Heading up the Department of Environmental Affairs, Minister Edna Molewa takes on the role of governing the body responsible for ensuring oversight of our most precious resource—the environment.
With the many environmental challenges countries face globally, South Africa has seen its own plethora of issues surfacing amidst the dire need for development and growth. Few could argue the value of balance and regulation with regards to our natural environment, as we move toward the goal of sustainability.
The Department of Environmental Affairs was formed with this exact agenda: to monitor and address the challenges our natural environments face and to give guidance and support in the race towards securing it for the future generations of South Africa.
At the head is Minister Edna Molewa, a trusted ANC stalwart in the cause, whose new role is to lead her department’s initiatives in the war against many environmental hazards.
Born in a small town in Limpopo, Bela-Bela (Warmbaths), Molewa’s family relocated to Mabopane in 1974. “It’s a one-street town, with no traffic lights. I was sent to a boarding school at a very young age and we grew up near a farm school where my father was a teacher. The school, Settlers, is about 20km from Bela-Bela. I used to cycle to and from school every day with my brother; it toughened us up. I eventually completed my high school education at Hebron. I enjoy music and reading, and I like good discussions. And then of course, I love sports,” Molewa told BBQ in an exclusive interview.
Leading up to her role at the head of South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, Molewa has held a number of positions that honed her political and governing acumen. Being active in the trade union movement during the struggle years, Molewa says her “real skills” were honed during her union days. As a founding member of Cosatu, she has also served on the National Economic Forum, shaping our country’s policies. In 1993 she was elected as a Member of Parliament. “I must admit that I literally refused the position at first. I did not see myself here in this big house [Parliament]. Thinking back to my trade union days reminds me of my real role—representing the people. I am not here
“I have also been MEC for Economic Development and was later redeployed to the Department of Agriculture before I became the Premier of the North West Province. I wanted to become a premier as I believed that would be where the grounding would start. When you are a premier you really govern. We have a joke that goes once a premier, always a premier. We look at premiers in the room and they will differ from other people, because they have governed. In premiership you oversee all the various departments. That is where I have learnt nearly everything about what is happening in every department in South Africa. So yes, that was my real grounding in preparation for the national work I do today,” she says.
Initiating the discussion on South Africa’s most pressing environmental concerns, Molewa says we have very good laws, policies and strategies, but that some groups are still behind in terms of implementation, which often hinders awareness around the subject. “A community that is living in deep abject poverty and struggling with unemployment does not understand why we have to say to SASOL: ‘You are a big polluter and a danger in these people’s lives and therefore, if you do not improve this facility of yours over time, we will be forced to close you down.’ There has to be that balance,” she says.
This is however tempered with an encouraging display of environmental conscientiousness as more large companies are coming to the fore to monitor their environmental impact and work with the department in finding sustainable solutions. “I really like it that South Africa subscribes to sustainable development. It makes sense, and this is part of the education that we are trying to instill. We are definitely getting somewhere. I think that this is sharpened by the fact that many people know, and many more are beginning to realise, that we are facing numerous dangers. If we degrade or over-harvest our natural resources, we will not have anything left tomorrow. People are beginning to realise that if we pollute, there will not be any proper or good quality resources in the future.
“We didn’t have to lift a finger in the creation of the Carbon Disclosure Project. It is a project that was started by the top 200 companies listed on the JSE. They decided on their own to have carbon emissions data collected and that it is important for them to understand their emissions and carbon footprints. They know that it is crucial to record it, to become transparent and to start to act on it,” she says.
The Green Scorpions, the monitoring body deployed by the department to evaluate and investigate environmental threats, is a group that Molewa says she is very proud of. “We decided that there should be some form of evaluation and monitoring. We still do not have enough people, but they are really trying; they are all over the show. They are there and they are dedicated,” Molewa says.
Moving onto a topic that has many South Africans and international parties up in arms, Molewa says rhino poaching is something she is very concerned about. She refers to it as “a war that we have to win”. She says if it weren’t for the projects and policies put in place by her department, the world would be lacking this iconic African mammal.
“We started to realise the seriousness of rhino poaching in around 2008. The incidents had been increasing and grew from around 100 back then to over 1 000 over the past year. We realised that this issue is also related to security and requested that the Security Cluster declare this a priority—and they did. They also placed it at the Security Cluster level as a standing item.
