In 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)  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.