Of all President Jacob Zuma’s new Cabinet appointments, Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s was perhaps the most jaw-dropping.
South Africa faces major energy security challenges, yet Zuma handed the policymaking keys over to someone who made a royal mess of her previous agriculture, forestry and fisheries portfolio.
A department insider said Zuma installed Joemat-Pettersson with the mandate to deliver on his two pet legacy projects: the R1-trillion nuclear mega-programme, which had been stuck on repeat under her two predecessors, and the Inga 3 hydroelectricity project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which could become the biggest hydropower project in the world.
The nuclear and hydro deals are supposed to cement South Africa’s place geopolitically in the Brics group of countries – with Brazil, Russia, India and China – and sub-Saharan Africa respectively. But the problem with both projects is that they are so long-term they will not solve South Africa’s immediate electricity crisis. Complex megaprojects are also magnets for corruption and inefficiency.
Joemat-Pettersson has so far not disappointed her principal, signing a co-operation agreement with her Congolese counterpart in September in support of a commitment to buy half the power produced by Inga 3. But it is the nuke project that has dominated headlines; so much so that a senior treasury official is said to have grumbled that “under Tina, nuclear is the only game in town”.
In October, the department signed the first intergovernmental co-operation agreement with an interested nuclear vendor, Russian state-owned company Rosatom. This was followed up by agreements with France and China. These agreements significantly advance South Africa’s readiness to procure nuclear energy.
The outcry that met news of the Russian agreement – a joint communiqué whose wording strongly suggested that Russia’s participation in the nuclear new-build was a fait accompli – should have been a lesson to Joemat-Pettersson to be far more open and transparent with the public about the deals she signs behind closed doors. But the smug nuclear doublespeak continues, with her officials stating their commitment to transparency while simultaneously declining to disclose any substantive details to the public.
Then in November Joemat-Pettersson was caught telling porky pies. She assured Parliament that she had not pushed for the appointment of controversial businessperson Tshepo Kgadima as PetroSA chair, only for her letter of recommendation to wash up in the public domain a few days later.
Kgadima’s appointment was cancelled, but Joemat-Pettersson shrugged off the scandal. Her Teflon coating remains as nonstick as ever.