Barbara Creecy, South Africa’s Environment Minister and chair of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment during Conference of the Parties in Madrid, Spain.

THEBE MABANGA|

THE Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, Barbara Creecy, may relish her role as South Africa’s environmental ‘Czar’ who is driven by a sense of social justice and concern for improving people’s lives.  

Being the environment minister is merely the latest in a long list of roles she has played in her adult life – especially in helping to shape the democratic South Africa.

“I have been blessed” she says pointedly.

“I have had an opportunity to do many interesting things that touch people’s lives in a positive way”.

Creecy is referring to her long and distinguished career in politics – gained through the study of politics at Wits University and activism.

Creecy says in the two years since she assumed the role in the national Cabinet, she has found that “every day is a working day,” including the Freedom Day public holiday, when she spoke to Inside Politics.

Creecy places good governance at the centre of department she leads with a belief that frugal management of public resources leads to better service delivery and can improve citizens’ quality of life.

She demonstrated when she was Gauteng MEC for Finance – the last post she held before taking up her current role.

Under her watch, the Gauteng Provincial Treasury helped other departments and their entities to improve their audit outcomes by obtaining first unqualified audits and clean audits.

She also introduced the much-celebrated Open Tender System, a departmental mechanism credited with cleaning up public procurement.

Creecy also cracked the whip in getting departments to pay valid invoices within 30 days, a long-established target that had proven difficult to achieve.

When she left Gauteng, 30% of departments and entities had achieved clean audits.

In her time at the environment ministry, Creecy has not stopped preaching the clean governance mantra.

When she announced the appointment of Nomfundo Tshabalala as the department’s new Director-General in December last year, she lauded her skills in public administration and economic development, but also pointed to her role in cleaning up finances.

“[Her] skills will assist the Department in turning around successive years of qualified audits. It will also assist in placing both the Marine Living Resources Act and the Kabelo Trust on a sound financial footing,” she said, in reference to the department’s own track record and governance challenges that come with the forestry and fisheries portfolio, which she inherited when she took up the post.

She has also briefed the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on the action they are taking to address irregular expenditure – some of which predates her arrival at the department.

In the 2019/2020 financial year, irregular expenditure stood at R105 million while historical cumulative figure from earlier years stood at R2.5 billion.  

Creecy has strengthened consequences management at the department, issuing letters to more than 70 officials to account for irregular expenditure while taking disciplinary action against three senior members of the department’s Senior Management Team, with action taken against them.

Creecy is often described as a “firm but fair boss” who places high expectations on her senior managers – and she leads by example.

A Department insider described her as a “diligent and hands on” person who encourages the growth of her senior staff.

This can be seen from the fact that in her time at the department, two Deputy Director-Generals as well as the CEOs of the South African Weather Service (SAWS) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) were all promoted from within the department.

Creecy displays stoicism that is pierced by her warmth only upon close engagement.

An accounting firm executive who first encountered Creecy during her time as the Gauteng Education MEC remembers her as “warm and engaging,” and how when she had come to address his company about how they can assist in improving education delivery in the province, he left the Exco convinced to deploy their trainee accountants to help teach accounting in Saturday Schools.

Creecy is grateful that she encounters little scepticism on climate change in South Africa.

“The age of climate denialism is over,” she says.

“In Southern Africa, Climate Change is our lived experience.”

Creecy says the region is among the worst affected by climate change and has experienced rising temperatures over the past century and more frequent and vicious cyclones, one of which affected the dry and arid Northern Cape.

Creecy notes that South Africa must build low carbon, resilient economy that can withstand extreme weather and serve its population through clean energy and food production.  

Her department is also currently grappling with the effects of COVID-19 on wildlife conservation and especially tourism, which has affected more than 20 national parks under her care through SanParks.

Last year, at the onset of COVID-19, the department transferred R1 billion to help sustain these national treasures. This year, she says, there are unfortunately no funds to offer similar assistance.

She notes that she is relieved to see domestic tourism recovering and local tourists returning to the parks, because their business model relies on income from foreign tourists, who pay a higher rate than locals.

Many countries still restrict or discourage their citizens from travelling to South Africa due to concerns over COVID-19.

Creecy is also passionate about the empowerment of marginalised constituencies.

