Working on Fire helicopters battle a blaze in the Wemmershoek Mountains near Franschhoek. The writers says the Working on Fire programme has created 4 409 jobs in this financial year. File picture Brenton Geach

Expanded Public Works Programmes’s jobs should not be dismissed in the way that Wilmot James and Helen Zille have done, says Edna Molewa.

Recent articles by Professor Wilmot James and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille regarding the jobs created through the Expanded Public Works Programmes (EPWP) are unfortunate and misguided, if not mischievous.

This may be a time for political point-scoring, but this should not be at the expense of what is truthful or the dignity and self-worth of those who have secured jobs.

Delivering the State of the Nation address, President Jacob Zuma noted the significance of the Expanded Public Works Programme and the Community Work Programme in effectively cushioning the poor and the youth.

Our various Extended Public Works Programmes (EPWP) under the Department of Environmental Affairs, are rightfully well known for their ability to give the resources and dignity of work to previously unemployed people – with a strong focus on the most marginalised (by race, gender, age and disability), particularly in rural areas.

Oft times when arguments are presented on the work programmes, what is overlooked, is that this work leads to vital benefits for life and livelihoods. These jobs are valued by the beneficiaries .

All surveys conducted have indicated that the vast majority of beneficiaries see the experience as a platform on which to build and as a crucial lifeline to the dignity of earning a basic wage.

Our programmes play a dual role of creating employment opportunities while ensuring we deliver on our mandate of protecting the environment.

What is also important in the jobs our environmental programmes are creating, is the outcomes of these jobs. The Working on Fire programme is an example. It has created 4 409 jobs in this financial year.

These firefighters had fought 2 324 fires by the end of January.

They have also had controlled burning of 37 982 hectares of land, 20 724ha of fire belts created, and manual fuel-reduction of 4 566ha.

By any yardstick, these are valuable and valued jobs that have been created through this works programme.

A calculation done in the last financial year was that up to 85 percent of the fire-fighting capacity for wild fires in the Western Cape came from the Working on Fire programme.

I can only hope Professor James and Premier Zille would echo the praise heaped on the pivotal work of this programme in the province by MEC Anton Bredell.

To build on what Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin has said about the Working on Fire programme, the former chief executive of Forestry SA has said the impact of fires in 2007 on the forestry industry would have been double – that is about R3.6 billion – had it not been for the Working on Fire programme.

We need to do more to quantify the benefits and impacts of our various programmes, but this is a clear indication that this work programme has exceptional returns on investment.

I would like to invite Wilmot James and Helen Zille to join me at the Working on Fire programme, and to meet the beneficiaries.

They will find that these previously unemployed people have an exceptional sense of pride in the work they are doing, and are a model of fitness, discipline and effectiveness.

The Working for Water programme is the biggest of our environmental programmes – with good reason.

The threat of invasive alien species is one of the major factors that will determine our economic, ecological and social development in the country.

The programme will clear invasive plants from more than 1 million hectares of land in this financial year, creating jobs for more than 30 000. Again, it is the outcomes that are critical.

The programme has not been able to re-evaluate a previous assessment by the CSIR of the value of the work of controlling invasive alien plants.

This had put the value at an astonishing R453bn, and then only for the value ascribed to water quantity (R400bn thereof), biological diversity and grazing.

A later meeting of specialists concluded this figure was too high, and we are awaiting a reassessment of the benefits of the work. What is important, though, is the figure is certain to be massive – and reflect an exceptional return on investment.

This would be more so if many of the other impacts were able to be estimated – deterioration of water quality, wild fire damage, impacts on soil erosion, siltation and sedimentation, problems of diseases and decline in the productive use of land and water


As with Working on Fire, the bottom line is that this programme is one that is creating exceptionally important jobs.

And, it is probably now the most recognised and internationally lauded programme of its kind in the world.

The Working for Wetlands programme also has exceptional returns on investment, but these, too, still need to be quantified.

There is no doubt that its work is vital for water quality, water quantity, biological diversity, flood attenuation, disease management, food security and protection of existing jobs – and creation of new jobs through the ecosystem services.

It too would show that its 1 323 jobs are adding real value to the economy, and which are valued by the beneficiaries.

Our People and Parks programme has had extraordinary success in building infrastructure, including tourism accommodation, ranger accommodation, offices, roads, fences and hiking pathways. Once again, we have not quantified benefits as we should, but our workers can certainly look with pride at their accomplishments.

These too are valuable, dignified jobs.

Our Eco-Furniture Programme is seeking to use wood from invasive alien plants to make school desks for more than 500 000 pupils in disadvantaged schools, by the end of the 2014/15 financial year.

This is an exceptional contribution, where more than 3 200 previously unemployed people are learning skills that can sustain their jobs, making much-needed equipment from biomass that is otherwise an unwanted fire risk.


There are naturally ongoing challenges in all programmes, but that is probably true of all employment.

The commitment to task-based work, where appropriate, enhances productivity.


Our programmes are anything but a “digging of holes and filling them up again”, that are understandably maligned. These EPWP jobs should not be dismissed in the way that James and Zille have done.

Our officials worked with the City of Cape Town to help set up the Kader Asmal Project of which mayor Patricia de Lille is so justifiably proud, in the spirit of co-operative governance, and even co-funded some of the initiatives. The worst aspect of this politicising of the government’s genuine attempts to create meaningful work opportunities through the EPWP is the risk that the beneficiaries see their jobs as of little value.

While more must be done to quantify the benefits of these programmes, I have tried to show that these are jobs of which the government – and beneficiaries can be truly proud.

* Edna Molewa is Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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