Tainted figure to chart SA’s energy course
"Winter is coming." The gloomy tagline of TV show Game of Thrones, promising cold and darkness, was proclaimed by many social media commentators in response to the news that the controversial Tina Joemat-Pettersson is to take up the role of Minister of Energy. Contrary to apparently widespread belief, managing oversight of Eskom does not currently fall under the Energy portfolio but rather under the Department of Public Enterprises, to be helmed by former Western Cape Premier Lynne Brown. But that doesn't mean that the Energy top job is insignificant.
The news that former Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was to take on South Africa's energy portfolio has been greeted widely with concern. Concern is justified, but some of it seems based on a misunderstanding about what the Department of Energy is actually tasked with doing.
First the justified stuff. Joemat-Pettersson's stewardship of her previous department was controversial, to say the least. Her department received an unqualified audit for five years, but the Auditor-General's latest clean bill of health was contradicted by findings of the Public Protector. The biggest controversy of her tenure was the granting of an R800 million tender to Iqbal Surve's Sekunjalo consortium to manage the state's fishery, research and patrol vessels.
The department made the award to Sekunjalo despite the fact that the company had no experience in the relevant field, while competitor Smit-Amandla had over ten years' experience. The contract was later withdrawn, with the management of the relevant vessels temporarily turned over to the navy, which resulted in a 20-month period of no patrols or research being done off South Africa's coast. Poaching was consequently rife.
The issue came to light after DA MP Pieter van Dalen asked Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to investigate the tender award. Madonsela's report found that Joemat-Pettersson had dealt recklessly with "state money and services, resulting in fruitless and wasteful expenditure, loss of confidence in the fisheries industry in South Africa, alleged decimation of fisheries resources in South Africa and delayed quota allocations due to lack of appropriate research".
Madonsela's report also noted that Joemat-Pettersson had requested that Justice Minister Jeff Radebe intervene to ensure that the "unnecessary" investigation by the Public Protector's office be called off. Once the report was released, Joemat-Pettersson threatened to have it reviewed by a court.
(Part of the collateral damage resulting from the scandal was that the Sekunjalo-owned Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois was removed from her job after publishing a front-page article on Madonsela's finding, though it was claimed that the two events were coincidental.)
The other major contentious issue of Joemat-Pettersson's tenure was her department's handling of fishing rights allocations in 2013, which saw many small commercial fishermen faced with losing their livelihood. After court action was instituted against Joemat-Pettersson by the SA Commercial Linefish Association, the minister ordered an audit which found that the allocation process had "a number of potentially fatal weaknesses". Joemat-Pettersson was forced to scrap the allocations.
In October 2013 the DA also criticised an initiative of Joemat-Pettersson's department called "Fetsa Tlala" (End Hunger), which was a R2 billion food security project which the opposition claimed was being used at least in part to distribute ANC T-shirts.
Additionally, Joemat-Pettersson's personal spending has come under fire. In 2011, a parliamentary reply revealed that Joemat-Pettersson had spent R1,6 million on luxury hotel accommodation since April 2009, including double-bookings for two hotels on the same night, and stays at hotels in Pretoria despite the fact that she should have had an official residence there. Another Public Protector report found that Joemat-Pettersson unlawfully used public funds to fly her two children and an au pair from Sweden to South Africa in January 2010.
Add to this a track record of repeatedly clashing with top departmental officials, and the impression you're left with is not altogether glorious, despite the minister telling Die Burger that she was leaving the department with her head held high. In the Mail & Guardian's 2013 Cabinet report card, Joemat-Pettersson earned herself an F.
Yet when May 2014 rolls around, we see Joemat-Pettersson keeping her ministerial seat: this time heading up the Department of Energy.
The DA has interpreted the appointment as part of Zuma's "jobs for pals" preoccupation; a reward for loyalty. (It works both ways, apparently, since the DA also accused Zuma of previously protecting Joemat-Pettersson.) "If we could not trust Minister Joemat-Pettersson to issue fishing licenses," DA Shadow Minister of Energy Lance Greyling asked, "how can we be expected to trust her with keeping South Africa's lights on?"
The statement may have inadvertently fuelled the perception that the Department of Energy solely oversees Eskom, which is not the case. Though the department sets energy policy, Eskom is one of nine state-owned enterprises (out of around 300) which currently fall under the Department of Public Enterprises. It's one of the aspects that makes this portfolio particularly challenging, which is why the appointment of Lynne Brown to head it has raised some eyebrows. Brown has extensive experience in political leadership but has never previously served as a national government minister - and it's a department crying out for a big-hitter.
Despite the heaviness of Brown's load, however, her appointment seems to have been greeted with greater enthusiasm than Joemat-Pettersson's. Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) was one of the groups voicing concern at Joemat-Pettersson's new role on Monday. Given the importance of the energy portfolio to South Africa's economic performance, acting CEO Cas Coovadia said the ministerial role "should have been given to a person experienced in the field and able to bring critical stakeholders together to address the serious energy sustainability issues in South Africa".
Among the most important of Joemat-Pettersson's tasks will be to drive South Africa's renewable energy agenda, vital to securing the country's energy future. She will also have to work harder than her predecessors on promoting energy efficiency. Many eyes will be on the Department of Energy to clarify the role which fracking - shale gas exploration - will play in South Africa's future. In March former Energy Minister Dipuo Peters said the department would only announce the work being done in this respect "when they are ready".
It is the Department of Mineral Resources, however, which will likely be handling fracking's nuts and bolts. Mineral Resources was separated from Energy in 2009.
Energy consultant Dirk de Vos was taking a reasonably upbeat view of Joemat-Pettersson's appointment when contacted by the Daily Maverick. De Vos said he believed that the nature of the Department of Energy would make it a lot harder for Joemat-Pettersson to run it in the manner of a small business, because there would be less opportunity for ministerial discretion.
De Vos said that he thought Joemat-Pettersson was a "very compromised" choice, but the opportunity for damage might be limited. "A lot of the work of the department is highly technical, and in terms of future policy, a lot of it is set in stone already," he said. As example he cited the revision of the Integrated Resource Plan of 2010, released last year, which sets out the country's 20-year energy road map.
De Vos reiterated that the immediate pressure for South Africa's electricity future would fall much more intensely on Lynne Brown, if the management of Eskom remains under her department's purview.
"Whoever is the minister on top when the lights start to go off is the one who is going to be the most hated in the country," he said.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.