Deputy Minister Ms Barbara Thomson and staff of the department mourn the passing of Dr Edna Molewa

25 September 2018


The Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs, Ms Barbara Thomson, and the Director-General of the Department, Mrs Nosipho Ngcaba, have expressed shock and sadness at the passing of the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Dr Edna Molewa, in Pretoria on 22 September 2018.

South Africa and the international community has lost a true champion of the cause of environmental justice and sustainability as a foundation for equitable socio-economic development. Since almost the dawn of our democracy she actively spearheaded the transformation of environmental governance architecture at Provincial, National and International levels.

From 1996 to 2004 in the North West Provincial Government, she was the member of the executive committee (MEC) responsible for environment. She headed-up the environmental management, conservation and tourism functions in various Provincial Government Departments – Tourism, Environment and Conservation (1996 to 1998); Economic Development and Tourism (1998 to 2000); and Agriculture, Conservation and Environment (2000 to 2004). During that era she proved to be a visionary leader, directing the reform of provincial environmental legislation and institutions, including the North West Parks and Tourism Board and its’ internationally acclaimed eco-tourism driven economic model for nature conservation in Pilanesberg, Madikwe and other provincial protected areas.

During this period, as part of her drive to place environmentally sustainable development at the heart of provincial economic growth, Dr Molewa mooted, and championed the establishment of 3 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage sites. These included the paleo-anthropological sites at the Cradle of Humankind in partnership with Gauteng province; and its’ Makapans and Taung extension in partnership with Limpopo province; as well as the meteorite impact site of Vredefort Dome in partnership with the Free State province.

In 2002, South Africa hosted its’ first major international event since the advent of our democracy; the World Summit on Sustainable Development (the WSSD, which was held in Johannesburg). In the spirit of participative and cooperative government, Dr Molewa joined the organising and negotiating team for the WSSD under the leadership of the then national Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Valli Moosa. And contributed significantly to the successful adoption, by world leaders, of the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and its Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, which was internationally applauded.

From 2004 to 2009 as Premier of the North West Province, she continued to keep herself abreast of strategic environmental programmes, especially where collaboration was necessary between Provinces and national government to achieve natural and cultural heritage conservation objectives.

On becoming national Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs in 2010, she immediately prioritised the global climate change crisis at both an international and national level. As part of this effort, she facilitated the development of our national climate change response policy that was approved by cabinet in 2011. This policy includes a range of measures aimed at achieving both South Africa’s overall national goals reflected in the National Development Plan and our commitments made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Dr Molewa has been instrumental leading the work on the enhancement of early warning systems through the South African Weather Service to enable better management of the risks of climate variability and change at all levels. Through her leadership, the South African Weather Service has built the research infrastructure and observational platform to improve the early warning system in the country. 

At international level, after the dramatic failure to reach a new international climate change agreement at the 2009 15th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark;  trust rebuilding at 2010 COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, and South Africa as host of the crucial 2011 COP17 in Durban, had the task to re-establish the way forward for the international climate change regime. In partnership with the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), Dr Molewa as leader of the South African delegation, threw herself into an intense period of international diplomacy to prepare for the negotiation of a solution to the seemingly unsolvable disagreements on a way forward for the international climate change governance system.

To say the least, through team South Africa’s cooperative efforts (including DIRCO, the KZN Province, City of Ethekwini Municipality, other government departments and provinces) the Durban COP17 was an unqualified success with the adoption of the Durban Platform, which laid out the parameters for, the negotiating institutions and a 4-year path to reach the historic climate change Paris Agreement in 2015.

She was always an ardent advocate for cooperative governance and always ensured that the Department’s policies worked and functioned in tandem with the work of other government departments at both a provincial and national level. The success at COP17 is testament to her commitment to practice the notion of integration and alignment, advancing the spirit and the letter of our constitutional provision on cooperative government and intergovernmental relations.

