MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

The environmental hypocrisy of minister Creecy and the ANC

By Alex Lenferna 23 February 2021

Environment, Forestries and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lerato Maduna)

Considering our social, economic and ecological crises, you would think the minister would be fighting for a just renewable energy future – not for the polluters.

Alex Lenferna

The air on the South African Highveld is some of the most polluted in the world. It kills and ruins the health of thousands of people every year.

You would think that, in the face of this reality, it would be a priority of the environment minister to ensure cleaner air. It seems, though, that Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy would rather side with polluters while scolding those trying to force her office to clean up its act.

In what is being called the Deadly Air or Umoya Obulalayo Case, non-profit environmental justice organisation groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action have taken Creecy and others to court. 

They are suing them for cleaner air in line with the government’s own plans from 2007. Those plans were promulgated by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism at the time, but were simply not meaningfully implemented. 

Rather than accepting the failures of her government and pledging to make up for lost time, Creecy chose to scold those suing her:

“I noted the emotive description by the applicants of the coal-fired stations of Eskom as ‘dirty’, but those dirty coal-fired stations provide the electricity which enabled the applicants and their attorneys to type and print out the very papers upon which they rely in this application.”

Creecy’s pearl clutching at the use of the word “dirty” is a shameful deflection and inhumane failure to grapple with the deadly reality of her government’s failures. There is so much wrong with her response. It is difficult to know where to start.

First, if the minister thinks the word “dirty” is overly emotive, I would like to see her send her kids to school under a cloud of pollution and watch them get asthma. I would like to see her meet the families dying of lung problems and tell them they are being overly emotive.

The pollution those power stations create is dirty. It is deadly. It kills and deteriorates the quality of life of so many. It also contributes to deadly climate change across the world.

Creecy’s response also smacks of hypocrisy. Yes, the groups suing her have to rely on Eskom’s dirty power, but that does not make them hypocrites, as Creecy problematically seems to be suggesting.

Most South Africans would gladly choose clean energy if they had a choice. It is our most affordable, job-creating and reliable energy source, which would most rapidly solve our load shedding woes.

Civil society has been fighting for clean energy and climate action for decades. However, the ANC government has stifled and crushed our renewable-energy aspirations.

The ruling party has forced in filthy new coal, fossil gas and oil projects and infrastructure over the objections of civil society. It has crushed climate action and renewable-energy development through inaction, red tape corruption and more.

The real hypocrisy lies with a government that forces dirty air on its people, and then blames those dying from pollution for having to rely on dirty electricity from the state-owned electricity utility, which is regulated by the government.

One small step forwards, several giant steps backwards

Some applauded Creecy when she finally held Eskom and Sasol accountable for violating our very weak air-pollution regulations. However, the bar is so low that we are congratulating a minister for merely upholding the rule of law.

We should not applaud our environment minister for doing the bare minimum requirements of her job, particularly when with her other hand she is weakening those very environmental regulations.

During the first days of South Africa’s first hard lockdown, Creecy moved ahead with weakening our air-pollution regulations. Her move made our coal-fired power regulations for sulphur dioxide 28 times weaker than even China’s, resulting in an estimated 3,300 additional deaths. 

Slipping through regulations during the beginnings of a pandemic when everyone is distracted is some pretty dirty politics, if you ask me. That’s particularly the case when you consider that research shows that air pollution sharply increases the risks of dying from Covid-19.  

A regressive realisation of environmental rights

In response to the “Deadly Air” case, the ruling party is arguing that in a context of poverty and inequality such as ours, we cannot move too quickly on cleaning up our air as it will hinder our development goals. 

The problem with that argument is that it is precisely because of our reliance on an exploitative and extractive model of development that we are in this nightmare of poverty and inequality. It is no coincidence that South Africa is one of the worlds’ most unequal and most carbon-intensive societies.

The exploitation of people and planet are the dual foundations of the harmful minerals-energy complex, upon which apartheid was built. Rather than upending apartheid’s harmful economic structures, the ANC seems eager to deepen that exploitative model.

The evidence is overwhelming that a clean-energy future would create more jobs, more inclusive growth, ensure more reliable energy and help address the health and ecological crises we face. Rather than embracing that future, we are being locked into a failed status quo by an old guard who prefers polluting patronage and economic stagnation over innovation, job creation and transformation.

Thanks to their actions, South Africa is one of the least-prepared countries to embrace a clean-energy future. According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa is ranked 106th out of 115 countries for progress in the transition towards a more sustainable and secure global energy system.

