“You must be joking!” was the reported response of one senior academic to the news that Tina Joemat-Pettersson had been elevated to the heavyweight energy portfolio in Jacob Zuma’s new Cabinet.
It does, indeed, seem a bizarre move. Joemat-Pettersson’s performance as agriculture and fisheries minister did not earn her this promotion. She has been a regular source of embarrassment to the government. An adverse finding by public protector Thuli Madonsela on her “blank-cheque attitude towards public funds” on a trip to Sweden; and the protector’s call for disciplinary action on irregularities in the marine fisheries patrol tender. Joemat-Pettersson’s response has been to challenge Madonsela in court.
Major questions have also been posed about her competence. One case is the chaotic failure of the allocation of line-fishing rights, pinned on the now-suspended acting fisheries boss, Desmond Stevens. But the debacle took place on her watch; Stevens says he did nothing without her blessing.
What Joemat-Pettersson does offer is unswerving loyalty to Number One. She is said to have unfettered access to Zuma, and to have earned brownie points for delivering the Northern Cape delegation to him at the ANC’s Mangaung conference. Her department’s plan to donate R800-million to Zuma’s private rural development initiative or project, Masibambisane, was also widely seen as a move to curry favour.
Yet Zuma is not simply advancing a crony, as the Democratic Alliance has charged. The energy ministry is responsible for guiding South Africa’s future energy mix, which includes giant projects and proposed projects in the renewables, hydroelectric, shale gas and nuclear fields. It also controls the strategic Central Energy Fund, which in turn holds controversy-plagued PetroSA, with oversight of mega-deals including acquiring foreign oil fields and possibly developing a new local refinery; the Strategic Fuel Fund Association, which trades oil and holds South Africa’s strategic fuel stocks; and the African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation, the state’s mining vehicle.
The main driver of Zuma’s decision may be that, as he approaches the end of his political life, he is eyeing his legacy and wishing to polish his marble. He is likely to be looking to Joemat-Pettersson to expedite and ensure the desired outcomes in two huge legacy projects, the proposed R1-trillion nuclear fleet and the planned Inga III hydro development in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Zuma has invested huge political capital in these projects.
Joemat-Pettersson will not have full control of big energy procurement projects, which will also involve Eskom and the minerals and energy and public enterprises ministries. But she will be a critical – and most importantly, loyal – stakeholder in many of them.