The changing face of Tina Joemat-Pettersson

2014-10-09 06:45

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When President Jacob Zuma appointed Tina Joemat-Pettersson to his Cabinet in 2009 as agriculture minister, she was a darling of the people, one of the most popular MECs of the past decade.

Fast-forward five years. Joemat-Pettersson is reappointed to Cabinet, this time as minister of energy, eliciting gasps of outrage and incredulity.

The minister was loved no more.

Joemat-Pettersson’s rise to power has a distinctly Shakespearian feel to it. It is a tale of a woman who in the space of five years transformed from an adored, passionate MEC to a contentious presidential loyalist.

When Joemat-Pettersson signed an agreement with the Russians over a new nuclear programme for South Africa, there was not much doubt that she was indeed President Zuma’s envoy. In the past five years, Joemat-Pettersson has been at the centre of quite a few scandals.

Her CV now includes a huge fallout with her own portfolio committee and a very public row with Thuli Madonsela after two damning reports emerged from the Public Protector’s office.

But despite her problems, the president has yet to reprimand her in any way. In fact, she has been rewarded and in effect placed at the head of a R1?trillion nuclear deal.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson on a visit to an apple farm as minister of agriculture in 2011. Picture:Theo Jeptha

Back in 2009, Joemat-Pettersson was indeed treasured, not only by Zuma.

People spoke about her passion, her energy and the fact that she never slept.

But there were also mutterings about a temper. She did not suffer fools easily, those who worked with her said. Her ambition burnt bright.

While she was education MEC, the Northern Cape received the best results in the country for three years in a row. As agriculture MEC, she joked that she would readily wear two-tone khaki – if it was designer-made.

She was hands-on, and traipsed through dust and kraals to win the hearts of her constituency.

However, it was not Joemat-Pettersson’s famous work ethic that landed her in Cabinet after Polokwane; it was her politics.

Joemat-Pettersson had bet on the right horse and applied some serious elbow grease to convince ANC voters in the Northern Cape to go with Jacob Zuma. For her troubles, she earned herself a seat on the national executive committee, as well as Zuma’s ear.

The petite, stylish woman immediately charmed herself into the hearts of her officials.

She showed up at her first Land Bank annual general meeting and waited in a queue for her badge like other delegates. “I’m the minister. I’m ready to work and serve,” she told the surprised clerk.

But storms were already gathering. Two months into her term, Joemat-Pettersson forced out her director-general, Njabulo Nduli. At the time, many thought it was simply Joemat-Pettersson getting rid of dead wood.

But soon trusted advisers, spokespeople and directors-general either fled or were fired from her department.

A key former ally of Joemat-Pettersson described working with her as a “bipolar experience”.

“When Tina Joemat-Pettersson was on a roll, she was the best person in government. But as soon as the stress started, the self-doubt started, and that is when her bad side would come out.”

He spoke about her temper tantrums alienating officials.

Joemat-Pettersson, now under national scrutiny, also slowly started building a reputation as someone with a taste for the good life. The joke about her designer khaki outfit turned on her, as rumours about her preference for five-star hotels emerged.

A splurge on a luxury Sandton guesthouse for 28 people led to her first Public Protector investigation.

Joemat-Pettersson, a member of the Communist Party, is hardly a pauper. Her well-off Swedish husband, Thorvald Pettersson, left her unlimited travel funds, as well as R100?000 monthly maintenance support, after his death in 2006.

Despite this, she said her kids had to sleep on a floor of a hotel while the department of public works dallied on her house renovations.

Madonsela found in her report, titled Costly Moves, that although the minister had not violated the executive ethics code, Joemat-Pettersson’s ignorance of the costs was a cause for serious concern because she “displayed a blank-cheque attitude towards public funds”.

More telling was the finding that Joemat-Pettersson should repay R151?878 spent on return flights for her two children and their au pair from Sweden in early 2010. The minister was urgently called back by President Zuma to help with his wedding.

Joemat-Pettersson’s rush to get back to the wedding reveals the close relationship she has built with Zuma since 2009.

“This matter had to do with fresh-food products for the wedding and I came back to sort it out,” she said.

But why was the minister of agriculture involved in a crisis around food for a wedding?

In another investigation, Madonsela also called for disciplinary action against Joemat-Pettersson for her role in an R800?million marine resources tender.

Joemat-Pettersson’s response was to challenge Madonsela in court on the findings against her.

While former communications minister Dina Pule was publicly reprimanded, Joemat-Pettersson escaped action, creating the impression that she was protected.

Tina Joemat-Pettersson alongside President Jacob Zuma during an outing in 2013.
Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

Food security had become one of the minister’s championing causes, but it still caught many by surprise when Presidnet Zuma’s nephew Deebo Mzobe and his charity, Masibambisane, became one of the chief beneficiaries of Joemat-Pettersson’s new campaign.

The president founded Masibambisane, but the lines of the nongovernmental organisation and that of the state became blurred, and it is still unclear how much was invested in Masibambisane.

More scandals emerged and Joemat-Pettersson seemed to be self-destructing. Yet at the ANC 53rd national elective conference at Mangaung, she again ensured support for Zuma, but it remained to be seen if Zuma would choose loyalty over controversy.

President Zuma not only stuck with Joemat-Pettersson, but entrusted her with one of his most critical jobs in the country, that of overseeing a legacy project of his – South Africa’s new nuclear build programme.

Zuma had been on the hunt for a loyal, get-the-job-done, no-questions-asked minister for the portfolio. Apparently former energy minister Ben Martins and his predecessor, Dipuo Peters, did not fit his mould, and he inserted Joemat-Pettersson.

Joemat-Pettersson’s troubles have ensured that Zuma has a very useful tool for keeping his minister in check.

But he has also placed her at the centre of South Africa’s most expensive procurement process, ensuring that the stress levels will not subside any time soon.

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