/ 30 April 2004

Trophy minister for khaki conservation

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the new minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, takes over leadership of a divided and troubled department. The National Intelligence Agency is presently investigating allegations of internal e-mail hacking and forgery involving disgruntled staff members in the department.

Does Van Schalkwyk have the political clout or command the respect needed to keep a lid on this cauldron? His appointment appears to make short shrift of his predecessor Valli Moosa’s hard work in the past five years.

What could it be but a joke, at a time when leading authorities in the sector are urging greater buy-in to tourism and environment from a broader segment of society?

Research shows that less than 12% of South African visitors to national parks are black people. On the eve of his departure from politics, Moosa himself said the failure to get significant numbers of blacks to enjoy the parks was one of the shortfalls of his otherwise successful tenure.

Appointing an ageing white male in khaki shorts to lead a department that already has a number of white males at the helm is a marketing disaster. The message is clear: that environment and tourism remain the preserve of white, relatively conservative interests.

This despite the phenomenal success of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. Despite the fact that poverty relief programmes attached to ecotourism have created millions of extra work days. Despite tourism being the country’s fastest-growing industry, contributing about 11% of the gross domestic product.

The inevitable interpretation is that, like the National Party government before it, the African National Congress insists on making environment and tourism a minor, marginalised political portfolio. As far back as living memory goes — with the brief exception of Moosa’s five years — the portfolio has been used as a dumping ground for dead-beat ministers. It will be surprising if Van Schalkwyk has a passion for the job

President Thabo Mbeki obviously had to throw the erstwhile Western Cape premier a bone to honour undertakings for delivery of the premiership to the ANC. But what political clout will the new minister have in deterring corruption and degradation in the name of development?

He definitely does not have a good track record — there were allegations late last year that he knew about the R400 000 bribe paid to the New National Party for the illegal development of the Roodefontein golf course near Plettenberg Bay, though Van Schalkwyk denied this.

The Independent Democrats’s Patricia de Lille was one of a handful of honest commentators when she reportedly said: ”The ID sees environmental affairs and tourism as a vital portfolio and we will be keeping a close eye on his performance as minister. We hope Kortbroek won’t mess up by selling off our land to build golf courses.”

When Moosa announced his retirement from politics late last year, the Mail & Guardian reported on widespread speculation in the sector that one of the reasons he was leaving was because he could not resist pressure from the Eastern Cape provincial government to give the go-ahead for mining the Pondoland dunes.

Moosa denied this speculation — but then he always was a careful, astute politician.

Was it a coincidence that on the day after Van Schalkwyk’s appointment was announced, Transworld Energy and Minerals Resources (South Africa) announced it had been granted a titanium mining lease for Pondoland in the Eastern Cape? Business Day quoted the CEO of the parent company in Australia saying it was confident approval for the mining would be granted by May next year.

Over the past five years Van Schalkwyk has succeeded in ploughing his party into the dust. What are the guarantees he won’t do the same to South Africa’s natural resources?

Most of the mealy-mouthed statements issued in response to his appointment this week emphasised that the relatively well-run South African Tourism under Cheryl Carolus and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism will keep him in check.

Director general ”Chippy” Olver, whose contract continues until August and is likely to be renewed, has proved to be an efficient but unpopular bureaucrat. What are his chances of holding on to his restless staff if they become the laughing stock of the ANC?

The department is putting a lot of energy into enforcement of environmental regulations, with the ”green Scorpions” and dedicated environmental courts. Is this exclusionist enforcement profile, with a khaki-clad figurehead at the helm, the way to encourage popular buy-in?

Though many environmentalists privately said Van Schalkwyk’s appointment takes the portfolio back to the dark ages, most were hedging their public bets this week by saying they would give him a chance.

Arend Hoogervorst, corporate sustainability adviser and editor of Eagle Bulletin, was one of the few prepared to put the boot in: ”It is very disappointing that the new minister has been appointed for political expediency rather than practical need. We are at a crucial stage in South African environmental legislative development when strong leadership and experience are vital.”

Fortunately, South Africa has a long history of intervention by passionate environmental organisations and individuals in civil society. They will have to continue to pick up the pieces after this appointment — and hopefully it won’t last for five years.