Edna Molewa. RIP.
Edna Molewa. RIP.

With the death of environmental affairs minister Edna Molewa, SA and the international community have lost a visionary leader who elevated the portfolio to global stature, and who was instrumental in the design and implementation of the nation’s post-apartheid national environmental policy.

It is testimony to the impact she had way beyond SA’s borders that tributes continue to pour in from individuals and organisations across the globe, from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, as well as from the diplomatic community.

Among the most poignant tributes paid to her was by the French Embassy in Pretoria, which only a month ago bestowed the honour of Officier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur on the late minister in recognition of her contribution to the global climate change effort.

Molewa, whose career began when she headed the North West department of environment and tourism in 1996, was a true champion of conservation

Molewa, whose career began when she headed the North West department of environment and tourism in 1996, was a true champion of conservation. Since the dawn of democracy, she actively led the new environmental architecture through what was referred to as the consultative national environmental policy process.

During her tenure in the province she led efforts to reform provincial legislation and institutions, creating a good model for conservation and tourism in provincial protected areas, among other things. Results of these efforts include successful ecotourism products in Pilanesberg, Madikwe and other provincial protected areas, all of which have contributed towards the growth of ecotourism in the North West.

As the first female premier of the North West, she continued to keep herself abreast of strategic environmental programmes, especially where collaboration was necessary between the North West, Gauteng and national government, to advance natural and cultural heritage conservation objectives. During her tenure the Cradle of Humankind, Taung, Makapan’s Valley, as well as world heritage sites in the Free State and North West, were established.  

Her successful track record as environmental affairs minister, a position she assumed in 2010 when the ministry was still attached to water affairs, is long and varied. In the field of biodiversity conservation she was a leader and a champion for the conservation of SA’s fauna and flora. It was Molewa who advocated for the security cluster to be brought on board to tackle rhino poaching, and she pushed for the adoption by cabinet in 2014 of the integrated strategic management of rhinos.

It is thanks to this multi-disciplinary approach that rhino poaching numbers have continued to decline, as reflected in the recently released statistics. The translocation of rhino to establish new rhino ranges, particularly in countries whose rhino had been lost to poaching, was a hallmark of her tenure. The successful translocation of rhino to Chad earlier this year was part of this effort.

Science-based approach

Also in the biodiversity field, she strongly advocated for a science-based approach to conservation and biodiversity decision-making that resulted in the transfer of the National Zoological Gardens from the National Research Foundation to the South African Biodiversity Institute. The aim was to enhance the latter’s animal mandate and ensure the enhancement of faunal-based science for the sector, including forensic services.

During Molewa’s time as minister the Khomani Cultural Landscape in the Northern Cape and the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga became SA’s newly inscribed world heritage sites. This brought to 10 the number of South African sites on the Unesco world heritage list. In addition, four new biosphere reserves were added to the Unesco world network of biosphere reserves.

Molewa believed the biodiversity field offered untapped opportunities to address SA’s economic challenges and could contribute to socio-economic transformation. She led calls for the transformation of the sector, in particular for the principle of access and benefit-sharing from natural resources or wildlife resources.

In her last official engagements in SA she presided over the first-ever African Ranger Awards; a women and environment programme, the Operation Phakisa Biodiversity Economy, the hosting of the eighth People and Parks Conference, and the official ministerial visit to the Thohoyandou Botanical Garden.

She was internationally respected as a leader and expert in her field on the world stage and led SA’s delegations to, among others, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, the World Heritage Convention, and the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora. With regards to the latter, her active role in these forums resulted in SA hosting the 17th Conference of the Parties to Cites in 2016, in Johannesburg, a first for Africa.

Montreal Protocol

In the chemicals and waste space, she led the department through negotiations that saw SA become signatory to the implementation of the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Protection and the Minamata Convention for the phasing out of mercury. Under her leadership SA has become known as a leader on the continent in the field of circular economy and its role as a catalyst for job creation, skills development and economic growth.

Among the successful initiatives she pioneered and championed is the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Recycling Enterprise Support Programme. At the time of her death, she was working towards the launch of a countrywide greening programme called Thuma Mina Good Green Deeds.

In the oceans space, she headed the lead department driving Operation Phakisa: Oceans Economy. She also led SA in discussions for the development of a Brics oceans economy programme through sharing of best practices, technology and skills development, while paving a way for investment attractions in these key areas.

Passionate about increasing SA’s role in the marine and coastal environment, it was Molewa who dedicated SA’s famous research and polar-supply vessel, the SA Agulhas II, to Miriam Makeba. This vessel has been the basis for the cutting-edge scientific research in the Antarctic and on Prince Edward Islands, and demonstrates her foresight and understanding of investing in knowledge production and the important role of science in understanding our oceans. She insisted that good science work undertaken must be translated into knowledge that all South Africans can easily access, and launched the first of a number of Indian Ocean research cruises last year October.

Combating climate change

What Molewa will best be remembered for is her contribution to the global fight against climate change. A week before she took ill, she delivered the annual climate lecture at the prestigious Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the first African leader to do so.

Her commitment to transitioning the country to a low-carbon, inclusive, climate-change resilient future was evidenced as soon as she took office. She championed the drafting and adoption of SA’s national climate-change response policy in 2011, the same year SA hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP17) in Durban. She worked tirelessly to ensure not just that the historic Paris Agreement to Combat Climate Change was adopted, but to emphasise the importance of international co-operation and dialogue in ensuring that the countries of the world meet their obligations in terms of the agreement.

Molewa was an ardent advocate for co-operative governance and always ensured the department’s policies worked and functioned in tandem with the work of other government departments at both a provincial and national level.

The department of environmental affairs has lost a great champion for the cause of a cleaner, greener planet. We remain committed to the course, and to advancing the various causes she led so dearly. This is the most fitting tribute to honour her exceptional legacy.

Thompson is deputy environmental affairs minister and Ngcaba is director-general of the department.

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