (paragraph 47).

When considering the allegations the court found that the decision not to grant the licence application was, in fact, made by Ms Layini (paragraph 49 and 51).

The next question to be determined by the court was whether Ms Layini, the decision maker, was authorised to make the decision to grant or refuse the trusts application.

By considering the act and the written delegations of the minister’s powers, the court found that Ms Layini, a forester, was not authorised in terms of the National Forest Act or any applicable delegation to make the decision (paragraph 51). This lack of authority was also conceded by DAFF during the proceedings (paragraph 30).

It was this lack of authority by Ms Layini that lead to the court deciding to set aside DAFF’s decision to refuse the trusts application for a licence to remove the ten milkwood trees.

When setting aside DAFF’s decision the court declined to substitute its own decision for that of DAFF, leaving it up to the trust to submit a new application, and for DAFF to consider this new application afresh.

The Court’s Opinion on the Proper Application of the National Forests Act

After setting aside DAFF’s decision the court expressed an opinion on some of the other arguments that the parties presented in the hope of avoiding litigation between the parties in the future (paragraph 53).

The trust had alleged that its application to remove the ten milkwood trees was misconstrued by DAFF, and that is application was:

  • treated as a request for permission for destruction of a forest (paragraph 73);

  • equated to an application for the change of land use (paragraph 74); and

  • viewed as an application for permission to build (paragraph 75).

When rejecting the trusts application DAFF relied on section 3(3) of the National Forests Act, stating that “natural forests must not be destroyed saved (sic) in exceptional circumstances … which excludes residential development” (paragraph 13).

The court, however, held that the application was not an application for either the destruction of a forest, the change of land use or for permission to build (paragraph 73, 74 and 75), but that all DAFF had to decide was whether it was permissible for the trust to remove the trees when taking into account the acts founding principles (paragraph 76).

The court highlighted that the National Forest Act does not have an absolute prohibition of the removal of trees, and the removal of trees in a forest is permitted in terms of the act (paragraph 83).

The court stated that because DAFF misconstrued the application as the trust alleged, it failed to apply the founding principles in a balanced way (paragraph 81 and 83).

The court then went on to consider what the position would have been if the trusts application would have resulted in the destruction of a forest. The court stated that even in this situation the minister would still have to consider the application, considering whether the change is preferable in terms of its economic, social and environmental benefits as required in terms of section 3(3) of the National Forests Act (paragraph 84).

The court stated that the principles laid out by the Constitutional Court in the decision of Fuel Retailers Association of South Africa v General-Director Environmental Management, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, Mpumalanga Province and others (2007 (6) SA 4 (CC)) would be applicable when DAFF considers an application that falls in the ambit of section 3 of the National Forests Act (paragraph 84). This includes the principle that:

  • “sustainable development” does not mean the end of socio-economic development, but only regulates the methods used when development takes place;

  • people and their needs must be placed at the forefront of environmental management;

  • that the social, economic and environmental impact of a development must be considered, assessed and evaluated, and a decision must be in light of this assessment and consideration; and

  • a decision must take into account the interests, needs and values of all interested and affected parties (paragraph 86).

By considering the provisions of section 3 of the National Forest Act against the principles laid out by the Constitutional Court, the court laid out 11 factors that may be relevant for DAFF to apply when considering an application that falls under section 3:

  • the nature and degree of vulnerability of the forest type;

  • the forests purpose and place in the grand scheme of things, namely does the forest serve an important function or provide an important habitat that contributes to biodiversity;

  • the constitutional imperative to protect the environment generally;

  • the objects of the National Forest Act as they are relevant to the particular forest and set of facts being considered;

  • the fact that the National Forest Act does make provision for permits to be granted to remove protected trees;

  • the vested development rights that the land owner has in its property;

  • the fact that the plans for the extension of the property was validly approved by the municipality;

  • the actual and projected effect of the removal of the trees;

  • the owners right not be deprived of the use of his property;

  • the social, economic and environmental impact if the permit is granted; and

  • the social, economic and environmental impact if the permit is refused (paragraph 87).

The court stated that from the court papers filed by DAFF it was apparent that there was no consideration, assessment or evaluation of the social, economic and environmental impact of the particular application.

