Tina Joemat-Pettersson, a life of controversy and commitment to the ANC, never mind the rollercoaster ride
Tina Joemat-Pettersson’s political life was marked by controversy, but also dedication. She seemed to have enjoyed a second wind in her political home, the ANC, when she died aged 59 after a long illness on Monday at her Cape Town home.
Once the energy minister in the Jacob Zuma administration fingered for a nuclear (non)deal with Russia’s Rosatom, Tina Joemat-Pettersson — the ex-Northern Cape education and then agriculture MEC who later became national agriculture minister — left public office after being fired from Cabinet in the March 2017 reshuffle. At the December 2017 Nasrec ANC national elective conference she was again re-elected to the governing party’s National Executive Committee (NEC), which alongside ANC Women’s League work and her sons was her focus until she returned after the 2019 elections as ANC MP, subsequently elected as chairperson of Parliament’s police committee.
At the December 2022 ANC national elective conference, ANC MP Tina Joemat-Pettersson stepped into the spotlight when she challenged Nomvula Mokonyane from the floor for the first deputy secretary-general position. It was one of those intricate ANC factional jockeyings after Febe Potgieter, who was nominated, had withdrawn.
Mokonyane’s anticipated shoo-in didn’t quite happen, although ultimately she did win. But in the ANC factional winds, that contest was important for the so-called CR22 campaign of President Cyril Ramaphosa, whom the Northern Cape backed early on. While for Joemat-Pettersson a ministerial post remained elusive, also in the August 2021 and March 2023 Cabinet reshuffles, most recently her name has been touted for deputy president candidate in the upcoming ANC Women’s League elective conference.
It’s a track that echoes the ANC lore of rehabilitation, or the making good through continued service after a fall from favour.
Nuclear deal rap
Joemat-Pettersson took a hit for not delivering the Russian nuclear deal that at the time was widely speculated was a priority for Number One, as then president Jacob Zuma was frequently referred to in State Capture years. On 31 March 2017, Zuma ditched her from Cabinet.
It all went back to that September 2014 Vienna meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency General Conference. Afterwards, Russian news agency Tass reported Rosatom would “supply eight nuclear power units to South Africa until 2023”, but the South Africans styled it as an inter-governmental agreement on “strategic partnership and cooperation in nuclear energy and industry”, according to the official statement, with procurement to be finalised by mid-2015.
It turned out other nuclear intergovernmental agreements also were signed with China, United States, France and Korea.
As the controversy raged — the cost of the 9,600MW nuclear procurement was put at R1-trillion by analysts — these intergovernmental agreements were finally published in June 2015 in the Announcement, Tablings and Committee Reports (ATC), or Parliament’s record of work. This had to happen in line with Section 231 of the Constitution, which requires Parliament to approve international agreements.
Such approvals were not done. And in late April 2017 the Western Cape high court set aside as invalid these intergovernmental agreements, plus all and any requests for nuclear proposals government or Eskom made, after a successful application by Earthlife Africa and the SA Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (Safcei).
By then Joemat-Pettersson no longer was energy minister, having been dropped in the 31 March 2017 Cabinet reshuffle. She subsequently resigned as ANC MP, as did others also sacked.
Joemat-Pettersson has been a campaigner, from regularly hitting dusty Northern Cape dorpies for byelections or doing ANC Women’s League work as she’s done since at least 1998. Her work as ANC NEC member continued, as did her Women’s League work based largely in Cape Town.
Political tides turn. And when the 2019 election candidates lists were released Joemat-Pettersson’s name was back. She took up a seat on the ANC benches and was elected to chair the parliamentary police committee.
By then the fallout of another controversy of her stint as energy minister played itself out in the courts — the 2015 sale of some 10-million barrels of oil held by the Strategic Fuel Fund (SFF).
The Central Energy Fund (CEF) and the SFF in 2018 filed legal papers for a review and setting aside of the deal. This the Western Cape high Court did in November 2020, critical of the SFF own processes and “irrational” decisions. Joemat-Pettersson had maintained all along she’d clean hands.
