South Africa


The water Guy: A conservationist who cast an indelible mark on our environment 

Dr Guy Preston hacking alien invasive pine trees on the mountain slopes near his Hout Bay home, following his formal retirement at the end of June. (Photo: John Yeld)

Guy Preston bows out after a 25-year quest to promote work, water and dignity in an environmentally sustainable South Africa 

When Dr Guy Preston moved from a university research post to a job in government 25 years ago, his to-do list was long and very ambitious, and his confidence was sky-high.

“I was a know-it-all academic with a big wish-list of all the changes I was going to make. I wish I could find that list now ­– of course, I didn’t achieve any of these changes,” he says somewhat wistfully in a recent post-retirement interview.

The many people who know him will chuckle at this critical self-assessment, because Preston, who stepped down as Deputy Director-General in the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) at the end of June, is renowned among his colleagues, staff, friends and even his critics as a passionate, highly driven and productive workaholic. 

Through his huge body of work that helped shape contemporary environmental thinking and practice in this country, Preston is leaving an indelible stamp on the conservation of South Africa’s unique natural environment and on the social upliftment of some of its most vulnerable communities.

This assessment was repeatedly emphasised by the dozens of people who gathered to pay tribute during a packed farewell online function for him last month.

One of them was former cabinet minister Derek Hanekom (for a short time his political boss as acting environment minister), who described Preston’s work as outstanding and highly deserving of a national honour. 

As Deputy Director-General: Environmental Programmes, Preston was responsible for a total budget of just over R4 billion In the 2018/19 financial year – the lion’s share of the department’s R7,43 billion total allocation. In this same financial year, the programmes created 26 929 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) and 67 364 work opportunities. 

Preston, who earned a PhD in environmental science from UCT, would not have taken the compliment for himself – his typical response is self-deprecatory, and he’s always emphasised the huge role of teamwork with equally passionate and dedicated colleagues. But his personal contribution has, by any measure, been immense, and the visionary suite of 14 programmes that he led to promote environmental protection and social upliftment has become world-renowned.

Working For Water campaign manager

There’s a watershed date in Preston’s life: April 1995. This was when he was appointed Special Adviser to Kader Asmal, the charismatic law professor who had been appointed Water Affairs and Forestry minister in President Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet of South Africa’s new democratic era. In many ways, Asmal and Preston were kindred spirits, sharing a belief in how to get a job done. 

One of the first tasks that Preston undertook for Asmal was to author a National Water Conservation Campaign. Crucially, this campaign promoted the clearing of water-guzzling alien invasive plant species like pine trees and some Acacia species in water catchment areas. Serendipitously, this work coincided with a major roadshow by the Fynbos Forum that demonstrated to decision-makers just how much of South Africa’s precious water was being consumed by such alien plants.

Asmal was in the audience at one of the Forum’s presentations, and his immediate response was to authorise an alien invasive plant clearing programme by his department, to be managed by Preston under the National Water Conservation Campaign. This programme would address two critical needs: it would make more water available, and it would create desperately needed employment for the poorest of the poor. 

“I remember the lead-up to this, during a function in Kader’s office on the 15th floor of the Plein Street building when he came over to me and said … ‘You must run this. I don’t want the “grey-shoes” bureaucrats doing so’,” Preston recalls. It was highly unusual for a Special Adviser to manage a government programme, and there was a bemused response to Kader’s instruction from his senior officials.

Preston was never a typical public servant, and one of the defining characteristics that set him apart from the “grey shoes” bureaucrats of Asmal’s jibe is his fabled chutzpah.

But Dirk Versfeld of CSIR-Forestek came up with the name – Working for Water – and Preston’s career as a manager was underway.

Starting with a minuscule budget of just R25 million wrested from Minister without Portfolio Jay Naidoo’s RDP budget, the programme was officially launched by self-styled “One Slash” Asmal when he used a panga to fell an alien invasive Port Jackson willow tree during a function on the Villiersdorp mountainside on 16 October 1995.

The moniker claimed by the irrepressible minister was somewhat exaggerated, because the truth was that Asmal had needed several slashes to dispatch his alien plant. But, in the months that followed, the metaphoric percussion of the minister’s lusty blows echoed and re-echoed through the alien-infested mountains and water catchments of the country as the programme rapidly expanded ­– and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the following two-and-a-half decades, Working for Water achieved international recognition and acclaim as it grew rapidly and as its model was replicated in a number of other labour-intensive environmental programmes that became the basis for the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).

