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S. Africa: Court slams mining giant for attempting to use a SLAPP suit to silence criticism and environmental activism

‘A momentous legal victory for environmental activism and free speech’ 10 February 2021

On Tuesday, the South African High Court held that a series of defamation lawsuits brought by Australian mining company Mineral Commodities Ltd (MRC) and its local subsidiary, against six environmental activists, is an abuse of the legal process. MRC and its subsidiary sued the defendants for a total of ZAR14.25 million (approximately USD 980 000). In her judgment, Deputy Judge President Patricia Goliath found that SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) was a viable defence for the activists and public interest lawyers against the mining companies’ claims.

…The lawsuits arose from statements made by two community activists, Davine Cloete and Mzamo Dlamini; two attorneys at the Centre for Environmental Rights, Christine Reddell and Tracey Davies; private attorney Cormac Cullinan; and social worker John Clarke. Cloete, Reddell and Davies, speaking at the University of Cape Town’s Summer School in January 2017, had criticised MRC subsidiary Mineral Sands Resources (MSR) for environmental destruction and non-compliance with mining and environmental laws, at its Tormin mine on the West Coast. In 2015, a massive cliff collapse at the Tormin mining site raised the alarm of environmental activists, scientists and authorities about this operation. Despite this, MSR has since received approval from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy significantly to expand its operations on the West Coast, and appeals against the expansion has been rejected by the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

…“We welcome this judgment as a clear signal from the courts that our law provides protection for civil society activists who engage in robust debate and free expression in the course of their activism,” says Leanne Govindsamy, Head of Corporate Accountability & Transparency at the CER. “This judgment makes it clear that, in South Africa, corporations will not succeed in using SLAPP suits to silence criticism about their environmental impacts from environmental activists.” “As the environmental and climate justice movement grows in response to the climate crisis and ecological breakdown, environmental activists who criticise corporations that contribute to climate change and destruction of biodiversity are facing growing threats and intimidation. Although there is still a lot to be done to protect activists from threats and intimidation in South Africa, as the recent murder of anti-mining activist Mam Fikile Ntshangase in KwaZulu-Natal in October 2020 so painfully reminds us, it is a relief that our courts recognise and are willing to protect the crucial importance of civil society activism for environmental justice,” says Melissa Fourie, CER Executive Director.

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