The final decision of the court to set aside the refusal of DAFF to grant the trusts application did not hinge on the departments failure to consider the application properly. From the court’s judgement it is, however, clear that Hartle J held the opinion that each application must be considered, assessed and evaluated against the applicable constitutional principles, and the failure to do so could be fatal to a decision taken by DAFF.


This work by Clinton Pavlovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

When the Minister of Mineral Resources Ignores You

If a commercial transaction is concluded with a person that holds a right issued by the Department of Mineral Resources (“the department”) care must be exercised to ensure that the required regulatory approvals needed for the implementation of the transaction has been granted.

Examples of commercial transactions that need ministerial approval in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) before they can be implemented include agreements that would result in:

  • a transfer a prospecting right or mining right, for example a sale, cession or donation of the right;
  • a transfer any interest in prospecting right or mining right, for example the transfer of an undivided share in a right; and
  • a transfer a controlling interest in a company holds a prospecting right or mining right, for example a sale of shares agreement or an issue and allotment of new shares resulting in a change of control (section 11(1) of the MPRDA).

To get consent to implement these transactions a formal application must be submitted to the department. Unfortunately, the legislation does not provide any maximum time limits that are applicable when considering the application. In most cases an application submitted to the department is approved without too much delay, but in some cases months, if not years, may pass without the application for consent being considered.

Delays in the approval process can have drastic consequences on commercial transactions because without the required consent they can’t become effective and can’t be implemented by the parties.

What can a person do if there is a significant delay in the approval process after the application for ministerial consent has been submitted?

The most common answer is for a person to bring an application to court, and ask the court to grant an order forcing the department to perform its duty. This court relief is referred to as a mandatory interdict, or a mandamus.

In many situations this relief would be a sufficient; the matter is referred back to the department for consideration within a court specified time line.

The purpose of this article is, however, to explore alternate legal remedies that could be used if there is a significant delay in the approval process. Particularly:

  • Can a person bring a court application for a court order granting an application that was submitted in terms of the MPRDA, without the need to refer the matter back to the minister for consideration?

The General Right to Just Administrative Action

Any action taken by an organ of state must be (i) lawful; (ii) reasonable; and (iii) procedurally fair. If an action does not meet with these requirements a person who has been affected by the action has the right to approach a court to “review” the infringing action, and ask the court for appropriate relief.

This right of judicial review stems from the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 1996 (the Constitution), and is given effect by the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act 3 of 2000 (PAJA) (in particular see section 33 of the Constitution).

Both actions and inactions of the government can be reviewed by a court. This is because an “administrative action” is defined to include any decision taken, or the failure or refusal to take a decision, by an organ of state when exercising a public power or performing a public function in terms of legislation (the definition of “administrative action” as read with the definition of “failure” contained in section 1).

A court has wide powers when reviewing an administrative decision (see section 8 of PAJA). In cases where the government’s administrative action amounts to the failure or refusal to take a decision, then the court may grant any order that it just and equitable, including an order:

  • directing the taking of a decision; or
  • declaring the rights of the parties in relation to the taking of a decision.

Accordingly, if the minister fails to consider an application that has been submitted by a person in terms of the MPRDA, the ministers inaction will be “an administrative action”, and falls within the ambit of PAJA. Under these circumstances a person should be able to approach the court for appropriate relief.

The right to approach a court directly for relief in terms of PAJA is, however, curtailed if the applicable legislation, such as the MPRDA, contains an internal appeal procedure (section 6(2)(g) and 7(2)(a) of PAJA).

Court Action Versus the Department’s Internal Appeal Process

A person’s right to approach the court to review an administrative decision in terms of PAJA is not unlimited. A person can’t approach a court until any internal appeal process in the applicable law, such as the MPRDA, has been exhausted (section 7(2)(a) of PAJA).

It is intended that a person’s first port of call should be the legislated internal appeal procedure. A person can only approach a court if the applicable act doesn’t have an appeal procedure, or after the appeal procedure has been followed.

Exceptions to this rule do, however, exist, and a person is entitled to approach the court directly without first exhausting the internal appeal procedure is there are “exceptional circumstances” (section 7(2)(c) of PAJA).

