Jonathan Deal: Successfully Combatting Fracking in South Africa

Jonathan Deal is one of the Goldman Environmental Prize recipients for 2013. With no prior experience in grassroots organizing, he led a successful campaign against fracking in South Africa to protect the Karoo, a semi-desert region treasured for its agriculture, beauty and wildlife.


The Karoo, a dry, desert-like rural area in South Africa, boasts the richest diversity of succulents on earth, and is home to many unique species of lizards, tortoises, scorpions and the riverine rabbit—one of Africa’s most endangered mammals. Especially treasured among artists, photographers and outdoors enthusiasts for its beauty, the Karoo is criss-crossed by a fragile network of gravel roads that deliver its bounty of fruit, vegetables, meat, wool, olives, wine and honey to the cities of South Africa.

Threatening the Karoo is hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking”—drilling for natural gas through shale rock with a highly pressurized mix of water and chemicals. The region is rumored to contain large deposits of shale gas, and in January 2011, Royal Dutch Shell and other companies announced plans to apply for exploratory drilling permits.

The ruling party of South Africa (ANC), with shareholding interests in Shell, has been put in the conflicting position of being both a player and referee in regulating fracking permits. The relationship between the industry and government is close; in fact, one government official has called shale gas a “gift from God.”


For Jonathan Deal and his wife Sharon, it took all of 15 minutes to fall in love with and buy a pristine piece of the Karoo. They turned the property—not within the areas eyed for fracking—into a place where they could enjoy nature and share it with others. Deal’s love affair with the Karoo grew into a book titled Timeless Karoo, published in 2007 after three years of research, writing and photography.

In 2011, Deal read an article in the local newspaper about Shell’s plans to apply for exploratory permits to drill for natural gas in the Karoo. While he had heard about the term “fracking” before, this was the first time he became aware of its threats to the region—and went from being a nature lover to an environmental activist.

His deep knowledge of the Karoo convinced him Shell’s plan wasn’t something that should be pushed through in haste, without careful consideration of its environmental impact and consultation with a diverse spectrum of local communities—many of whom have been historically left out of these conversations. Fracking would require large quantities of water not available in the area, and the boom-and-bust cycle of gas development would hardly provide a sustainable solution to South Africa’s energy and job challenges.


With no prior training in grassroots organizing, Deal immediately got to work, starting a Facebook group to educate the public about the risks of fracking. The page quickly gained an active membership of more than 7,000, some of whom Deal convened at a meeting to form Treasure the Karoo Action Group (TKAG). Over the course of a few short months, they built a viral online presence and coupled it with on-the-ground efforts to inform rural communities about fracking.

Deal led a dedicated team of scientists, legal experts and volunteers to prepare a comprehensive report, delivered by TKAG to President Jacob Zuma, that called for a moratorium on fracking. The team also supported Deal in going head-to-head with Shell executives in public meetings and in the media, challenging them to debate the merits of fracking.

All this work has come at a great personal cost for Deal. He poured his family’s life savings into the campaign, and his business suffered as he devoted all his time to his advocacy work.

Deal’s sacrifices paid off in April 2011, when the government announced a national moratorium on fracking. Shell immediately launched a high-profile media campaign to convince the public that fracking is safe; however Shell was ordered to retract those claims as a result of TKAG’s appeal to the South African Advertising Standards Authority.

The moratorium was short-lived. The government lifted the suspension in September 2012. However, it also commissioned new studies from its science and technology department, signaling a serious approach to examining fracking’s environmental impact. Deal and his team have successfully kept fracking out of South Africa for more than two years, and are preparing to appeal any permits approved by the government under South African laws that guarantee its citizens the right to live in a safe and healthy environment.

Q. What is life like in the Karoo?

A. I think there’s a misperception that the Karoo is a ‘throwaway’ place, somewhere that can be easily exploited; because it is dry and arid, people assume it’s not good farmland. I believe this is why Shell underestimated the will of the people and the people’s spiritual connection to the land. But in fact, the Karoo is home to diverse communities and industries. The Karoo is a big producer of meat and vegetables for South Africa. It is one of the biggest mohair export regions in the world, and also produces wine, olives, honey and leatherwork.

Q. How did you learn about Shell’s plans to begin fracking in the Karoo, and what drove you to stop it?

A. I opened the local newspaper in January 2011 and there was an article about South African business tycoon Johann Rupert having a go at Shell about a new gas station in a town in central Karoo and Shell’s plans to bring fracking to South Africa.

I realized there was more to fracking than I had thought—that with Shell was behind it, it was a significant threat. On the spur of the moment I called a national talk radio station and got on air and said that I didn’t think it was a good idea. I didn’t know much about fracking but my instinct was telling me that it was something that should not be pushed into South Africa in a hurry. Then, I phoned a professor from the University of the Free State I met at a Karoo development conference, and told her what I thought. As a result, when other people asked her about fracking, she told them that I was coordinating a campaign and directed them to me—so by default, I ended up in a leadership position without realizing what was happening.

Q. You succeeded in getting the government to issue a moratorium on fracking; however, that moratorium has since been lifted—why do you think this happened and what’s been your response?

A. The moratorium was lifted because of internal pressures in the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Through the Batho Batho Trust, the ANC has a shareholding interest of more than 20 percent each in Shell’s retail business and Shell marketing in South Africa. It places our government in a very invidious situation where they are both the player and the referee. When they lifted the moratorium, the Minister of Minerals would not share with us the information on their task team that was set up to investigate fracking, so we sued her in October 2011 and succeeded in obtaining a court order compelling her to give us the information. If the minister decides to issue exploratory licenses, we have developed a legal and scientific document that will lay the foundation for us to approach the High Court, and then the Constitutional Court, with an appeal to suspend the licenses.

Q. How do you respond to claims that drilling in the Karoo would improve South Africa’s economy, create jobs and solve the country’s energy crisis?

A. It is debatable how sustainable the shale gas industry actually is. Industry studies in the U.S. have shown that wells dry up after three to four years on average, and that they operate at only 15-20 percent of their initial yield after just 12 months. Additionally, the people that need jobs the most do not have the technical qualifications to secure long-term jobs in the shale gas industry. The impact on South Africa’s water resources would also be enormous. It’s not just a question of where we would get the vast amounts of water needed for fracking. A big issue is that most of South Africa’s water comes from underground aquifers—and the gas companies have not figured out how to drill through and past the aquifers to get to the underlying shale formations without polluting the water. There is also the problem of fracking waste water. The oil companies say they will be able to recycle the water, but in reality, after you’ve recycled the water three times, it will be contaminated and radioactive, and there is no good way to dispose of it.

About the Goldman Environmental Prize

The Goldman Environmental Prize supports individuals struggling to win environmental victories against the odds and inspires ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the world. The Goldman Environmental Prize was created in 1989 by civic leaders and philanthropists Richard N. Goldman and his wife, Rhoda H. Goldman.

The Goldman Environmental Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals. Prize winners participate in a 10-day tour of San Francisco and Washington, D.C., for an awards ceremony and presentation, news conferences, media briefings, and meetings with political, public policy and environmental leaders.

Learn more at www.goldmanprize.org.