Creecy looks exhausted. By her own account, she hasn’t had much in the way of respite since becoming a minister seven months ago. Between ANC meetings, parliamentary work and running the ministry, she also went to Spain for international climate negotiations at COP25.
It’s her first ministerial job, after spending 25 years in Gauteng in various capacities in local and provincial government. Her experience as the MEC responsible for finance in Gauteng had her tipped for that role nationally.
Instead, she is in charge of merging two departments with different realities: environment affairs and forestry and fisheries.
The environment department is relatively well run and staffed by good people. But its greatest problem is that the current and former administrations care little about the environment, beyond paying it lip service. That was illustrated when President Cyril Ramaphosa parked Nomvula Mokonyane in environment, a minister so tainted that she should have instead been put in jail.
This lack of support has affected the department’s performance. Although it tried to enforce section 24 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to a healthy environment, realpolitik meant other departments got their way. For example, when it tried to regulate air pollution, to cut down on the 20 000 deaths a year from air pollution, Eskom and Sasol being the biggest culprits, their custodian departments — trade, energy and public enterprises — had greater political clout. When it tried to enforce legislation requiring companies to rehabilitate mines, its oversight role was given to the mineral resources department. Consequently, the state has a R49-billion bill to clean up abandoned mines.
Creecy has inherited a disaster in the forestry and fisheries component of her ministry. Under the oversight of Tina Joemat-Pettersson, their mandates collapsed, with constant qualified findings by the auditor general. The former public protector, Thuli Madonsela, found that the minister had tried to interfere in an investigation into her alleged misconduct in the irregular awarding of an R800-million contract for patrol boats to prevent illegal fleets fishing in South Africa’s waters.
The department also messed up the awarding of fishing quotas to small-scale fishing people, leaving a crucial part of the coastal economy in trouble. Last month Creecy awarded new quotas.
She has also taken other steps to show that her expanded department intends to push back against its peers. She, for example, stopped a mine going ahead on farmland in eastern Gauteng.
Forestry and fisheries has a tiny budget of R2.5-billion and environment has a R7.5-billion budget. Put together, this is half a percent of government spending.
To strengthen its position, the combined department has started talking up the value of a healthy environment. Earlier this year, it said two million people are directly dependent on the natural environment for their income — 900 000 in agriculture, 600 000 in fisheries and 400 000 in the biodiversity economy being the majority of these.
Creecy also comes to power at a transition moment — the climate crisis. South Africa has done little concrete work on reducing carbon emissions and preparing people for the changing climate.
The minister is the de facto champion of a future that we can live in. It is the mandate of her department. But the ANC is terrified of doing anything about the coal region of Mpumalanga, despite its carbon pollution, because it gets so many votes there. It is therefore up to the Presidential Climate Change Commission to get government as a whole to take the future seriously.
Where Creecy must do something is in sorting out the confusion between her department and the treasury’s on how to change companies’ polluting behaviour regarding carbon emissions. The different approaches mean policy uncertainty and so companies don’t know what to do — and they also have an excuse to put off reducing emissions.
There is also the problem of poaching and trafficking of numerous endangered species.
The department favours a model where “wild” animals have to pay their own way. Some environmental groups disagree. The department argues that the key to conservation is to ensure people benefit, which in turn cuts down poaching. Some sort of solution is needed to this impasse.
Creecy’s mandate is the health of our living world. She needs the backing of the person who appointed her. Without that, our future will be a more broken one.