To phrase these requirements differently, a court can be approached to review an administrative action if:

  • an internal appeal was submitted but it was unsuccessful (section 7(2)(a) of PAJA); or
  • the particular law has no internal appeal procedure that is applicable; or
  • the particular law has an internal appeal procedure, but there are exceptional circumstances that are applicable, the court exempts the applicant from having to follow the internal appeal procedure (section 7(2)(c) of PAJA).

What is the correct legal process if the minister fails to consider an application that has been submitted by a person in terms of the MPRDA?

This will depend on whether the MPRDA contains an internal remedy that can be relied on when the minister fails to take any action.

Can the MPRDA’s Internal Appeal Procedure be used when the Minister Fails to Take a Decision?

Is there an internal appeal in situations where the minister fails to take a decision, or does the internal appeal procedure in the MPRDA only apply to decisions that have actually been taken? Is it correct to argue that the internal appeal procedure must be followed in a situation where the minister fails to make a decision in terms of the MPRDA?

If the internal appeal procedure doesn’t apply to a failure to take a decision then there will be no requirement to institute an internal appeal. In these circumstances a person will be entitled to approach the court immediately without having to prove that there are exceptional circumstances that allow the court to exempt the person from the internal appeal requirements.

In order to answer this question the internal appeal procedure that is set out in the MPRDA must be examined.

The Internal Appeal Procedure in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act

The MPRDA has an internal appeal process that can be relied on in some circumstances (section 96). This internal appeal process can be summarised as follows:

  • A person is prohibited from applying to court for the review of an “administrative decision” of the department until they have exhausted the remedies set out in the MPRDA (section 96(3)).
  • A person whose rights or legitimate expectations have been materially and adversely affected, or who is aggrieved by any “administrative decision”, may appeal within 30 days of becoming aware of such administrative decision (section 96(1)), setting out:
    • the actions appealed against; and
    • the grounds on which the appeal is based (regulation 74(2)).
  • A copy of the appeal will be dispatched by the department to:
    • the person in the department responsible for the administrative decision, who must then within 21 days submit written reasons for the administrative decision appealed against (regulations 74(5)(a) and 74(6)); and
    • any other person, whose rights may be affected by the outcome of the appeal, who must then within 21 days submit a replying submission indicating the extent and nature of his or her rights, and how they will be affected by the appeal (regulations 74(5)(a) and 74(7)).
  • The department will then dispatch the written reasons and any replying submissions that it received to the appellant, and the appellant is then afforded 21 days to reply to these reasons and submissions (regulation 74(8)).
  • Within 30 days from the receipt of the appellant’s response, the minister or director-general must either:
    • confirm the administrative decision concerned;
    • set aside the administrative decision concerned;
    • amend the administrative decision concerned; or
    • substitute any other administrative decision for the administrative decision concerned (regulation 74(9).
  • The lodging of an appeal does not suspend the administrative decision, unless it is suspended by the director-general or the minister (section 96(2)(a)).

Does this Procedure Apply when the Minister Fails to Take a Decision?

As discussed, a person does not have the right to approach a court to review any administrative action unless any internal appeal procedure in the MPRDA has been exhausted or unless there are exceptional circumstances that allow the court to exempt the person from the internal appeal requirements.

The MPRDA does have an internal appeal process (section 96), but does the MPRDA’s internal appeal procedure apply in situations where the minister fails to take a decision?

An “administrative action” is defined in PAJA to include the failure to take a decision, but the MPRDA’s appeal procedure doesn’t use this term. The MPRDA’s internal appeal procedure states that it applies to “administrative decisions”, a term that is not defined.