Since the Durban COP 17 outcome, Dr Molewa worked tirelessly to ensure that the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was concluded and ratified, thus securing the COP 17 decisions in a global legal architecture. The Paris Agreement successfully enables climate change mitigation and adaptation action by all countries by providing for means of implementation for developing countries.

Dr Molewa was internationally recognized and respected in the climate change fraternity; and has been in the vanguard of global efforts since the genesis of the Paris Agreement at the 2011 COP17 in Durban. In recognition of her dedication and commitment in August 2018 she was bestowed with the Officier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (or Officer in the French Legion of Honour) by the French Government. The Legion of Honour acknowledged Dr Molewa’s commitment to the struggle for freedom and democracy, for women’s rights and her role in advancement of global negotiations that led to the signing of the historic global climate change pact referred to as “Paris Agreement”.

During her visit to China earlier this month, Dr Molewa  became the first woman and first African leader to deliver the annual Climate Lecture at the prestigious Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Addressing students, faculty and the international community in the lecture that was broadcast live, she highlighted South Africa’s efforts at both a domestic and international level to transition the country to a low-carbon, inclusive, climate change resilient future as the world moves towards implementation in 2020 of the Paris Agreement.

She stressed the importance of international cooperation and dialogue in ensuring that the countries of the world meet their obligations in terms of the Paris Agreement.

Dr Molewa did not only focus on climate change, she provided extraordinary vision, inspiration and leadership for the whole spectrum of issues and challenges in the environmental sector. As visionary leader within government, Dr Molewa quickly saw the potential of the Malaysian “Big Fast Results” participative planning methodology that has been adapted for application in South Africa as the Operation Phakisa methodology. Using this approach she facilitated the development of 3 Operation Phakisa programmes aimed at fully tapping into the socio-economic development potential of the environment sector in accordance with Section 24 of the Constitution. The first of these integrated Operation Phakisa programmes was the Ocean Economy, followed by the Biodiversity Economy and the Chemicals and Waste Economy Phakisa programmes.

She coordinated a multi-stakeholder process for the development of detailed implementation plans for rhino conservation in South Africa. “In the field of  biodiversity conservation, she was a leader and a champion for the conservation of South Africa’s fauna and flora. Her drive and dedication was particularly evident in the area of the conservation of critical or endangered species. Exemplified in programmes aimed at preventing wildlife trafficking in pursuit of the protection of continental wildlife, particularly the rhino, to conserve them for future generations,” said Deputy Minister Thomson.

She advocated for the orientation of the security cluster into rhino protection that led to the Integrated Strategic Management of Rhinoceros approach was adopted by Cabinet in 2014 – thanks to this multi-disciplinary approach, recently released statistics show rhino poaching numbers continue their successive decline. She was always holistic in approaching wildlife crime interventions, willing to take responsibility for what the conservation fraternity has a mandate for, whilst acknowledging what is in the domain of other government agencies in particular the security and enforcement clusters (Defence, Border Management Agencies, Police, public prosecutions and Justice). She believed that there is a great opportunity for science and innovation in wildlife crime prevention and detection in order to lower the exposure of the South African National parks rangers to criminality.

She insisted that Biodiversity offers untapped opportunities to South Africa’s economic challenges that could contribute to radical socio-economic transformation in South Africa. Dr Molewa called for the transformation of the biodiversity sector, in particular for advancing the principles of access and benefit sharing from natural or wildlife resources, whilst ensuring responsible management for long term survival and sustainability of species in the wild. In this regard, her recent engagements included the Africa  Ranger Award, Women and Environment programme, facilitation of the Presidential launch of the Operation Phakisa Biodiversity Economy, including the launch of Matsila Community Development Projects, the hosting of the 8th People and Parks Conference, and the official ministerial visit to Thohoyandou Botanical Garden.