In 2011, the Working for Water programme was transferred to the then Department of Environmental Affairs, and it is now the flagship of a massively expanded suite of 14 programmes, all operating under the loose Working for… collective label: Working for Forests; Working for Wetlands; Working on Fire; Working on Waste; Working for the Coast; Working for Ecosystems; Working for Land; People and Parks; Greening & Open Space Management; Youth Environmental Service; Eco-Furniture Programme; Value-Added Industries; and Wildlife Economy.

All these programmes are geared to improving the lives of the most vulnerable South Africans by reducing poverty and inequality through creating work opportunities, while at the same time conserving and protecting the country’s biodiversity, ecosystems and natural resources, and maximising the benefits that can be derived from them. “These are not only ‘make work’ programmes – all have critical environmental outcomes,” Preston stresses.

They are structured within the overall framework of the EPWP with its emphasis on employment opportunities for women (a target of 60% of all posts), youth (defined as between 16 and 35 and with a minimum target of 65% of posts) and people with disabilities (2% of all posts).

As Deputy Director-General: Environmental Programmes, Preston was responsible for a total budget of just over R4 billion In the 2018/19 financial year – the lion’s share of the department’s R7,43 billion total allocation. In this same financial year, the programmes created 26 929 Full Time Equivalents (FTEs) and 67 364 work opportunities. 

[An FTE is the hours worked by one employee on a full-time basis, calculated at eight hours a day and 260 days a year, and is often used to convert the hours worked by several part-time employees into the hours of full-time employees. A work opportunity is paid work created for an individual on a project in any of the programmes for any period of time.]

In the 2016/17 financial year, the department achieved 98 566 work opportunities.

A life-long Charlie Chaplin fan

Preston was never a typical public servant, and one of the defining characteristics that set him apart from the “grey shoes” bureaucrats of Asmal’s jibe is his fabled chutzpah.

A life-long Charlie Chaplin fan, Preston has the kind of cheeky confidence that, during his travels in the 1970s, saw him knock unannounced at the door of the Chaplin residence – the 15-hectare Manoir de Ban estate in a small Swiss Riviera town near Geneva where the famous comedian and silent movie star lived from 1953 until his death in 1977. Not only was Preston then invited in at the start of what became an enduring friendship, but he also persuaded Chaplin and his wife Oona O’Neill to sign up as members of a South African NGO – the Wildlife Society (now WESSA) – of which Preston was then a provincial branch chairman.

Another clue to Preston’s atypicality as a South African bureaucrat is to be found in his sleep-defying work ethic that gives real meaning to the expression “24/7” – everyone who worked for him will have frequently received emails sent between 2am and 3am on any day of the week.

He also has a well-developed sense of humour that sometimes found surprising outlets in his work – has there ever been another civil servant who could come up with a plan, and then actually execute it, that involved delivering a condom containing an alien pine seedling to every Member of Parliament? Preston laughs now when he recalls this particular incident in 1999. “It was World Aids Day and I was trying to make the point that alien invasive plants, like pines and other species, are just like HIV – if you don’t take protective measures against them, you’re going to continue experiencing these invasions.”

But these were still the heady and intoxicating early years of South Africa’s fledgling democracy under Nelson Mandela, when the country’s political leadership was inspiring and when some of them at least – like Kader Asmal – were tolerant of the eccentricities of their passionate staff.

“There are aspects for which I’m immensely grateful, one of which is having worked with so many good people,” says Preston. “I couldn’t have wished for anyone more inspiring with whom to work than Kader Asmal.”

Dr Guy Preston with renowned Kenyan tree-planter and Nobel Peace. Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, left, and then Deputy Environment Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi during a tree planting event in Newlands forest in July 2005. (Photo: John Yeld)

A few ‘negatives’ in his career

Some of Preston’s ideas – particularly around water conservation, catchment management, the “user pays principle” and the need for obligatory control measures of invasive alien species – were radical for their time, and met hostile and vocal opposition. His early critics included many managers in the forestry industry who rudely referred to him as “the man who wants to tax the rain” because of the user pays principle he was advocating.

“There were many skirmishes,” Preston remembers. “Forestry was in many ways the most challenging of all the vested interest groups, having caused immense damage to our country. There was a lot of misinformation coming from the forestry industry, and we had to fight back against that.”

He reflects on two significant “negatives” in his career that he feels strongly about.

The first was the Working on Fire debacle in Canada that he describes as “particularly sad”. This was when a deployment of 301 firefighters and management from the programme was sent to Alberta in May 2016 to help the Canadian Inter-agency Forest Fire Centre suppress a wildfire burning over more than 500,000 hectares. But a dispute about pay and alleged unfair treatment compared to Canadian firefighters led to the South African contingent embarking on a week-long strike that escalated into an international incident.