The wording and context of the internal appeal procedure supports a conclusion that the term “administrative decision” can only relate to decisions that have actually been taken, and doesn’t apply to a failure to take a decision:

  • The MPRDA requires that any “decision taken” must be taken within a reasonable time, must be in writing, and must be accompanied by written reasons for the decision (sections 6(1) and (2)). In a situation where the minister has failed to consider an application there will be no “decision” taken. This non-decision is not capable of being reduced to writing, and similarly it will not be possible to give any reasons for the non-decision.
  • An internal appeal must be lodged within 30 days of becoming aware of the administrative decision (section 96(1)). It is impossible to comply with this requirement if no positive action is taken, especially when the MPRDA does not prescribe a fixed duration during which the decision must be taken. If the minister has an indeterminable amount of time to consider the application, when must this 30 day period be calculated from?
  • The internal appeal procedure is worded to apply to an administrative decision that “was taken” (section 96(1)(b)). The language of the section clearly implies that there must have been some form of act by the minister, not just a failure to take a decision.
  • The internal appeal procedure does not automatically suspend the decision that is appeal against (section 96(2)(a)). In a situation where there has been no decision at all, this provision can’t be applied because there is nothing to suspend.
  • As part of the internal appeal procedure, a person must be provided with written reason by the person who took the decision that is appealed against (regulations 74(5) and 74(6)). In a case where no decision has been taken at all, it is not possible for the department to comply with the regulation and give “written reasons for the administrative decision”.

The conclusion that the term “administrative decision” can only relate to decisions that have actually been taken, and not to a failure to take a decision, can also be demonstrated by considering what the final appeal procedure could be if the term “administrative decision” did include the failure to take an action.

  • What would the legal situation then be if the minister either failed or refused to consider the appeal in the required time lines?
  • An internal appeal would be submitted, and it would request that the minister either (i) amends the department’s failure to take a decision; or (ii) substitutes the failure to take a decision with a positive decision to grant the application (regulations 74(9)(c) and (d)).
  • What would the legal situation then be if the minister ignored an application that was submitted an internal appeal would have to be lodged with the department against this failure to take a decision.
    • Would this failure to consider the appeal fall also under the definition of an “administrative decision” in terms of the MPRDA? Would a person be prevented from applying to a court to review the failure to consider the appeal until the internal remedies in the MPRDA have been exhausted, requiring the appellant to lodge a second internal appeal against the ministers failure to determine the first appeal (section 96(3))?
    • Must the person now bring an application to court, and ask the court to grant an order forcing the minister to perform their duty and determine the first appeal (ie a mandamus)? If so, then the person has now expended considerable time and resources to bring a court action just to place it in the same position where it was immediately after lodging the appeal, namely its appeal has been lodged and the minister is now compelled (in terms of the court order this time) to comply with the required time lines.
  • When the minister considers the appeal, the minister may decide that the appeal fails, and to substitute the failure to take a decision with a decision to refuse the application.
    • In this case the person will then have to lodge an internal appeal against the ministers decision to refuse the application.
    • Once the internal appeal procedure has been exhausted, the applicant would then only be entitled to approach a court to review the administrative action.

This process is a far cry away from that an internal appeal process should achieve; a quick and cost effective method to resolve irregularities before instituting legal action.

I would submit that the term “administrative decision” in terms of the MPRDA has a narrower definition than “administrative action” under PAJA, and that this term should not be interpreted to include situations where there has been a failure to take a decision, but only to include situations where a decision has indeed been taken which is prejudicial.

The Alternative: Reliance on Exceptional Circumstances to Bypass an Internal Appeal Process

Even if the above argument is rejected, PAJA allows a person to bypass any applicable internal appeal process if there are exceptional circumstances that would allow the court to exempt the non-compliance with the internal appeal procedure (section 7(2)(c)).

It would be prudent for any person who wants to bring a court action without first lodging an internal appeal to ask the court to grant an exemption from having to lodge in internal appeal, as an alternative to the argument that there is no internal appeal.

The “exceptional circumstances” that are typically accepted by the courts when granting an exemption from complying with internal appeal procedures are discussed in the next section.

Appropriate Legal Action and Possible Relief

If the minister ignores an application that has been submitted and does not consider it at all, an affected person will be able to approach the court in terms of PAJA directly without first exhausting the internal appeal procedure because the internal appeal procedure will not be applicable in these circumstances. As an alternative, an affected person can ask the court for an exemption from the internal appeal process if there are exceptional circumstances that are applicable.