“We introduced new measures driven by the Department of Environmental Affairs and when we took a look at the permitting system, we found that it was very easy to create pseudo-hunters because of the challenges that we faced in our permitting system. This would often arise from some of the personnel there, because they would issue permits to people they could not see. Hunting would take place without anybody monitoring the event. They would allow a pseudo-hunter a permit that did not exist. Then somebody would shoot a rhino without anybody seeing, because there was no monitoring. We do have a legal hunting system. This kind of hunting is not done by unscrupulous people; I’m talking about people who hunt for trophies and take the heads of the animals as trophies out of the country. And that has been allowed by the law.
“In that process we saw some loopholes. We rushed to parliament, did some regulations and closed the loopholes. In terms of our regulations today, a hunter must be followed by a qualified ranger from beginning to end of the hunt. The challenge in this is that there are not that many rangers in some of the provinces—there is still a shortage of rangers in South Africa. But we have closed this loophole and provinces are now forced to look at who the rangers are, even if they rotate or deal with whoever they have at the time, it is now required in terms of law. If we find that hunters are hunting unsupported, they will face serious consequences. So at least there is that mechanism in place, unlike in the past when everybody and anybody did whatever they wanted to,” she says.
Molewa also highlights that her department started looking at international points of entry and amended the law, which now allows officials who are knowledgeable on the matter to monitor for rhino horn. She points out that this amendment was followed by a request to the Security Cluster to work with the department and post officials at every major point of entry. When dealing with animals, particularly endangered species, only certain ports are used. There are only five of these in the country. Anybody wanting to make use of one of these ports will now have to apply directly to the Minister.
“We reached out internationally and worked out a system together with those countries that we know are either transit-, receiving-, or user-countries. Vietnam, for instance, is a transit country. We are also working with Mozambique, especially because most of our rhinos are stolen in the east of the country near the Mozambique border. Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) where signed between South Africa and Mozambique, resulting in real and successful cooperation. On top of that, the Vietnam implementation plan is also in full operation. Furthermore, we are now working with Cambodia, Laos and Thailand and are hoping to sign MOUs with them, too. We are hopeful that Cambodia will sign before the end of this year. We are, however, still struggling a bit with China to get real co-operation in action.
“MOUs ensure that we have policing and security at the international level. We also have technological innovations now to detect whatever there may be. With the MOUs, we have included a regulatory framework and made suggestions that the laws be strengthened. Mozambique, for instance, did not have laws that gave harsh sentences, but now they do. We have requested them to work jointly with us to sort out those issues. We have also launched a number of awareness campaigns,” she says.
Molewa also highlights the department’s efforts in engaging local communities’ participation and have looked at ownership as an alternative economic opportunity. “We realised that people who are being sent to kill the rhinos often come from the poor communities. They do not see the value in live rhino. So we asked: Could they also have ownership of rhinos—and could they have other economic spin-offs implemented by the department, such as economic development, tourism and social development?”
A final point of concern for Molewa is that the department is still struggling to find effective mechanisms for collapsing syndicates. “We are arresting people in the country up to level two, almost level three, but level four and five are still not happening. We can chase people out of our waters and airports, but when they go beyond those borders, we do not know where they have gone. But as long as they are out there, we will not rest.
“What else did we do? We went to Cabinet and discussed the involvement of other departments and the strengthening of the Security Cluster. And I’m pleased to say that the Security Cluster has been tightened and they have set up a special operation by a special group of police officers, consisting of very knowledgeable and experienced people, who are heading the team that is operating in the Kruger National Park.
“Our environment is a source of life. We have to nurture it. We have to take care of it. If we do not, we do not have a future. If we deplete our water, pollute our rivers and pollute our air, people will die. If we degrade our land and poison it, there will be no food tomorrow—there will be no life. I can go on and on. The future lies here. No industry will exist and continue to exist if it does not look at how it is using and re-using our natural resources. We cannot continue to dig and dig and hope there will be an infinite supply of resources. Our resources are finite and we need to leave them for our children—for future generations to be able to live and still have good economic growth,” Molewa concludes.