“Although it was soon rectified, it was a major setback for us,” Preston concedes.

The second negative is the as-yet unresolved controversy over the status of alien trout species in South African waters.

“I’m not trying to talk down what we’ve done. If we hadn’t, it would have been catastrophically worse…

Argument over the impact or otherwise of rainbow trout and brown trout on local aquatic species and ecosystems has raged sporadically over decades. But matters escalated dramatically from 2014 when Preston led the drafting of new Alien and Invasive Species Regulations under the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act. The vision for these regulations ­is to prevent the introduction of potentially invasive species into the country and regulate invasive species already present here. Collectively, Preston suggests, such species pose a real cost to South Africa of “probably in the order of hundreds of billions of rand”.

Although the draft regulations list some 1100-odd invasive alien species, only a handful have major commercial value and where their listings were, or are still being, seriously contested – including trout. Preston has been personally vilified and pilloried by a strong anti-regulation lobby within the trout community, with some fly-fishers arguing that the proposed regulations will devastate their sport and destroy a multi-million rand industry. But he remains resolute, dismissing much of the criticism as simply provocative and insisting that there’s a critical need for appropriate legislation and regulations. Allegations that the multi-million rand trout industry will be deliberately targeted and destroyed are simply not true, he insists. 

A High Court review action on regulating trout is still pending.

Did personal criticism, like that directed at him by some fly-fishers, for example, hurt?

“Not at all, I’ve never taken it personally in that sense. It’s all about outcomes,” he says.

‘We’ve still got a long way to go’

Some of Preston’s former colleagues found him “irritatingly critical” of his own programmes, he concedes. So are these programmes now sufficiently well managed and well entrenched to continue without him?

“Well, they will certainly survive without me in terms of leadership,” he says without hesitation. “So much of what we still have in terms of leadership has been around since almost the beginning [in 1995]. That’s really important – so many of the people we’ve worked with have had the passion, and they’re still with us”

Returns on investment in the work of the programmes are all very high but “uneven”, he continues.

“I’m not trying to talk down what we’ve done. If we hadn’t, it would have been catastrophically worse. So Working for Water, having cleared 3.5 million hectares of land and [completed] over 10 million hectares of follow-up work, has unquestionably had enormous positive impacts. And then there’s the huge dignity in having a job and in the work that people do earning a living – like Working on Fire, or in anti-rhino poaching work and so on. That makes this worthwhile in itself. 

“But our job is to say ‘How can we get optimal impacts, including sustainability? How do we ensure that we’re getting optimal value for money?’ And that’s the on-going quest.

 “So yes, I’m very optimistic that the work will continue, but there are areas where we must dramatically improve what we do. Like biosecurity, for example. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Retired, but still working till 2am 

Preston doesn’t plan to step away completely from work in his retirement. He’s still extremely interested in value-added industries (VAI) that can be developed alongside alien plant removal. For example, a prototype low-cost house – dubbed the Light House – has been constructed in Knysna, he believes this prototype has great potential for use elsewhere by government. “What we’ve developed is literally a world-beater, both in terms of the product itself and the designs that have been done that focus on quality of life and safety. Whether I’m involved or not, the VAI has extraordinary potential, and I would like to contribute to the extent that I can in the furtherance of this work – it’s very exciting,” he says.

He’s also been involved in the planning of a mouse eradication plan for Britain’s Gough Island in the South Atlantic – the mice are literally eating live seabirds like albatrosses – and in a similar operation scheduled for South Africa’s Marion Island. “Biosecurity is probably the most important thing we can do,” he says.

Less than two months into his retirement, it is clear that Preston has taken his foot off the pedal only slightly, even though he wanders up the mountain behind his Hout Bay home most afternoons to hack out a few alien pine trees for enjoyment and relaxation.

“I’m still working until 2 or 3 in the morning,” he concedes, “but I just don’t get up as early as I used to. I feel like I’m on holiday. I always worked during my holidays but there wasn’t the pressure of all the meetings during that time, and boy, I don’t miss that! And I don’t miss all the administration and all the labour issues. But you do miss the people, of course.”

It is these people who constitute a key part of Preston’s legacy – a cohort of passionate colleagues still at work who remain deeply committed to bringing about the kind of changes that he sought to make during his career. And stepping up to take his mission forward into the future is also a phalanx of young environmentalists who have been inspired by Preston’s example.

Perhaps Derek Hanekom’s suggestion of national honours is indeed fitting. DM 

Disclosure: Veteran environmental journalist John Yeld is a personal friend of Guy Preston



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