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.


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

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.

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Searching for Minerals in South Africa: Applications for Prospecting Rights

The South African mineral and petroleum sector is regulated primarily in terms of the South African Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA).

In terms of the MPRDA the state is the custodian of all mineral resources in South Africa and are held for the benefit of all South Africans; no person may prospect for any mineral unless that person has been granted a relevant right by the state, acting through the Minister of Mineral Resources (section 3(1) as read with 5A)”.

The MPRDA provides for two different rights which allow the holder to search for minerals. Prospecting rights allows the holder to conduct “prospecting operations”, while reconnaissance permissions allows the holder may conduct “reconnaissance operations”.

The work which is permitted under a prospecting licence is more substantial than that permitted under a reconnaissance permission. Reconnaissance permissions only allow the holder to search for minerals by geological, geophysical and photo geological surveys and by using remote sensing techniques. Prospecting rights allow the holder to disturb the surface or subsurface of the earth. The MPRDA defines prospecting as:

"intentionally searching for any mineral by means of any method:

(a) which disturbs the surface or subsurface of the earth, including 
    any portion of the earth that is under sea or under other water; or

(b) in or on any residue stockpile or residue deposit, in order to 
    establish the economic existence of any mineral and to determine 
    the extent and economic value thereof; or 

(c) in the sea or other water on land."

The conduct of any reconnaissance or prospecting without the first obtaining the required reconnaissance permissions or prospecting right constitutes an offence. On conviction a person who is found to have been in contravention of the act may be liable for payment of a fine or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or to an fine and imprisonment (section 98(a)(viii) as read with 99(2)).

It is therefore imperative that any person who intends to search for minerals in South Africa ensures that they obtain the required right.

I will briefly set out the application procedure to apply for a prospecting right. It should be noted that some of the provisions in the MPRDA currently regulating applications for prospecting rights will be amended in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Amendment Act, No 49 of 2008, parts of which are already in operation and parts of which will only come into operation in the future. Further substantial amendments have a also been proposed in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Amendment Bill B
15B-2013.

Care should be taken to ensure that the correct procedure which is applicable at the time of submitting the application is followed.

Procedure followed in the Application for a Prospecting Right

A person who wishes to apply for a prospecting right in terms of the MPRDA must make payment of the non-refundable application fee and lodge an application in the prescribed manner at the offices of the regional manager in whose region the land is situated (section 16(1)).

The application for a prospecting right must be accompanied by the following documents:

  • a plan of the land to which the application relates prepared in accordance with accepted standards, which must include, inter alia, the north point, scale and the co-ordinates, location, name, number, extent and boundaries of the land (regulation 2(2) plan);
  • a full prospecting work programme, prepared in accordance with regulation 7;
  • documentary proof of the applicant’s technical ability and financial resources to comply with the prospecting work programme;
  • title deeds in respect of the land;
  • copies of the applicants identity document if the applicant is an individual or constitutional documents if the applicant is a company.

The regional manager is obliged to 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. This requirement ensures that persons cannot obtain prospecting rights in the same area where rights have already been granted to another person for the same minerals. Nothing, however, precludes a person from submitting an application for a prospecting right in respect of a different mineral that is not included in a holder’s existing right (section 16(2)).

Within fourteen days after the acceptance of the application the regional manager must make it known that an application has been received and must call on interested parties to submit comments within thirty days of the notice. If objections are received they must be forwarded for consideration to the Regional Mining Development and Environmental Committee in order for them to consider the objections and advise the minister appropriately (section 10).

The regional manager must also within fourteen days after the acceptance of the application notify the applicant in writing that they are required to submit an environmental management plan and that they are required to notify the land owner, lawful occupier or any other affected party in writing of the application and consult with the aforesaid persons (section 16(4)).

The applicant must deliver the result of its consultations to the regional manager within thirty days (section 16(4)(b)).

Once the regional manager has received the environmental management plan and the consultation outcomes the regional manager must forward the application to the minister for the minister’s consideration (section 16(5)).

The minister is obliged to grant the prospecting right within thirty days of receiving the application from the regional manager if:

  • the applicant has the financial and technical capability to conduct the proposed prospecting optimally in accordance with the prospecting work programme;
  • the estimated expenditure is compatible with the proposed prospecting operation and duration of the prospecting work programme;
  • the prospecting will not result in undue pollution, ecological degradation or damage to the environment;
  • the applicant has the ability to comply with the provisions of the Mine Health and Safety Act, No 29 of 1996 (MHSA);
  • the applicant is not in contravention with any relevant provisions of the MPRDA; and
  • the applicant will substantially and meaningfully expand opportunities for historically disadvantaged persons to enter into and actively participate in the mineral industry (section 17(1)).

A prospecting right can be granted for an initial period not exceeding five years, and may be renewed once for a further three year period provided that a renewal application is submitted and the requirements of the act are complied with (section 17(5) and 18(4)).

A prospecting right becomes effective on the date on which the prospecting right is executed. Once the prospecting right has become effective the holder is granted various rights, including the right to enter land with their employees for the purposes of conducting their prospecting work (section 17(5)
as read with the definition of “effective date” and section 5).

Consequences of Not Following Correct Procedures

Section 96 the MPRDA provides an internal appeal procedure which may be used by any person whose rights or legitimate expectations have been materially and adversely affected by the granting of a prospecting licence. This right of appeal can be exercised at any time after a prospecting right has been granted, provided that it is exercised within thirty days of the person becoming aware of the grant of the licence (section 96(1)).

The internal appeal procedure, or subsequent court review which may be taken in terms of the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, No 3 of 2000 (PAJA), may result in the prospecting licence being set aside if the correct procedure was not adhered to by the applicant when applying for the prospecting licence. This includes if there was a failure to conduct adequate consultations with affected persons.

In order to ensure that the grant of a prospecting right cannot be set aside on appeal or judicial review it is imperative that an applicant follows the correct procedures are complied with during the application process.


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