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.


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

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

When the Court Can’t Condone Regulatory Non-Compliance

“It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” is the often quoted adage coined by Grace Hopper. But, it is also important to keep another adage in mind – there is often “an exception that proves a rule”.

The dangers of not getting necessary permissions before starting construction activities in a buffer zone of an environmentally protected area was illustrated in a recent court case where two homeowners were ordered to demolish all buildings and rehabilitate the land to its pristine state.  This judgement was handed down on 19 August 2016 in the case of iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority and Another v Feasey Property Group Holdings (Pty) Ltd and others [2016] JOL 36485 (KZP).

The homeowners’ defence was twofold. First they argued that their activities were not in fact harming the environment, meaning that no action could be taken against them. Second, they asked the court to grant them an indulgence and give them time to get the necessary permissions. These defences were rejected outright by the court.

The homeowners’ activities were taking place in a so-called “buffer zone” bordering the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. This park is a world heritage site protected by the South Africa’s World Heritage Convention Act (No 49 of 1999) and international conventions.

An environmental buffer zone is an area that is outside of the boundaries of a park that is protected to ensure that activities outside of the park can’t have a negative impact, and so that the park can integrate into its surrounding areas. Buffer zones are created by the National Environmental Management Protected Areas Act No 57 of 2003 (Protected Areas Act).

The sites where the homeowners’ activities were taking place are owned by the Government of KwaZulu Natal and the Republic of South Africa. The land hasn’t been transferred to the Ingonyama Trust, but it is still to be administered by the Ingonyama Trust in terms of the KwaZulu-Natal Ingonyama Trust (Act 3KZ of 1994). In addition, being inside the iSimangaliso Wetland Park’s buffer zone, the land falls under the jurisdiction of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority.

It appears that the homeowners did attempt to get permission to occupy the sites and construct houses – they had entered into a lease agreement, albeit not with the registered owners of the land, and there was consent from the Mbila Traditional Counsel. Even so, they had not applied for any of the required environmental authorisations that were required because the sites were in a buffer zone.

The outright failure to apply for, or obtain, the required environmental authorisations was not, however, even considered by the court. The decision of the court focused exclusively on the fact that there was no valid lease agreement for the site and that the homeowners had no other right to occupy the land.

The homeowners conceded that they didn’t have a valid lease agreement or any other right to occupy or build on the sites. Their defense was whittled down to a request to the court to be granted an indulgence so that they could enter into the required agreements and apply for any environmental authorisations that were needed.

The court took a dim view of the request for an indulgence, equating it to a request for it to condone illegal actions.

The court applied an earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal (Lester v Ndlambe Municipality and Another 2015 (6) SA 283 SCA) where it was said that a court does not have the discretion to give a person an indulgence to enable them to legalise an illegal use of land – the court must uphold the rule of law and prevent any on-going contravention of the law.

The court doesn’t have the power to forgive, even if forgiveness is only sought temporarily.

The result – the homeowners were ordered to vacate the sites and rehabilitate the land restoring it to a pristine state, requiring that they demolish all buildings.

The take away from this judgement is that it is important to obtain all necessary approvals before undertaking any project or development. In this case the failure to acquire a valid consent to occupy the land was the decisive factor applied by the court, but one must also be careful not to overlook any environmental authorisations that might be required taking into account the nature and location of the development.


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A Primer – National Environmental Management Protected Areas Act

The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, No 57 of 2003 (NEMPAA) is a complimentary act to the National Environmental Management Act, No 107 of 1998 (NEMA). NEMPAA aims to provide for the protection and conservation of ecologically viable areas that are representative of South Africa’s biological diversity. This objective is accomplished through the declaration and management of protected these identified areas (section 2).

The restrictions on the development of protected areas in NEMPAA are in addition to any restrictions placed on prospecting or mining of minerals, or exploration or production of petroleum resources, in terms of the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act, No 28 of 2002 (MPRDA). In the event of any conflicts between these two acts, the provisions of NEMPAA will prevail if the conflict concerns the management or development of protected areas (NEMPAA section 7(1)(a)).

The MPRDA prohibits any right for the prospecting or mining of minerals from being granted over residential areas, public roads, public railways, public cemeteries, land being used for public or government purposes or over any other area identified by the Minister of Mineral Resources, unless the minister is satisfied that the granting of the right is in the national interest, the operations will take place within the framework of the national environmental policies and the interests of other holders of prospecting or mining rights will not be adversely affected (section 48).

Restrictions Imposed by NEMPAA

In addition to the restrictions under the MPRDA, NEMPAA could potentially affect the mineral and petroleum industry in two ways. First, despite being granted the required mineral right in terms of the MPRDA, no person may conduct prospecting, mining, exploration or any related activities in any:

  • nature reserve or national park;
  • protected environment without the prescribed permissions;
  • world heritage site;
  • marine protected area; or
  • protected forest areas, forest nature reserves and forest wilderness areas that have been declared in terms of the National forests Act, No 84 of 1998 (section 48(1) and 48A(1)(g)).

Further, if an area has been or is proposed to be declared as part of a national protected area or as part of a national park after a mineral right is granted, the responsible minister is empowered to expropriate or cancel a mineral right, servitude or any other privately held right in the land (sections 80, 81, 82 and 84). When cancelling or expropriating any rights the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and the Expropriation Act, No 63 of 1975, are applicable. These require the right holder to be compensated for the expropriated right.


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A Guide to the Mineral and Petroleum Industry in South Africa

What laws apply to the mineral and petroleum industry in South Africa? What potential pitfalls must a person look out for when they consider entering into these industries in South Africa?

Unfortunately this isn’t an easy or quick question to answer because the applicable laws and regulations will depend on the projects scope and characteristics – the intended mining or production activities, infrastructure requirements and the project location. But there are two acts that can serve as a starting point. The principle act regulating the mineral and petroleum sector is the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA), and the principle act regulating environmental management is the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA).

In any project it may, however, be necessary to consider various other laws and regulations. The purpose of this note is to give a starting point for a more in depth exploration of the laws applicable to the mineral and petroleum industry.

The following list has links to discussions on some of the acts and regulations in South Africa that may be considered. This list is unfortunately incomplete and non-exhaustive.

Mineral and Petroleum Licensing and Permitting

Environmental Management

Water Management

Taxation

  • Income Tax Act, No 58 of 1962 (Income Tax Act);
  • Mineral and Petroleum Resources Royalty Act, No 28 of 2008 (Royalty Act);
  • Mineral and Petroleum Resources Royalty (Administration) Act, No 29 of 2008 (Royalty Admin Act).

Industry Specific Legislation:

  • Diamonds Act, No 56 of 1986 (Diamonds Act);
  • Petroleum Products Act, No 120 of 1977 (Petroleum Products Act);
  • Precious Metals Act, No 37 of 2005 (Precious Metals Act).

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