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Incredulity about Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s appointment as energy minister is understandable, given her track record, writes John Yeld.
Cape Town - “You can’t be serious?” The incredulity expressed in this tweet by UCT energy professor Harald Winkler echoes the response of many to the appointment of outgoing agriculture, forestry and fisheries minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson to her new portfolio of energy.
The reaction is understandable.
The Department of Energy is at the heart of driving the government’s commitment to a future green, low-carbon economy – as expressed in the National Development Plan and Treasury’s carbon tax policy paper of May last year, for example. There are highly technical issues involved and strong political disagreements (although also some consensus) on how best to proceed.
The decisive, effective handling of the energy portfolio will be crucial to efforts to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality through providing the means for sustained economic growth.
But Joemat-Pettersson’s track record of achievements and delivery in fisheries is, to put it politely, poor. During her tenure, she did not publicly demonstrate any enthusiasm or ability to get to grips with the technical issues in this sector, nor was she in any hurry to meet and engage all the important players in the field.
There were also some major problems in agriculture, such as the three-year ban – now lifted – by the EU on red meat imports from South Africa that cost the country an estimated R4 billion because of the failure to contain foot-and-mouth disease.
Not surprisingly, the ANC has found no fault with any of the cabinet changes announced on Sunday: “The cabinet is a balanced and experienced corps of men and women who shall carry forward our nation’s hope and resolve for radical socio-economic transformation… We have full confidence in the ability of our public representatives to fulfil the commitment made by (President Jacob) Zuma that the fifth democratically elected administration will serve our people with humility, commitment and dedication.”
Opposition leader Helen Zille takes a different view, singling out the former fisheries minister for specific criticism: “In particular, the move of Tina Joemat-Pettersson to the Department of Energy is lamentable. (She) performed very poorly as minister of agriculture, and does not deserve to serve in the executive.”
In media analyses and on Twitter, comments ranged from mild to rude and unprintable: “Shows that Zuma is still tolerant of scandal and bad performance”; “Joemat-Pettersson in the key energy portfolio is perhaps the biggest disaster waiting to happen as her track record in agriculture, forestry and fisheries was a disgrace”; “Zuma is nothing if not forgiving of friends”; “as if Eskom doesn’t have a bad enough crisis to get through!” and “prepare for black outs, chaos and economic failure.”
Some of these responses are a bit unfair, however. For example, Eskom is the political responsibility of the minister of public enterprises (Lynne Brown), so the energy minister does not have sole responsibility for “keeping South Africa’s lights on”. That said, though, the Energy Department plays a crucial role in ensuring a secure power supply for the country and in developing and promoting new sources of energy, particularly by independent power producers under its renewables programme.
Nor will the new minister have the initial say in the development of a shale gas industry – if this materialises – because exploration and production permits for fracking are the responsibility of the mineral resources minister.
However, Joemat-Pettersson will have direct responsibility for setting policy that will result in huge government tenders for new power generation, including possibly the biggest yet: the estimated R1 trillion tender for three new nuclear power stations to generate 9 600MW of electricity that the government has mooted under its 20-year Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2010) to meet power demand up to 2030.
But the revised version of this plan from last year suggested a delay in the nuclear build programme, partly because of uncertainty around the huge cost but also because of lower-than-expected electricity demand.
Lance Greyling, the DA’s energy spokesman, tweets that the energy portfolio requires a minister “who can stand firm against vested interests and ensure our energy plan is the best mix for South Africa… (It) requires somebody with the political will and capital to drive through urgent institutional restructuring of the sector. I am really wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to the new energy minister, but I am deeply concerned”.
His former colleague and DA MP Gareth Morgan tweets: “There are many good ministers in Zuma’s cabinet, but Joemat-Pettersson is not one of them. Energy is in effect a promotion from her previous portfolio.”
Agri SA president Johannes Möller, however, takes a much softer line: “I want to thank Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson for her contribution to the agricultural sector… and to wish her well with her new portfolio that will hold unique and important challenges. Under her leadership and that of deputy minister Pieter Mulder, the ‘agricultural policy action plan’ came into being, among other things, and a platform was created that her successors can build on.”
On May 19, veteran traditional fisherman and founder of the Artisanal Fishers Association Andy Johnston, now retired, wrote an open letter to Joemat-Pettersson in response to the recent R50m “Foodcorp” scandal involving her former department’s controversial reallocation of confiscated rock lobster and hake rights.
“Why don’t you in power not transform the lives and human conditions of our poor people as promised, but continue to allow the atrocities of mismanagement to occur with impunity? It seems that we have been horribly betrayed...
“Corruption, incompetence and lack of political correctness in the fishing industry is akin to an infectious genetic virus that has gestated in all departments of government, companies, public officials and community leaders.”
Zuma and his new cabinet – and especially Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson – will have their work cut out for them if they are to avoid a similar appraisal at the end of their five-year term of office.
* Joemat-Pettersson has not replied to a request for comment on what she sees as her legacy in her previous post, especially fisheries, and her biggest challenges in energy.
** John Yeld is Cape Argus environment and science writer.