A ‘flying star who remains a grounded gem’ delivers inaugural lecture

16 May 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photos Lerato Maduna. Read time 8 min.
Prof Lesley Green delivers her inaugural lecture in the Mafeje Room in UCT’s Bremner Building.
Prof Lesley Green delivers her inaugural lecture in the Mafeje Room in UCT’s Bremner Building.

“Professor Lesley Green has big ideas, and projects that are innovative, that the rest of us cannot keep up with. Ever bold in her intellectual strides, and deeply ethical, she challenges the dominant intellectual traditions in social and environmental sciences. She is a fierce proponent of social justice, and upholds futures that move away from monolithic thinking towards embracing pluralism.”

The dean of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Humanities, Professor Shose Kessi, delivered these introductory remarks moments before she called Professor Green to the podium to present her inaugural lecture. Held in the Mafeje Room in UCT’s Bremner Building on Tuesday 14 May, the lecture was titled: “From Homo Economicus to Homo Sedimenta: learning from the failed impact assessment for Cabo Delgado’s offshore gas projects, Mozambique”. The lecture marked Green’s ascent to full professor – a milestone in a scholar’s academic career.

Describing Green as a transdisciplinary and multidisciplinary researcher, Professor Kessi said her collaborations with colleagues far and wide have carved futuristic work for young, emerging scholars in the field. And her ability to mentor these researchers with distinction, while safeguarding her pioneering work, contributes to her excellence.

Finding offshore gas

Prof Lesley Green (centre) with prof Heidi van Rooyen (far left), the acting deputy CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council; prof Elelwani Ramugondo (left), deputy vice-chancellor for transformation, student affairs and social responsiveness; prof Daya Reddy (right) vice-chancellor interim; and prof Shose Kessi, the dean of the Faculty of Humanities (far right).

When she reached the podium, Green highlighted the highly publicised Cabo Delgado gas project in Mozambique, which has been making local and international headlines for years.

In the mid-2000s, when trillions of cubic feet of gas were found offshore from Cabo Delgado, the province went from being an idyllic tourist destination, featured in tour brochures as a holiday destination of choice, to front page news. Three gas extraction projects ensued rapidly, one of which was led by TotalEnergies (Total). Exxon Mobil led the second extraction project, and shared a processing plant with Total on the Afungi Peninsula, on the border of Mozambique and Tanzania.

Following the discovery, Total commissioned an environmental and social impact assessment running to almost 5 000 pages on completion. But years later, the energy giant declared force majeure (an act of God) regarding the collapse of the project.


“So, to declare force majeure after [almost] 5 000 pages of research over four years … I think it’s fair to say that something is wrong with your science.”

“So, to declare force majeure after [almost] 5 000 pages of research over four years … I think it’s fair to say that something is wrong with your science. Let’s start with this force majeure; and how did we get here?” Green asked.

Good news for Africa

In 2019, a multilateral African bank announced that the liquified natural gas project advanced three of its “high fives”. This, Green explained, meant that the project directly contributed to lighting up and powering Africa, industrialising Africa, and improving the quality of life of the people of Africa. The bank subsequently approved a multi-billion-dollar loan to further power the project. This decision was made on the basis of Total’s environmental and social impact assessment – which, she added, was researched meticulously by various scientists, including hydrologists, botanists, archaeologists and social scientists. The assessment was completed between 2013 and 2016, and demonstrated how best to mitigate the damage the development would cause to the Afungi Peninsula.

According to Green, the extraction project was set to be an enormous development, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars in procurement, heavy machinery and building operations. These included an enclosure surrounded by two 12-foot (3.6-metre) fences. Inside, contractors built a port, street grid, power station, water plant, emergency room, cafeteria, bar and gym. En suite cabins designed for Total’s managers were also built, and massive trucks were transformed into workers’ camps with four-bedded cabins and communal bathrooms. Because the development required 6 500 hectares of the Afungi Peninsula, she said, villagers living nearby were removed to make way for the development.

“Multiple studies found that local people were totally left out of the procurement chains, which overwhelmingly went to elite foreign operators, stoking a sense that [the project] had failed local people,” she said.

A massacre

Essentially, things had already started to unravel in 2016, a few years before the bank approved the multi-billion-dollar loan. Between 2016 and 2019, hundreds of locals were killed in brutal attacks in the region. And according to the International Crisis Group – a non-profit organisation working to prevent wars and shape policies to build a peaceful world – while foreigners joined the conflict “in the name of jihad, most of the Mozambican rank and file militants [were] motivated by their perceived socio-economic exclusion amid major mineral and hydrocarbon discoveries in the region”.

In 2021, as violence escalated, Total temporarily suspended operations in the region. However, Green said, it didn’t end there; just days after that announcement, more than a thousand people were killed in an attack on Palma, north-east of Cabo Delgado. Shortly thereafter, she continued, Total declared force majeure, and all projects were stopped indefinitely – with no penalties due, because “everything was unforeseeable”.


“The reality is that the worsening of the conflict was actually not unforeseen.”

“Yet we have 4 795 pages of environmental and social impact assessment. Why was the conflict ‘unforeseen’? The reality is that the worsening of the conflict was actually not unforeseen.”

‘Security risks will evolve’

Thanks to a successful court order filed by Friends of the Earth International – the world’s largest grassroots environmental federation – who requested access to key documents under the Freedom of Information Act, several themes emerged, Green said. In 2019, as the bank’s decision-makers sat to finalise their multi-billion-dollar investment, they stated: “Mozambique represents a rapidly evolving security [risk]. Security risks and threats to the project will evolve rapidly. The situation will worsen before it improves.”

Prof Lesley Green.

But nowhere in Total’s environmental and social impact assessment, said Green, were these risks noted. Yet the energy giant had advised on a “major resettlement programme” that required that Muslim villagers be moved to majority Christian villages. In addition, those who were removed were fishermen, who after resettlement were expected to make their livelihoods inland.

“The curious question remains: why have [scientists] and the environmental consultancy – who is based here in Cape Town, [and] whose scientific authorities [were used] to authorise the project – why were they, as scientists, unable to contest the plan that would so clearly impact the landscape, life and livelihoods in unforeseen ways?” she asked.

Privatising science

Green proceeded to answer her own question.

“The gig economy has privatised science. The best you can do as a scientist who hopes to serve the environment is to deliver on your terms of reference. Someone else will put the pixels together for the corporate boardroom, and what happens after that is none of your concern. There’s no capacity to respond to the unforeseeable. This is the opposite of what science should be, [which is] independent and impartial,” she said.

And Total’s force majeure?


“…I think it’s more accurately [described as] ignorance majeure.”

“Given what we know about what was going on in the boardroom, TotalEnergies’ force majeure … I think it’s more accurately [described as] ignorance majeure.”

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The UCT Inaugural Lecture Series


Inaugural lectures are a central part of university academic life. These events are held to commemorate the inaugural lecturer’s appointment to full professorship. They provide a platform for the academic to present the body of research that they have been focusing on during their career, while also giving UCT the opportunity to showcase its academics and share its research with members of the wider university community and the general public in an accessible way.

In April 2023, Interim Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy announced that the Vice-Chancellor’s Inaugural Lecture Series would be held in abeyance in the coming months, to accommodate a resumption of inaugural lectures under a reconfigured UCT Inaugural Lecture Series – where the UCT extended executive has resolved that for the foreseeable future, all inaugural lectures will be resumed at faculty level.

























2016 and 2015


No inaugural lectures took place during 2015 and 2016.