Failed promises 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has offered slick rhetoric on climate change. While he has finally begun to set up his commission on climate change, climate action always comes in the form of commissions and promises, hardly ever in the form of action.   

Action is very much alive in the opposite direction, though. The president is spearheading destructive projects such as the proposed coal-powered Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone – an ecologically and socially disastrous project steeped in corruption, lack of due process and plain disregard for the interconnected climate and water crises we face.

We should not be surprised. Our president is a former coal-mining tycoon who appointed Gwede “the coal fundamentalist” Mantashe to head the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. The result is an energy plan that locks us into more coal, polluting fossil gas and uneconomic nuclear power. 

The ANC is deeply compromised and only has false promises to offer when it comes to putting forward a developmental model that tackles our interconnected social, economic and ecological crises.

Before we are forced further down this destructive, exploitative and unequal model, we must rise up to demand an alternative mode of development. We need One Million Climate Jobs and a Green New Eskom setting us on a just and rapid transition to a more socially owned, renewable energy future, which leaves no one behind.  

At the least, we need our environment minister to fight for clean air, not for polluters. You’d think that would be her job, after all. DM/MC

Alex Lenferna is a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org and serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition. He is a Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar who holds a PhD focused on climate and energy from the University of Washington.

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All Comments 21

  • Seems like just another ANC self serving sociopath.
    I’m sure no one is surprised anymore.
    Blaming victims, the past, in which most people alive today had no role to play and race, ANC standard operating procedure.

  • Well said thank you Alex. It is the portfolio of governance to create the space and opportunity for its citizens to live according to the constitution.

  • When minister Creecy was appointed as a minister by president Ramaphosa 3 years ago, I was very happy. I was most impressed with her evidence at the Life Esidimene enquiry. Now, in two days, there was a report of irregular expenditure of R3 billion (yes, R3 billion) at the Environmental Department, and now this article by Alex Lenferna, equilly damaging. Hell, to live, we need air, fresh air. So what is the agenda hear by Ms Creecy or the ANC? You can not have any kind of development in a country if citizens are dying because of pollution. Bottom-line, yet another member of the executive is failing in her oversight work. Out of the more than 20 ministries, is there one minister that is doing his/her job? I can think of 2, maybe 3, but those might also fail in due course. A failed executive is a failed state, and South Africa is now on the verge of total failure, and Zuma has not been around in the last 3 years.

  • Thank you for this necessary article. It seems as if every minister of the environment becomes a minister of pollution instead. The minister’s wisecrack about dirty electricity being used to type an attorney’s letter to her, while she stands in the way of cleaner electricity, tells us all that she couldn’t care less.

  • When accidents, fatal or otherwise, occur on mines or big industry, everyone is fast with criminal charges holding the Board liable. The President and Cabinet have been at great pains to advise that all decisions are those of the “Collective”. When Minister Creecy fails to exercise and perform her constitutional duties and 1,000’s of people die and many more are affected by horrific illnesses, why are they not criminally charged as would be the Board of a Company?

  • I would entirely agree with Coen Gous. Minister Creecy appeared to be about the only competent MEC while serving in Gauteng but she rapidly lost my respect as a national minister. Apart from this current and important article, and her fatuous response thereto, there are other areas of concern where the buck stops with this minister. With respect to wildlife management, what has come from her nominated, and possibly tainted, panel of experts tasked with recommending further wild animals to be included in the Meat Safety Act? Vested financial interests within this biased group could result in the approval of lion breeding and its inevitable odious end-point of lion bone export to you-know-where. And rhino poaching? Not the expected pat on the back for the ministry about declining numbers in 2020 (the country was largely under lock-down anyway) but the true numbers? The last time I actually heard an interview from Creecy was after she quickly responded (inevitably when hounded by the press) after the cyclist Nicholas Dlamini had his arm broken by Table Mountain “rangers.” A quick trip to the hospital followed and a prompt independent enquiry set up. Nothing more since to my knowledge and can only surmise that they went back to business as usual (or were transferred to the SANDF). She is a big disappointment and thus a credit to her governing party!

  • It is astonishing that SA is producing more electrical energy than it is using. Independent Power Producers are the key players in this, but their feed-in to the national or provincial grid is capped by the Department of Minerals and Energy and hamstrung by officialdom and whatever power-plays are going on around energy.

