/ 22 December 2023

Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment

Fishy business: Abalone smuggling in the Western Cape has been and remains an ongoing battle despite attempts to suppress illegal poaching. Photo: Steve Eggington/Gallo Images

Working towards Mandela’s environmental renewal

South Africa has had a mixed bag of environmental ministers over the past 30 years and, bar a few, most have taken the environmental agenda forward

Grade = C+

‘Our people are bound up with the future of the land,” Nelson Mandela wrote in the foreword to an International Mission on Environmental Policy report in 1995. 

“Our national renewal depends upon the way we treat our land, our water, our sources of energy and the air we breathe. Let us restore our country in a way that satisfies our descendants as well as ourselves.”

Mandela’s post-apartheid democratic government, which enshrined environmental rights in the Constitution, inherited exclusionary and fragmented environmental legislation and policies that failed to promote sustainable development. 

While the country’s environmental ministers developed the policy framework for sustainable development, implementation amid structural inequality, widespread poverty, unemployment, corruption, a worsening energy crisis, the climate emergency, remains their litmus test.

Dawie de Villiers (1994-1996) 

The portfolio of environmental affairs and tourism was assigned by the ANC to the National Party in the Government of National Unity (GNU) and Dawie de Villiers’ ministerial assignment to the post was widely regarded as a signal by the ANC that the environment was a low priority of the new government.

If there was a motto for the former Springbok rugby captain and Western Cape National Party stalwart, it could have been “dump it on Dawie”. That’s how the Mail & Guardian described him in its 1995 cabinet report card. He faced strong criticism from opponents in the GNU for wanting to turn South Africa into a dumping ground for toxic waste

His hazardous waste management policy drew widespread backlash. He agreed to a commission of inquiry into toxic waste policy with full consultation.

Pallo Jordan (1996-1999) 

In May 1996, veteran anti-apartheid politician Pallo Jordan became minister of environmental affairs and tourism, with the philosopher-minister preparing the ground for the rise of environmental sustainability.

In 1997, he set a precedent by using section 31A of the Environmental Conservation Act to halt a developer from destroying the habitat of the Brenton Blue butterfly, a species found only near Knysna. 

Jordan, too, drew praise for generating an inclusive vision of his portfolio, giving marginalised people a place in the country’s cultural heritage. During his tenure, the National Environmental Management Act was passed in 1998, following nationwide public consultations.

He oversaw the introduction of the environmental impact assessment regime, while his coastal Green Paper proposed a new policy aimed at promoting economic and social development. The new Marine Living Resources Act ensured the entry of black players in the sector. 

But Jordan was seen as invisible when controversy arose as in the Tuli elephants debacle, where he left his deputy Peter Mokaba to get his hands dirty.

Valli Moosa (1999-2004) 

In each of the M&G’s cabinet report cards during his tenure, Valli Moosa scored an A. He was praised as an outstanding minister, who delighted in his portfolio.

Moosa declared war on South Africa’s “national flower” — the plastic bag — and implemented fisheries policies to prevent the collapse of abalone stocks and to curb poaching. He set up the continent’s first environmental court in Hermanus; established five new marine protected areas; engineered the first transfrontier park in Southern Africa — the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park — and banned 4X4s driving on beaches. 

Moosa grew tourism and focused on poverty relief programmes attached to ecotourism. He worked hard for South Africa to host the successful World Summit for Sustainable Development and represented the country at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change.

In 2001, he was appointed the global facilitator for the final negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol. But civil society groups accused Moosa’s department of failing to act on corporate polluters.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk (2004-2009) 

The appointment of Van Schalkwyk, an “ageing white male in khaki shorts”, was initially viewed as a marketing disaster. Yet he proved himself to be a competent, hard-working minister. 

He rejected the proposed Pondoland toll road, integrated key legislation, pushed transfrontier conservation development ahead of the 2010 World Cup and introduced the Green Scorpions. Tourism boomed and his Sho’t Left campaign invigorated domestic tourism.

Van Schalkwyk set up elephant norms and standards and introduced regulations on the hunting of captive-bred large predators, which drew the ire of lion breeders. He banned asbestos, gazetted the Air Quality Act and declared priority air pollution hotspots under the Act. He succeeded in getting an ambitious roadmap adopted for Africa’s post-Kyoto Protocol climate negotiations. 