An affected person can approach the court as soon as there has been an unreasonable delay in taking a decision (sections 6(2)(g) and 6(3)(a) of PAJA). It is possible to ask the court to grant any order that it just and equitable (section 8(2) of PAJA), including an order:

  • substituting or varying an administrative action (section 8(1)(c)(ii)(aa));
  • directing the taking of a decision (section 8(2)(a)); or
  • declaring the rights of the affected person (section 8(2)(b). (It might be noted that the legal action listed has relief in terms of both sections 8(1) and 8(2) of PAJA, even though the failure to take an administrative action falls in the ambit of section 8(2). I submit that the wording of section 8(2), permitting the grant of any order that is just and equitable, would not preclude the court from substituting its decision where the minister has failed to act. See the discussion by C Hoexter (Hoexter, C. 2012. Administrative Law in South Africa. Cape Town: Juta, at pg. 557) for further argument in support of this submission).

There has been a lot of recent discussion about the legal doctrine of the separation of powers; how the courts (judiciary) should not overstep its role and perform acts that fall into the realm that should be occupied ministers (the executive). PAJA does, however, directly empower the court to come to the aid of a person when the executive acts unlawfully, and allows the court to effectively make a decision on behalf of the minister when the minister fails to take a decision in a reasonable time (see sections 8(1)(c)(ii)(aa) and 8(2)(a) of PAJA; de Ville, JR. 2003. Judicial Review of Administrative Action in South Africa. Durban: LexisNexis Butterworths, at pg. 370; Hoexter, C. 2012. Administrative Law in South Africa. Cape Town: Juta, at pg. 552).

There are four situations where a court will be prepared to substitute its decision with the decision of the minister, without referring the matter back to the minister for decision. These are:

  • when the end result is a forgone conclusion;
  • when any further delay will cause unjustifiable prejudice;
  • when the original decision maker has exhibited bias or incompetence; or
  • where the court is as well qualified as the original authority to make the decision (Hoexter, 2012, pgs. 552 – 557).

For many applications the MPRDA doesn’t allow the minister to use any discretion when considering the application. The power granted to the minister is not a discretionary power; the minister must grant consent if the requirements for transfer are complied with. If the requirements are met the result is a forgone conclusion; the minister must grant the application.

Applications where the minister is compelled to grant a compliant application include applications for consent to transfer a right (section 11(2)), applications for prospecting rights (section 17(1)) and applications for mining rights (section 23(1)).

For these categories of applications it can be argued that, (i) the court is as qualified as the minister to make the decision, and (ii) that the end result of the application is a foregone conclusion. Once the court has had the opportunity to review and consider the application that was submitted, the court will be as well qualified as the minister to determine if the application placed before it meets the objective criteria the applicable section, and grant the application if all the requirements are met.

In addition to meeting these two requirements for substitution of a decision by the court, a person may also be able to advance reasons to show the court that further delay will cause unjustifiable prejudice.

Based on these considerations I submit that a person would be entitled to approach a court for direct relief and ask the court to substitute its decision with the minister’s decision.

Conclusion (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

What should be done if an application has been submitted to the Department of Mineral Resources, and the department has failed to take any action or consider the application?

  • If time is not of the essence in the underlying commercial transaction, a court application can be brought asking for an order to force the department to perform its duty. The matter would then be referred back to the department for consideration within a court specified time line.
  • If time is of the essence, a person can approach a court for direct relief and ask the court to grant the application, effectively substituting its decision with the minister’s decision. In order to be successful it must be argued that:
    • the MPRDA’s internal appeal process does not apply to situations where the minister fails to take a decision, alternatively that there are exceptional circumstances that would allow the court to exempt the non-compliance with the internal appeal procedure; and
    • the end result is a forgone conclusion; or
    • when any further delay will cause unjustifiable prejudice; or
    • when the original decision maker has exhibited bias or incompetence; or
    • where the court is as well qualified as the original authority to make the decision.

This work by Clinton Pavlovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

South African Mining and Prospecting Rights May Expire Sooner than Anticipated

Prospecting and mining rights in South Africa are granted in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA) for a fixed duration. Prospecting rights are granted for a maximum period of 5 years renewable for a further single period not exceeding 3 years, and mining rights are granted for a maximum period of 30 years renewable for further 30 year periods.