    • Oh dear Craig, At Noon (sun time) with a top grade 70 km/h steady wind across the entire country, … and no wind turbines out of action, I expect the renewable scenario here, at such absolute peak, given the Nameplate MW capabilities quoted, to provide about < 60% of our current grid demands, which are low as they be artificially constrained. Low due to the failure to maintain our 85% plus baseload capability from coal which is what we live on, outages and all. (plus 4% from Nuclear and ~3% from OCGTs.) The demand for energy is low because of the current fragility of the supply (lack of coal maintenance as we have some 30 GW of coal capability and coupled to the non-resilience of renewables.)

      Then the hierarchy demands first bite at the cherry for renewables with some coal spinning reserves, just in case,and OCGT more instantaneous back-up, to pick up whenever renewable supplies fail. Please do look up the actual official figures for RSA (easily available. I can help you source them if you cannot find them) which shows that presently we have about ~ 2 % of each of wind and solar contribution to the total grid. Not only that, but the stated LCOE prices of renewables (0.62 R /kWh) are devoid of any back-up, cost of "un-used" energy (to which you refer when they turn on the taps suddenly on "high"and the grid cannot absorb these rapid excursions, let alone D & D costs which are non-trivial. They do not represent cheap energy as is "sold to the public" and as witnessed in wind centres such as the U.K., Germany and Denmark where they are failing. (You can watch these grids performance levels on the Internet second by second to be able to recognise the fallibility of "naturally controlled power provision versus fossil and nuclear fuel man-made controlled energy" Lots to not only think about but to look up as well, before making bland statements.

        • Welcome William and to your request:- My response:- (Speaking as an International scientist and retired Professor of Nuclear Physics. Do you want my >6 000 archived scientific publications covering ALL aspects of climate from pre-Cambrian days as well as copious articles on so-called anthropogenic Climate Change. This should provide you with the background that you request! Please let me know as my library also includes nearly 1 400 slides and a couple of one hour public as well as zoom video presentations to assist if I can.)

          I gave my first talk on Climate Change 26 years ago to the Press inter alia (it was known as “AGW” at that time) in 1995 as you would remember. I stated clearly in that “thesis” that to suppress the CO 2 emissions (which I believed in back then that they were anthropogenic drivers of climate phenomena), that we needed clean and dispatchable baseload energy, that being nuclear. (I still have that text and diagrams for your archives should you want, and as you request, but I have recent 2020/21 input for more current numbers). I retain the scientific reality of nuclear being our future but that our anthropogenic CO2 coal power stations emissions plays a trivial role (~45%) as an additive greenhouse gas to the several other human delivered sources (cars, agriculture, industry etc….) (~ 55%), these together forming our 0.01% molecular addition to the natural atmosphere. That this was incorrect I discovered by 2003 (hockey stick fraud) when my work changed to solar and Milankovic cycle (the three Sun-Earth cyclic effects) and 6 different other natural drivers of climate with which I can help you. Greenhouse gases, drive but ~ 20% of global warming impact. The natural potency of the slowly increasing global CO2 background, comes from the dominant temperature dependent CO2 that emanates from the world’s oceans as the added impact to the dominant one of water vapour. I am
          so glad to see so many people above trying to cleanse their breasts of their own guilt convictions by virtue of displayed verbal abuse of people, actions, projects, …. the entire thing. This, while I agree that the ANC is no shining example of anything but running the country into the ground. However, nature is not to be abhorred by negligent slander!

          This Alex article does not warrant my response as to its naivety. However, the diatribes that followed shows a unified Media driven panic against anything anthropogenic. (Note ab initio, that our global temperatures are governed by natural forces and only 20% of which is by total greenhouse gases.) We then try mistakenly to overcome nature as we strangely, but scientifically cyclical consistent , also enter into a new climate domain of the planet cooling and slowly getting colder towards the next ice age, or glaciation period that we emerged from 13 000 years ago when the sea level rose by 102 meters into the present Holocene period. This is where we have gently cooled for the past 5 000 years and even now are colder than 1 000 years ago in the Middle Warm Period peak let alone 2 000 years ago in the Roman period when they grew vines in Scotland! We have been warming ever since our emergence from the Maunder “Little Ice Age” period minimum nearly 2 degrees below present back in 1700. A very short timescale for Climate Change!