His announcement of the closure of the abalone fishery drew an outcry, with the ban revoked the next season, while a court would throw out his 2009 moratorium on the domestic trade in rhino horn for lack of consultation in 2015.

Buyelwa Sonjica (2009-2010) 

Sonjica was appointed the first minister of the new water and environmental affairs department. She set up a high-level technical task team to address acid mine drainage on the Witwatersrand, a national wildlife crime reaction unit to tackle rhino poaching and pushed for the re-establishment of dedicated green courts.

In April 2010, her department released its inaugural Green Drop report. It revealed that only 7% of 449 wastewater plants that were assessed were classified as excellently managed. But Sonjica denied the country was facing a sanitation crisis

With the water department’s finances in disarray, particularly the Water Trading Entity, parliament’s portfolio committee refused to adopt its annual report. Sonjica was axed and replaced by Edna Molewa.

Edna Molewa (2010-2018) 

Molewa, who died in September 2018, has been praised as a true champion of the environment and a hard-working and visionary leader who was respected on the world stage, largely because of her dedicated work in global efforts on the climate crisis. 

In 2011, she facilitated the development of the country’s national climate change response policy and engineered South Africa’s hosting of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) climate talks in Durban. She played a leading role in the negotiations that led to the adoption of the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Molewa, who backed the controversial legalisation of the rhino horn trade, worked tirelessly to combat rhino poaching while her role in several key multilateral agreements saw South Africa host COP17 to Cites in 2016. She prioritised the generation of jobs in the green economy, particularly in the waste sector. 

But there were missteps. Among these are Molewa’s approval for an application for coal mining to go ahead in the Mabola Protected Environment less than three years after the area was granted protected status. She, too, came under fire from environmental justice organisations for her decision to grant temporary emissions compliance exemptions to Eskom, Sasol and other big polluters. 

In 2017, the Pretoria high court set aside the environmental approval for the proposed Thabametsi coal-fired power station, holding that Molewa was obliged to consider climate impacts in her decision but had failed to do so. 

In 2017, she announced an export quota of lion bones for Asia, which she doubled the following year, both of which were found to be unlawful in a 2019 court judgment.

After Molewa’s death, Derek Hanekom was appointed acting minister for three months, followed by a brief stint by Nomvula Mokonyane.

Barbara Creecy (2018-present) 

Creecy, the former Gauteng MEC for finance, was appointed minister of the new portfolio of forestry, fisheries and the environment. 

During the 2022-23 financial year, the department achieved 57 of its 73 targets and achieved its expenditure target of 98% spending of the appropriated budget of R9  billion, compared to the previous financial year’s expenditure of 82%. It finally received an unqualified audit.

Creecy, a hard-working, astute minister who consults widely, is a member of the Presidential Climate Commission. She has championed the Climate Change Bill and other measures to address the climate crisis.

She is pragmatic about the prospects of South Africa’s energy transition, and has stated there is no perfect blueprint. 

The cabinet approved her department’s White Paper on Conservation and Sustainable Use of South Africa’s Biodiversity, which underpins her high-level panel into the management of lion, leopard, rhino and elephant. This approach came under fire from the wildlife ranching sector. 

The white paper domesticates South Africa’s adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework of 30% of the land and 30% of the sea being placed under protection by 2030. Creecy, too, has limited fishing around African penguin colonies and approved a draft shark management plan.

But civil society groups charge that some of her decisions contradict the country’s climate and biodiversity commitments. This includes the environmental authorisation granted to Karpowership’s projects in Saldanha and Richards Bay. To facilitate environmental approval for its Richards Bay plant, Karpowership “offered” Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife a game farm in a contested biodiversity offset.

Creecy dismissed 17 grounds for appeal, including from small-scale fishers, against TotalEnergies’ environmental authorisation to drill five wells 60km off Cape Point. On the heels of her defeat in the landmark Deadly Air case, Creecy allowed Eskom to bypass its sulphur dioxide pollution controls at Kusile to ease load-shedding and has been hauled to court for hydrogen sulphide pollution.

Her department has announced the outcome of the allocation of 15-year fishing rights to small-scale fishers in the Western Cape. Creecy had applied to the high court to review and set aside the 2016 to 2019 process of awarding small-scale fishing rights.

The department scores an overall C+.

Get the M&G’s take on other ministries over the past 30 years:

Department of Health

Department of Police

Department of Finance

Department of Public Enterprises

Department of Human Settlements

Department of Justice and Constitutional Development

Department of Education