But no clear stated exoneration came for her. Neither did an official statement come after Parliament’s joint ethics committee cleared her of any adverse findings following the Zondo Commission, related to nuclear deal manoeuvres like pressuring the then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene to sign off on the deal. The no adverse findings finding, effectively a not guilty, was mentioned in the 25 May National Assembly programming committee meeting.
Public Protector wrangles
In the last few weeks Joemat-Pettersson found herself at the sharp end of suspended Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, whose husband laid a charge of extortion against her, ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina and Section 194 committee chairperson Richard Dyantyi to make Mkhwebane’s impeachment inquiry go away.
All three have denied the allegations which have come amid the last twists and turns of the inquiry into the public protector’s fitness for office, with some four and a half months to go before Mkhwebane’s non-renewable term ends in mid-October.
Twice before Joemat-Petterson found herself at the wrong end of former public protector Thuli Madonsela during her stint as agriculture, forestry and fisheries Cabinet minister. Once in November 2012 for staying in luxury accommodation while waiting for her official residence and taking an au pair on a January 2010 flight to Sweden. The second time in December 2013 for maladministration in a R800-million Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium deal, including a decision to hand over fisheries research and patrol vessels to an unprepared South African navy. The whole deal was determined as “reckless dealing with state money and services, resulting in fruitless and wasteful expenditure, loss of confidence in the fisheries industry in South Africa…”
Joemat-Pettersson unsuccessfully took the so-called Docked Vessels report on review; it was dismissed in the Pretoria high court on 13 March 2017, just before it was ditched from Cabinet.
Tributes pour in
On Monday, the Presidency in a statement described Joemat-Pettersson as a “remarkable leader” whose passion and vigour to fight “for a better South Africa from the rural villages of the Northern Cape to the benches of parliament and international platforms” would be missed.
The ANC in its tribute described her as a “humble, dependable and dedicated servant”, “extraordinary freedom fighter” and well of wisdom, also for her work on gender. “She stood firm on her beliefs, even when her stance attracted critics or personal attacks,” it said in a statement.
“She was a proud product of the people of her province, the Northern Cape, whom she held in high esteem,” said ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina in a statement late on Monday.
Remembered as “an astute politician” Joemat-Pettersson, used her skills and knowledge to change ordinary South Africans’ lives through lawmaking,” said Parliament’s presiding officers in a statement. “She exuded great energy, passion, and goodwill, and was not afraid to speak her mind.”
The South African Communist Party (SACP) on Tuesday paid tribute to her “crucial role in building the structures of the party in the Northern Cape” following its 1990 unbanning.
In the mid-80s Tina Joemat-Pettersson was part of the Azanian Students’ Organisation, but it was the ANC and the SACP that became her life long political home.
As a teacher, and from 1993 briefly English lecturer at the University of the Free State, according to a government profile dating back to when she served in Cabinet, Joemat-Pettersson also was involved in the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) in the Northern Cape, and from 1992 also in the ANC’s education and cultural desk.
With this background it was no surprise she became the Northern Cape’s first democratic education, arts and culture MEC, a post she held for a decade. Then it was agriculture, first in the Northern Cape — she twice won the Farmer’s Weekly Best MEC award in 2006 and 2007 — then at national level after the 2009 elections.
That teacher seemed not to have left Joemat-Pettersson, who ran the meetings of Parliament’s police committee with a disciplinarian’s hand.
And Joemat-Pettersson read. That’s how she could remind the SAPS brass in trying to revise their positions of what they had said previously, catching them off-guard.
It was one of the habits of a committee chairperson who didn’t forget to thank support staff. That and her dry, wacky sense of humour.
Joemat-Pettersson, born 18 December 1963 in Kimberly, died 5 June 2023 in Cape Town. She is survived by her sons, Austin and Terrence. DM