Dr. Molewa strongly advocated for a science based approach for conservation and biodiversity decision making, and facilitated the enhancement of faunal based science for the sector including forensic services through the  transfer of the National Zoological Gardens from National Research foundation to the South African Biodiversity Institute.

Internationally, Dr Molewa led the South Africa’s negotiation of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), World Heritage Convention (WHC) and the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Her active role in these multilateral agreements resulted in South Africa being invited to host the 17th Conference of Parties to CITES (COP17) whose legacy includes the sustainable livelihoods programme which will positively impact communities globally. It is through these international platforms that she advanced the sustainable use approach as part of conservation and biodiversity management. 

Under her tenure, two new world heritage sites, were inscribed – Khomani Cultural Landscape in Northern Cape and Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in Mpumalanga. The Maluti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site was also extended, creating a transboundary world heritage site as part of our regional integration with Lesotho. These brought the total number of South African sites on the UNESCO world heritage list to ten (10), which plays a prominent role in boosting tourism, contribution to socio economic development and job creation mainly in rural areas. Under her leadership, four new biosphere reserves were added into the UNESCO world network of biosphere reserves. This includes Gouritz Cluster (EC&WC), Magaliesberg (Gauteng and NW), Garden Route (WC&EC), and Marico (NW).

She launched an Operation Phakisa for the Oceans Economy and, working in partnership with other relevant government departments, drove the development of the Blue or Oceans Economy, including focus areas on maritime transport, shipbuilding, offshore oil and gas exploration, aquaculture, port development, industrial zone development adjacent to ports, marine and coastal tourism, as well as, research and technology and oceans governance.

She repeatedly emphasized that the world’s economic relationship with the ocean was evolving. She believed that due to the environmental damage being caused to the oceans through, amongst others, over-fishing, oil and plastic pollution, there was a need to promote a more sustainable balance between economic growth and ocean health. She was convinced that securing zones for conservation of coastal and off shore areas through declaring Marine Protected Areas was essential to economic development that secures marine life for current and future generations.

Dr Molewa was passionate about enhancing South Africa’s role in the ocean and coastal environment, Antarctica and islands in the Southern Oceans. To this end she played a key role in driving the procurement and delivery of the South African research and polar supply vessel, the SA Agulhas II, built in 2012 under Dr Molewa’s leadership, and dedicated to our icon, Mama Miriam Makeba. The vessel has been the basis for the cutting edge scientific research at Antarctic and Prince Edward Islands, and demonstrates her foresight and understanding of investing in knowledge production and the important role of science in the Antarctic and Southern Oceans.  She presented ocean science work as a concrete deliverable to the Indian Ocean Rim Association, stating that Africa must understand and value her ocean to really benefit from the opportunities that the ocean presents. Dr Molewa launched the first of these Indian Ocean Cruises in October 2017. She insisted that the good science work undertaken must be translated into knowledge that South Africans can easily access so the ocean and coastal opportunities and threats can be engaged with at all levels.

Internationally, she led South Africa in discussions for the development of a BRICS Oceans Economy programme through sharing of best practices, technology and skills development whilst paving a way for investment attractions in these key areas.

In ensuring the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing, in 2012 Dr Molewa published the ambient air quality standard for PM2.5 and other pollutants, as well as minimum emission standards to ensure that polluting industries reduce their emissions that affect people’s health. She followed this up by establishing National Air Quality Index (NAQI) monitoring stations to ensure that South Africans are continuosly provided with information regarding the state and quality of the ambient air they breathe. She also declared and established air quality management plans for major pollution hotspots in the country.

She sadly passed on whilst in the process of finalising the 2018 National Framework for Air Quality Management which was to bring a shift in air quality management space and gear the country towards cleaner production.

