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Mining company threatens environmental activists

- Lee-Anne Bruce

Mineral Sands Resources uses ‘defamation’ case in an attempt to intimidate and silence human rights defenders

On 24 October 2017, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) applied to the Western Cape High Court to intervene as amicus curiae or ‘friend of the court’ in a matter brought by Mineral Sands Resources against two environmental lawyers and a community activist.

Mineral Sands Resources alleges that Christine Reddell and Tracey Davies from the Centre for Environmental Rights and activist Davine Cloete made ‘defamatory’ statements during a lecture at the Unversity of Cape Town’s Summer School Programme in January 2017. Reddell, Davies and Cloete were presenting their thoughts on a previous case against the company’s Tormin mine, which had been investigated for poor environmental practices. They made these statements in exercising their rights to freedom of expression and to protect the environment.

This ‘defamation’ case appears to be an attempt by Mineral Sands Resources to censor, intimidate and silence its critics. This could be seen as an example of strategic litigation against public participation, otherwise known as a ‘SLAPP’ suit. These kinds of law suits are used around the world as a tactic to threaten and distract environmental activists and take up their already limited resources.

CALS has applied to intervene in the matter to assist the Court with this important issue. We argue that this kind of litigation can have a devastating effect on activists who are simply defending their rights or the rights of their clients and communities. We further argue that this particular case is an issue of academic freedom and that being able to critique cases and bring real world examples into a classroom is essential to academia in general and teaching environmental law in particular.

CALS has also applied to the Court to present evidence in the form of a research report on the nature and prevalence of activist intimidation in South Africa, focusing on the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, the North West, and the Western Cape. The research is set to be completed by 28 February 2018.

“The free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of any open and democratic society,” says Lubabalo Mabhenxa from CALS. “SLAPP suits have the effect of closing down spaces for participation, discouraging free speech and costing activists time and money despite the fact that they are often entirely baseless and may have no prospects of success.”