Last year, at the height of COVID-19, she launched a fund to reward youth environmental entrepreneurs with funding of up to R100 000 for community-based environmental initiatives.

She is also said to be driving her management team to direct her management team to increase spending on black and women-owned enterprises, which can be hard to find in the environmental realm.

Born on June 17, 1958 in Johannesburg, Creecy was about to turn 18 when the June 16 1976 riots broke out in Soweto.

At the time, Creecy was a first-year student at Wits University studying towards a Political Science degree.

“My parents raised us to be aware of what was going on. So, I knew what was going on in the country and I knew that apartheid was wrong,” she recalls.

At an afternoon tutorial that fateful day, a politics Professor told them that students had been shot by police in Soweto and then asked the tutorial class to join him in protests on Jan Smuts Avenue next to Wits, which Creecy and her classmates promptly did.

The next day, they tried to march to meet students in Soweto, who had been brutally stopped in their protest to Johannesburg.

Creecy and her peers never made their trip, as they were beaten and detained by security police to stop them dead in their tracks.

Creecy was raised in a household that instilled political consciousness from an early age.

Her parents emigrated to South Africa from the United Kingdom at the end of the Second World War.

Her father was a Communist Party activist in his youth and was imprisoned as a prisoner of conscience for refusing to enlist for the war.

After obtaining her honours at Wits, Creecy worked for South African Students Press Union (SASPU) and ravelled through the country’s university’s documenting political stories.

She then worked for human rights lawyer Priscilla Jana, offering support to many activists who faced political detention and harassment.

This is where she met some of her ANC comrades and now colleagues.

Creecy was recruited to formally join the ANC in 1981.

She is currently a member of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) and National Working Committee (NWC).

She has also been the party’s elections organiser.

“I love election work,” she says.

“I enjoy doing door to door campaign. I am fascinated by people and interacting with them and to hear how we can improve their lives.”

She recently had to campaign for by-elections in the Western Cape.

She also loves the part of her daily work that allows her to interact with communities, such as those in forestry settlements.

“As a politician, you can be caught up in policy work and forget why we do what we do” she says.

“Interacting with people reminds us why we do what we do.”

Creecy was elected to the Gauteng Legislature after the 1994 elections and six weeks into her term as an MPL, she was due to give birth to her second born child.

When she enquired about maternity leave, she was given a telephone directory thick rules book, which made a single, indirect reference to women and nothing about maternity leave.

Creecy and her generation of legislators set about putting policies and systems in place to make the provincial parliament to function, including portfolio committees to monitor newly established departments.

She chaired the Social Development and Education Committees over the first two terms as lawmaker.

She says the role gave her insight into the importance of oversight, and she remains a quintessential backbencher who brings rigour and thoroughness to all the roles she has occupied.

In 2004, Creecy ascended to the provincial Cabinet as the MEC for Sports, Arts and Recreation.

“This taught me the ability to work with civil society, including international NGOs.”

This helps her in her current work as she interacts with local and international environmental NGOs. 

Her tenure coincided with the build-up and hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, where her department was responsible for the cultural programme with Gauteng hosting the highest proportion of venues, training grounds, teams and traveling fans.

After that, she was moved to education.

“Education taught me about size and scale,” she says as the educations sector employed 120 000 people – and responsible for 2500 schools at the time.

She launched the phenomenally successful Secondary School Improvement Programme (SSIP) and regularly interacted with current MEC Panyaza Lesufi at the time of year-end results.

Creecy works with schools at her current constituency in Overberg, Hermanus, and the nearby township of Zwelihle, in the Western Cape.

The environment department has a programme to popularise life sciences as a subject and career choice among learners.

The department also offers bursaries for life sciences degrees and is the country’s largest employer of biologists.

“I will always find a school to work with,” she says of her attachment to schools.

Her last posting in Gauteng was as MEC for Finance.

Some people view her wide-ranging experience as preparing her for being a Premier of the province in future.

However, she flatly refuses to discuss any future plans or how long, at 62, she intends to keep working.

“Let us finish this term first and the work we have to do here,” is all she is prepared to say.

Creecy finds time to walk almost daily to keep her fit to do her work.

She currently stays with her two children.

Creecy holds a Masters in Public Policy and Management form the University of London.

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