Dr Molewa was recognized internationally for her vision and leadership in the Chemicals and Waste Management sector. In 2013, she spearheaded South Africa’s signing of the Minamata Convention text and the subsequent allocation of funds for key studies to be undertaken in South Africa towards its ratification. In 2016, after almost a decade of a deadlock and stalemate in negotiations on the phase out of the HFC global warming greenhouse gas, she successfully lobbied and influenced some countries to agree to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on HFC’s. In this context, Dr Molewa was key in bridging gaps between the global north and the global south.

She was an international thought leader on the concept of the Circular Economy and established the Africa Alliance on the Circular Economy in 2017, together with the environmental ministers from Nigeria and Rwanda. Ensuring that it was adopted within programmes in BRICS countries at the recent BRICS Summit held in South Africa, where she played a very prominent role in mainstreaming the environmental agenda. 

At national level, through the Chemicals and Waste economy Phakisa, Dr Molewa has pioneered several innovative initiatives including transformation of the sector and addressing the plight of waste pickers. 

One of her priorities was to focus on the generation of jobs in the green economy, particularly the waste sector. These initiatives centre on addressing inequality, poverty alleviation and creation of jobs. She has supported informal waste collectors through the “tools of the trade programme” that provides for improved logistic innovations on the transportation of the recyclables through motorised transport. She also championed the conception of the Recycling Enterprise Support Programme (RESP) which has already made a material impact in the lives of black owned and managed enterprises. These enterprises are reaping the benefits by accessing developmental funding for projects in the form of start-up grants.

Under her leadership, the Extended Producers Responsibility programme took historic strides in ensuring that more waste materials are diverted from landfill. Materials such as tyres, electronic waste, waste oils, batteries, paper and packaging continue to create the much needed jobs and grow economy.

Through the adoption of the Secondary Asbestos Remediation Plan in parliament, Dr Molewa drove the roll-out of remediation projects in the most affected communities In August this year Dr Molewa presided on the opening of a new school with Asbestos-free classrooms and the construction of new asbestos free roads in Mafefe in Limpopo.

The Thuma Mina Green Deeds Programme and Campaign remains her contribution to the mobilisation of every inhabitant of South Africa to become environmentally conscious. She wanted to see a South Africa free of litter and illegal dumping. She has completely changed attitudes and behaviour towards waste – and enabled people to take responsibility for keeping their communities clean.

Job creation, the end of poverty and the improvement of the lives of all people, particularly women and the youth in rural areas, was a key driver behind Dr Molewa’s work. She empowered girl children and youth through various platforms, some of the young graduates worked directly with her as their mentor.

In recognition of her valued contribution to scientific knowledge through her environmental work, Mme Molewa received an honorary doctorate in Applied Sciences from the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) in 2016. A year later, she was installed as the first Chancellor of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Ga-Rankuwa.

The Department’s Director-General, Ms. Nosipho Ngcaba has described Minister Molewa’s  passing as “a devastating loss, not just for her family, but for the sector and the country.”

“She was a woman of substance, a visionary leader, knowledgeable, hardworking, a reader, driven to achieve tangible outputs and outcomes, her passion and immense knowledge in the field of environmental management was exemplary. Myself and the DEA family including South African National Parks, South African Biodiversity Institute, South African Weather Service and Isimangaliso Wetland Authority are saddened that her efforts and commitment to actively contribute to people prosperity through the green goal in South Africa, and global environmental benefits for a better Planet, are now lost to the world,” said Ms. Ngcaba.

She added: “We as the officials of the Department look to the almighty to regain the strength and courage to remain focused and committed to advancing the various causes she held so dearly, that would be the most fitting tribute to honour her exceptional legacy.”

The Deputy Minister and Director-General have expressed their condolences to her children, mother, sisters, brothers and the broader family; adding that she would be sorely missed in the Department by all its employees as well as her staff in the Ministry.

“She was not just the leader of our Department, she was a much valued colleague, mentor to some, and a friend,” said Deputy Minister Thomson.

The Minister will be laid to rest on the 6th October in Pretoria. The Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) will pronounce on further details and venues in due course.

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Albi Modise
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