          Change to energy matters. Sadly, renewable energy supplies are intermittent and thereby push the cost way up as they demand “spinning reserve” of “baseload” energy such as Nuclear or Coal and even more rapid response but more expensive (OCGT) Gas. These so called “dispatchable energy” (Note not Nameplate MW Power rated) supplies which provide energy when humans demand it, not when nature decrees that it might possibly, during its 35% work load average, have capability of providing anything. (the load factor can be slightly higher for wind to ~40% but lower at ~ 25% for solar systems.) Do not talk batteries as back-up unless you have studied the realities associated with largest systems such as the one is South Australia. (the “massive”200 MW “Tesla” battery) capable of supplying Adelaide with but 20 minutes of energy following their attempted “repair” following massive State wide outage lasting days.
          But “fluit, fluit”, my story is only very partially “uit”, scratching the surface of the intense depth of physics study required to understand what is going on. This presently is basically a globally vested interest escapade of the first order with people following the Pied Piper (Greta, back in school now hopefully) out of town while being led by the “media nose’ by a clever rain dance. (This except for this Daily Maverick. I say “well done to them for being honest and publishing scientific feed-back as well as the concordant bluster.)

          Be aware, Texas cooling is an extreme example coming slowly out well before the coming 80 year period is over, so keep your winter woollies available.

          William, I trust that this might help you as I am encouraged by those who seek knowledge and so refer you to the literature including that of NASA and NOAA of the past 20 years in particular, but more especially to the Summary publication late last year of the International Organisation “CLINTEL” consisting of over 900 global scientists and of which I am happily, a recognised and registered member.

  • Thanks for rubbing our noses in bad news, Alex. Just what we needed as you can see from the comments. You would be wise to think about the We to which you keep referring. Are these We’s angels? Superhumans who right the wrongs of ages? The SA gov’t doesn’t give a tuppence about anything much, the environment included. Get with the programme. Bellyaching about Creecy ain’t going to get it done! So now what mister climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org and serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition who is a Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar who holds a PhD focused on climate and energy from the University of Washington? Blah …

  • I actually interviewed her a couple of years ago, and at the time thought she was one of the few ‘good ones’ in the ANC government.
    However, after learning of her role in the Musina’Makhado SEZ, and now hearing that she is quiet happy to enable regulations for sulphur dioxide 28 times weaker than even China’s, despite the fact that that research shows that air pollution sharply increases the risks of dying from Covid-19 – at the SAME TIME her colleagues were banning smoking because of its impacts on Covid health – I realise she is just another in a long line of cadres who are only put where they are to help the fatcats, rather than ‘the people’.

    Now I understand just how wrong my first impressions were!

  • What is even MORE ridiculous, is that Minister Creecy is forcing Eskom to install HUGELY expensive plastic liners underneath new ash dams, where it is absolutely not necessary, while turning a blind eye to their air pollution.

    There is no need to line these ash dams, because some of them are to be built over previously mined areas, land that is otherwise useless, as it is filled with final void pits full of Acid Mine Drainage – disposing the ash there will actually HELP the environment, because it will neutralise the AMD..

    If somebody at Environment Affairs were actually using their braincells, they would have done the right thing – told Eskom that because there is no scientific need to install expensive liners underneath ash dams, they dont need to line these dams, and should rather be using the money to fix their air pollution issues, right?

    I smell a rat – maybe some investigative journalist can investigate the link between those who benefitted (and are benefitting – liner manufacturers, anyone?!) from the ridiculous and scientifically flawed “waste classification regulations” (also promulgated by Env Affairs), and those who is benefitting from not having proper air pollution mechanisms in place..

    #FollowTheMoney

  • It is not just a cheap shot. The environmental activist are devoted to shutting down coal fired generators, irrespective of the consequence – see the CER website: “The CER’s Pollution & Climate Change team works with partners groundWork and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg to challenge the exploitation of coal for electricity.” And then? Will they drive in their wooden cars to deliver the court proceedings which have been written out with quill pens? Nothing that you do or touch today will not have come out of a mine, and that needs electricity, and that needs coal.

  • This is not the first time Barbara Creecy has been exposed as a self-serving hypocrit. Her aims and choice of delegates in her high level Wildlife panel make this clear. Indeed, what outcome, if any, from this so-called wildlife panel?

  • When Creecy was given this job a lot of people thought great at last not a rest seeking minister that has a brain. But no obviously being ANC means go where the best feeding is not what’s best for our country. I hope this fisheries court case is about give the quotas to the fisherman who work the sea and not some cadre sitting in Pretoria as has happened in the past.

  • Absolutely SPOT-On with the assessment of Barbara Creecy – she certainly does NOT face up to criticism of her failings and her Ministry’s inept management of the environment. The ANC is incompetent and corrupt. Barbara Creecy is NO better.

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