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UNDP set to withdraw from SA-China industrial zone pact

- Lauren Liebenberg

Joint release by Living Limpopo, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and All Rise Attorneys for Climate and Environmental Justice


In brief

  • The internal ombud of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has released the findings of an investigation into the agency’s partnership with the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ), a Chinese-South African state-backed industrial mega-project in Limpopo Province.
  • To the relief of the civil society organisations that brought the case, the UNDP’s current “strategic partnership” with the coal-fired industrial zone looks set to terminate.
  • The UNDP’s Social and Environmental Compliance Unit (SECU) found in its draft Investigation Report issued this week, that in entering into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the MMSEZ State-Owned Company (SOC), the UNDP Country Office (CO) “failed to comply with the applicable UNDP policies[1]” and that “The CO should withdraw from its current MOU with the SOC[2]”.


EarthLife Africa and Living Limpopo filed a complaint following the announcement of the signing of the MOU on 17 March 2022. Frustrated by the lack of progress in raising their concerns with the agency, they and a cohort of CSO’s published an open letter to Dr. Ayodele Odusola, the UNDP’s former Resident Representative in South Africa on 7 July 2022. The group slammed the UNDP’s decision to support the planned steel smelter in the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve which is intended to drive extensive coal mining in the largely untouched Greater Soutpansberg Coalfield.

Dr Odusola publicly defended the UNDP’s backing of the SEZ, but in November 2022, SECU declared that there was a charge to be answered and undertook to conduct a full investigation. After a protracted delay, the preliminary findings were published on the SECU Case Registry late on 21 February 2024.  In its conclusions, the report states that “After a full review of the evidence, including a field visit to South Africa, SECU offers the following findings … The UNDP CO’s acts of non-compliance with relevant UNDP policies have increased the threat of harm to the complainants …”.

The harm that the MMSEZ will cause – and the UNDP by extension in supporting and enabling the R344 billion project – is indeed serious. The report records[3] the following allegations made by the complainants:

  • Threat that the MMSEZ will drive coal exploitation: The complainants allege that the MMSEZ will drive coal resource exploitation on a vast scale.
  • Threat to climate change vulnerability: The complainants allege that the project will have extremely high GHG emissions and will undermine South Africa’s GHG mitigation obligations under international agreements.
  • Threat to biodiversity in the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve particularly given the overlap of the MMSEZ footprint with portions of the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve.
  • Threat to access to water: The complainants are concerned that water will go to the water-intensive project at the expense of the resiliency of the Limpopo River basin system and all those who depend on it.
  • Threat of harm to sacred sites and graves; access to land and livelihoods

All of these alleged harms have been identified, and while inadequately assessed, are openly acknowledged in the Environmental Impact Assessment undertaken for the application for Environmental Authorisation of the energy and metallurgical zone site, and independently corroborated in the Advisory issued in February 2023 by the Academy of Sciences South Africa - Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE), which is cited in the SECU report.

Findings and court challenge

The SECU report itself concedes in relation to compliance with its own Social and Environmental Standards (SES) programming principles, that the project could potentially deprive the community of access to land to which they were entitled and decrease people’s access to water, thereby “leaving some people behind”, undermine human rights, adversely affect gender relations in affected communities and undermine women’s empowerment, and to have potential environmental and social impacts that “risk undermining the project’s claims to promote sustainable development, and resilience[4].

Environmental Authorisation has since been granted by LEDET, the conflicted Limpopo provincial government department that is also sponsoring the project, and is now the subject of three pending judicial review applications brought before the High Court, including by the Centre for Environmental Rights acting for EarthLife Africa and others and All Rise Attorneys for Environmental and Climate Justice acting for the Wits Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and Living Limpopo.

In the meantime, the UNDP’s emblem is unlikely to be emblazoned on the MMSEZ SOC’s website much longer.

“The MMSEZ is an environmental and economic Chernobyl and we are gratified that our objections to its endorsement by the UNDP in this manner have been upheld. We look forward to entering into a constructive dialogue with the UNDP on the alternative, nature-based economic development plan for the Vhembe Biosphere Reserve for which Living Limpopo advocates. The emerging possibilities for this rich biodiversity reservoir and carbon sink are truly exciting.”  

Lauren Liebenberg, Living Limpopo

“The SECU findings vindicate the position of civil society and impacted communities put forward in the open letter to the UNDP:  Firstly that concerns about the MoU cannot be dismissed simply because of its non-binding nature since it was being publicly used to convey UN backing for the MMSEZ, and secondly, and most importantly, that the SEZ poses a grave threat to community livelihoods and way of life, water security, biodiversity and the prevention of runaway climate change. The UNDP and all decision-makers now have a new opportunity to meaningfully consult communities and other stakeholders on how to chart a people-centered development path that brings much needed broad-based prosperity while conserving this irreplaceable landscape.”

Robert Krause, Centre for Applied Legal Studies

The report available here is open for public comment until 20 March 2024.

For enquiries, please contact:

From EarthLife Africa:

From Living Limpopo:

From the Centre for Applied Legal Studies:

From All Rise Attorneys:

[1] @ Para. 79.

[2] @ Para. 80.

[3] @ Para. 77.

[4] @ Para. 70.