On February 09, 2021, the South African High Court sitting at Western Cape delivered a milestone ruling on the protection of Environmental Rights Defenders (ERDs) against Strategic Litigation and against Public Participation (SLAPP) claims. In the Mineral Sands Resources (PTY)LTD and Others vs Reddel and Others case, the High Court upheld the SLAPP suit defence raised by Environmental Rights Defenders that the claim was actuated by the desire to silence the voice of the defenders, thwart their freedom of expression and abuse the court process. The purpose of this article is to examine the decision by the High court and make it more accessible and understandable to Environmental Rights Defenders in Africa The article explains the ruling’s context and content. Further, it explains what the decision mean to Environmental Rights Defenders. The article argues that the ruling shapes how SLAPP suits should be dealt with in Africa as the ruling carries some lessons for ERDs and Judiciaries in Africa.
Context and Content of the Case
SLAPP suits happens to be one of the major emerging threats to environmental rights activism and participation in Africa and the world at large. This is becoming more evident in Africa in the face of globalisation and multinational companies in the Extractives Industries, Oil and Gas. Businesses prefer to operate in an environment where they are not held accountable. When questioned the recent trend has been to abuse the court process through bringing in SLAPP suits. SLAPP suits have been defined as ‘’meritless or exaggerated lawsuits intended to intimidate civil society advocates, human rights defenders, journalists, academics, and individuals as well as organisations acting in the public interests.” They are litigated into silence by corporations and often drained of their resources.
In this case two mining companies that are involved in the exploration and development of major mineral sands in South Africa (Tormin Mineral Sands project and Xolobeni Mineral Sands Project) sued ERDS for defamation. The Environmental Rights Defenders sued are Reddell, Davies and Cullanan who are environmental lawyers. The company also sued Cloete, Dlamini and Clarke who are community activists. The ERDS were sued for defamation in the sum of R 14,25 million, alternatively the publication of apologies. The two companies alleged that the defendant’s activists throughout their advocacy initiatives exhibited in the form of lectures, discussion panels, books, and opinions in which they were criticizing the mining operations and activities of the companies uttered defamatory statements. In essence, the companies wanted monetary compensation or an apology for being criticized by the activists. The ERDS in turn raised two defences to the claims. In their first defence the ERDS indicated that the claims raised by the mining companies was an abuse of court process motivated by the desire to silence them from public participation. They further indicated that the claim was meant to violate their freedom of speech. The second defence raised was that the claim by the mining companies was bad in law. The court dismissed the second defence and dealt comprehensively with the second defence. It is also the second defence that is the centre of this discussion.
The Ruling of the Court and the Protection of Environmental Rights Defenders
The Court came to a finding that this litigation was a well calculated strategy by the mining companies to silence the activists. The Court highlighted that damages claimed by the mining companies were not realistic and exorbitant as the was never an intention to get monetary compensation but to put a financial burden on the defenders. The court further noted that public participation is a key component of any democracy and that individuals and Non-governmental organisations must have the freedom to debate and air their views on environmental issues and sustainable development in their society. The High Court stressed the point that corporates should not be allowed to use the law as a weapon to silence citizens from public participation. In the end the court was satisfied that the claim by the corporates fits the DNA of a SLAPP suit.
This decision constitutes a watershed for the protection of environmental rights defenders against the SLAPP suits. This decision shows progressive jurisprudential development in recent times on how courts should deal with SLAPP suits. There is no doubt that the ruling constitutes a leap forward in shaping the narrative which protection courts should give to ERDS. If environmental rights defenders are to be protected there is need to strike a balance between the need to ensure access to justice and the promotion of rights such as freedom of expression and public participation. Environmental rights defenders thrive in debates and public participation. They thrive in an environment where criticism and scrutiny of businesses on public interest issues is tolerated.
This judgment also sets the tone for corporations who would in the future use SLAPPP suits to silence activists. It deters corporations from the abuse of the court process for the purposes of violating the exercise of freedom of expression. The ruling serves as lesson to corporates to tolerate and accept criticism from the pubic as it is part of a democratic society. Corporates should create safe places that allow environmental rights defenders to thrive.
The High court in this case indicated that South Africa does not have a piece of legislation that specifically protects Environmental rights defenders against SLAPP suits. In its ruling the court highlighted that this can be exploited. Most African countries do not have SLAPP suit specific legal framework which exposes environmental rights defenders to abuse by corporations. This is particularly sad in Africa in this age of globalisation and multinational companies who have all the financial resources to take on SLAPP suits. It is hoped that African states will heed to the call by the court in this case and enact legislation to protect defenders. Such kind of legislation will enhance freedom of expression and participation. It will foster a culture of public debates and good governance as citizens will not fear being SLAPPED.
By and large, the article has briefly outlined the lessons that can be derived from the South African High Court decision. This case is a step in the right direction, and it is hoped that our courts in Africa will take a cue from this case.
About the writer
Richard Ncube is a public interest environmental justice and human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe. He is currently studying for his LLM at the beautiful and prestigious University of Sussex in UK courtesy of arguably the best scholarship in the world (Chevening). His interested in environmental law, climate change and Business and Human rights.
 Mineral Sands (n1) 21.