Edna Molewa: Minister who combined conservation and development


30 September 2018 - 00:00 By Chris Barron

Edna Molewa, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 61, was in charge of two critically important government portfolios for eight years, first as minister of water affairs & the environment, then as minister of the environment.
Although she made enormously controversial decisions without adequate consultation and was accused of putting commercial interests above those of the environment and conservation, she had a reputation for being one of the more competent and least corruptible members of former president Jacob Zuma's cabinet.
In July this year the French government awarded her the Legion of Honour for her role in the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, in spite of the fact that after it was signed she downplayed concerns about the threat of climate change and the need for greater reliance on renewable energy.
In February this year environmental organisations accused her of cynically using the outdated integrated resource plan (IRP) 2010, before the new one could be finalised, to justify authorising a new coal-fired power station in Limpopo.
This was after a coalition of environmental organisations took her to the Pretoria high court, which ordered her to consider a climate impact-assessment report first.
Having done so she said considerations of the harm that would result from new coal-fired facilities were outweighed by the benefit to the country of having old-energy generation capacity.
"While the environmental and social costs associated with the proposed power station are high, this does not necessarily represent a fatal flaw," she said.
She was criticised for her management of wetlands and failure to do more to protect them from the impact of mining.
Her department was frequently criticised for failing to respect due process when making regulations and issuing proclamations.
She was criticised for not releasing quarterly reports on rhino poaching or the arrest of suspected poachers, despite repeated assurances that she would.
Last year she announced a 10% decrease in the number of rhinos killed in SA for their horn, due partly to a mobile radar system used to detect poaching activity.
But she ignored the findings of environmental organisations and compliance with the CITES treaty when she overturned a government ban on rhino horn trade, allowing private rhino breeders to sell their stockpiles under certain conditions experts said her department lacked the capacity to monitor.
In 2017 she approved a yearly export quota of 800 lion skeletons from the captive-bred lion industry while it was supposedly still under scientific scrutiny, sparking criticism by local and international conservationists, scientists, animal welfare organisations and the public, all of whom complained that they hadn't been adequately consulted.
The international outcry damaged SA's tourism industry, which, although mourning her death, reacted positively to tourism minister Derek Hanekom's appointment as acting minister in her place.
Despite the controversy, Molewa nearly doubled the lion bone export quota in July this year while the South African National Biodiversity Institute's three-year research project, started in 2017, was still under way. Researchers involved in the project distanced themselves from the decision.
Born Bomo Edith Edna Molewa on March 23 1957 in Bela-Bela in Limpopo, she completed her high school education and teacher's training at Hebron Training College and taught for five years while also serving in the underground structures of the liberation movement.
In the 1980s she became active in the civic and trade union movement and became deputy president of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union when it was one of the country's largest unions.
She was detained several times.
She went to parliament in 1994 and was the first female chair of the portfolio committee on trade and industry.
She was the first woman provincial chair of the ANC in the North West and in 2004 its first woman premier.
She was a member of the ANC's national executive and national working committee, and chaired its international relations subcommittee.
Her career in environmental conservation began when she headed the department of environment and tourism in the North West in 1996, followed by the department of agriculture, conservation & environment in 2000.
She became minister of social development in 2009, and minister of water & environmental affairs in Zuma's cabinet in 2010.
In 2013 she launched the country's second national water resources strategy, which was criticised for sacrificing reality to ideology, though it emphasised that water security, quality and management had to be resolved urgently.
In 2014, after warning that R293bn needed to be spent on infrastructure over the next five years, 100 times more than was being spent at the time, to avert a water crisis, she lost water affairs to Nomvula Mokonyane, with some speculating that her incorruptibility stood in the way of presidential plans.
In 2017 Molewa opposed a motion of no confidence in Zuma, citing party loyalty as her reason.
"Never, ever in my life will I vote with the opposition," she said.
Molewa died suddenly after returning from a visit to China as part of a government delegation led by President Cyril Ramaphosa. According to her family she died from Legionnaires' disease.
She is survived by four children.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day, Financial Mail or Rand Daily Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.