In the case of the Minister of Mineral Resources vs Mawetse (SA) Mining Corporation (Pty) Ltd ((20069/14) [2015] ZASCA 82), the South African Supreame Court of Appeal was was asked to determine what date the duration of a right should be calculated from. The court held that the duration of rights must not be calculated from the date that the right was notarially executed, or calculated with reference to the termination dates that are contained in the right itself. The court determined that the duration of the right should be calculated from the date that the applicant for the right was informed that the right would be granted.

Application Procedure

To understand the reasoning of the court, and why the decision will lead to uncertainty in practice, the procedure followed by the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) when a company applies for a right in terms of the MPRDA should be outlined:

  • An applicant for a mining right or prospecting right must make payment of a non-refundable application fee and lodge its application in the prescribed manner at the offices of the regional manager in whose region the land is situated.
  • The regional manager must accept the application for consideration if the formal requirements for its lodging have been complied with and if no other person holds or has submitted an application for a prospecting right or mining right over the land for the same mineral.
  • After the acceptance of the application the regional manager must make it known that an application has been received, must call on interested parties to submit comments on the application, and must notify the applicant that it must submit the required environmental reports.
  • If the requirements for the grant of the right have been complied with, the applicant will be notified that the right has been granted, will be advised of any conditions attached to the grant of the right, and will be requested to make itself available at the regional offices to notarially execute the right.
  • The DMR’s practice is to calculate the duration of a right from the date of its execution, and record the expiry date calculated using this method as a clause in the in the right.

Facts and Legal Decision

The facts of the Mawetse case are the following:

  • In November 2006 Dilokong Chrome Mine (Pty) Limited applied for a prospecting right.
  • In December 2006 the regional manager issued a letter of acceptance, and requested Dilokong to give effect to the empowerment provisions of the MPRDA and submit supporting documents to evidence its compliance.
  • In July 2007 the deputy director general of the DMR wrote to Dilokong to confirm that the right had been granted for a period of four years.
  • During November 2007, on the date on which the prospecting right was to be executed, Dilokong was informed that the right would not be executed by the department because Dilokong had failed to comply with the empowerment criteria.
  • The environmental management plan submitted by Dilokong was never approved and the prospecting right was never executed.
  • In September 2009 Mawetse applied for rights in respect of the same mineral and land as Dilokong’s application. Mawetse’s application was, however, rejected on the basis that Dilokong had been granted rights over the area.

The decision to reject Mawetse’s application was taken on review. One of Mawetse’s contentions was that there was no conflicting right because Dilokong’s right had been granted for four years, and more than four years had already lapsed since Dilokong’s application had been aproved. In response Dilokong argued that the period that its right was granted for had not started running because the right had not yet been executed, and had not become effective.

The court stated that a right is granted for a limited period and expires through the effluxion of time. To determine if a right has expired, it is necessary to determine the date that the right was granted. The court held that there are three distinct legal processes that must be distinguished from each other, namely (i) the granting of the right; (ii) the execution of the right; and (iii) the coming into effect of the right.

The court rejected the argument advanced by Dilokong that the DDG’s approval had not started running because the right had not been executed and had not become effective, stating that this argument was untenable because it would mean that the area was effectively sterilised in favour of Dilokong. The court held that the period of Dilokong’s prospecting right must be calculated from the date on which it was informed that its application was successful and that the right was granted, namely in July 2007.

The court held that Dilokong’s prospecting right, which had been granted during July 2007, had lapsed due to its expiry, notwithstanding that the right had not been executed and that the right had not become effective.

Practical Implications of the Decision

The decision in the case of Minister of Mineral Resources v Mawetse (SA) Mining Corporation (Pty) Ltd has two important implications for mineral rights granted in terms of the MPRDA:

  • first, the departmental practice of calculating the duration of a right from the date of the rights execution is not sanctioned by the provisions of the MPRDA; and
  • secondly, a right, including the exclusive right to apply for a renewal thereof or the exclusive right to apply for a mining right in the case of a holder of a prospecting right, will lapse on the expiry of the period which is calculated from the date on which the decision to grant the right was communicated to the applicant, not calculated from the date of execution of the right.

This work by Clinton Pavlovic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.