Address by Deputy Minister Sue van der Merwe on the occasion of the Karoo Development Conference Graaf Reinet 26 March 2009
Dean of the Faculty of Economic Sciences, University of the Free State, Professor Crous
Mayor of the Camdeboo Municipality, Mr Japhta
Professor Doreen Atkinson
Trustees of the Karoo Development Foundation,
Distinguished guests

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today at this important, and if I may say so, fascinating conference on the development of the Karoo as a region.

I was born in the Eastern Cape and spent many happy holidays as a child with classmates whose families were farmers in this area.  It has always held a fascination for me.  While this true, it is also true that the real fascination for the Karoo comes when you have been away from it and return, to rediscover what it looks like and what it feels like to be here.

In September 2007 some of you were present at a workshop held in Sutherland that I also had the pleasure to attend.  Another part of the Karoo, different and yet linked.  On that occasion I recalled some of the passages of the book by Eve Palmer called “The Plains of Camdeboo”.  She is obviously one of the daughters of this area, Camdeboo, and I am so glad the municipality has gone back to that beautiful name.     She writes with love and passion of this place which cannot but inspire the reader to love it too.

She writes:
“Let us remember that the Karoo is one of the world’s oldest desserts. To the casual traveler it is an arid desolation, without life and without charm.  To those who know it, it is a land of secret beauty and infinite variety, sometimes fierce, sometimes hostile, but exercising a fascination that makes the rest of the world seem tame.”

So some of you might be asking, what a politician with a responsibility in Foreign Affairs is doing here in the Karoo at this conference …….even if, as Eve Palmer says, the rest of the world seems tame in comparison?  The answer to this question would be, that in responding to the needs of the people in South Africa, the President asked certain Ministers and Deputy Ministers to play the role of what was called ‘political’ champion in areas identified as the poorest of our country.  I was assigned to the Central Karoo District and this how I met Prof Atkinson and was introduced to her work, and her big and bold ideas.

 But I do believe that there is a relationship between this unique place and the rest of the world. Indeed modern society is no longer able to confine itself to one area, one thought, one way of living.  The sometimes dreaded word globalization is used to describe the way we are today… a sort of catch all word for the modern world.  I prefer the term used by others who refer to the “death of distance”.  The age of technology has killed off ‘distance’ and this is both good and bad.

For Africa and the rest of the developing world, we are faced with huge survival challenges to secure food for our peoples, to build our economies on volatile oil and other prices.  Fuel is increasingly being linked to food too, both because the share of energy used in food production and transport has increased and also because consumers of food and energy have become competitors.  This again will have the most serious effect on the vulnerable.  It is estimated for example that these higher prices and pressures on food production could push some 100 million people in developing countries back into poverty.  This is cause for great alarm.
In the past few months the world has been doing a lot of soul searching.  The soul searching was occasioned by the crisis that developed first in the financial markets, spreading rapidly to become a major economic crisis across the globe. It is an economic crisis which has had its roots of many years in the way the world works and is not only a crisis of money, but a crisis of resources.  It is a crisis which as usual will plunge the most vulnerable of the world into a danger zone. 

The soul searching has produced a huge debate in the world on what should be done to change things, and to make the world a better place for future generations.  We in South Africa are convinced that the way to solve problems is to ensure that all the voices are heard, to work together in the resolution of the problems In political-speak we talk all the time about the multi-lateral approach.  The soul searchers are talking about this now too.  The G20 (made up of what are regarded as ‘systemically significant economies’) used to be a gathering of Finance Ministers. It has met more recently at Head of State level for the first time and will meet again next week in London.  That’s how serious it is.  The World Bank President is talking about the “new multilateralism”, of the need to “maximize the strengths of interconnecting actors”… that this new multilateralism must “build towards a sense of shared responsibility for the health of the global political economy”.    To quote him, (the President of the World Bank) Robert Zoellick urges a redefining of economic multilateralism beyond the traditional focus on finance and trade….to think more broadly.  He says “Today energy, climate change and stabilizing fragile and post-conflict states are economic issues.”

Indeed they are. They are part of every international dialogue in the world today.  It is here that we should ask, what can we in South Africa do to change things? Events that were not of our making have forced us to look at ourselves anew, to identify the big issues of the day, to consider what our contribution can be to resolving the problems that the world is confronted by.

Those big issues surely have to include the effects of climate change on us and on the earth generally; they must also include issues of sustainability in the broad sense and the development of our people and our country linked to that.

So back to the Karoo this wondrous part of South Africa.   I need not tell you its vital statistics, occupying as it does a large part of the western and central parts of our country. Despite its semi-arid nature and sparse population it encompasses this wide range of natural habitats, including irreplaceable biodiversity, so evocatively described by Eve Palmer. Taken together with its extraordinary landscapes and natural resource based economies, in particular agriculture, tourism and mining, the Karoo is an integral element of the broader South African economy and society.   

In addition, and in ways that are both intangible and spiritual, the Karoo is an iconic and essential part of what it means to be South African and indeed, considering its paleontological and archeological heritage, a part of what it means to be human and to be part of life on earth.

The Karoo, however, together with the rest of the western part of our country is predicted to experience the impacts of climate change in a particularly severe way.  Indeed, some of these impacts are already beginning to be felt.  And over time, it will be critical that the risks posed by changing weather patterns and their impacts for human and animal life and the environment are faced head on.

In particular, climate science shows a drying of the western part of the country with its attendant effects on the ecosystems and the resource base that is dependent on water as the fundamental prerequisite for sustainability.  This drying will also threaten further many of the precious, unique and endangered plants and animals that are found in the Karoo, and may even result in a shift in landscapes.  Recent science has shown that changes in weather patterns are likely to result in a shifting distribution of desert dune fields that have been stable for centuries.

How do we respond to these threats, and how does this response build new opportunities?

The first thing to say is that the bottom line of successful adaptation to potential climate change threats, is to ensure that we understand the potential risks we face and the extent of our vulnerability and in this regard, and it would be important to take forward the work done by the Western Cape Province to identify climate risks, to the rest of the Karoo.  

Secondly, we need to ensure that our development patterns and the ways that we carry on our existing economic activities are sustainable.  Sustainability builds resilience, and resilience is the basis of successful adaptation.  So, existing initiatives around sustainable agriculture, including organic and conservation agriculture, sound water management, the expansion of our protected areas system in order to build eco system connectivity,   tourism industries built on principles of social, economic and environmental best practice, all build a base for successful adaptation. 

In particular, sustainable development initiatives that bring together biodiversity protection, livelihood creation and that seek to ensure that agriculture, tourism, mining and the natural environment can work together, have a huge potential in the Karoo.   The Succulent Karoo Eco System Programme is an example of such an initiative and I would like to refer to it in a bit of detail.

The programme is intended to bring together all spheres of government, land owners, communities, workers and industry together in a joint endeavour to protect the fragile succulent Karoo eco-system and at the same time, achieve a set of social and economic objectives.

In the first 5 years of the programme close to 400 local short- to medium-term jobs were created, more than half of them biodiversity-based jobs in the tourism sector. In Namaqualand, the Roodebergskloof stewardship initiative combines conservation of 1220 ha of land with the creation of socioeconomic opportunities for 14 land reform beneficiaries through nature-based tourism and improved grazing practices.

A new restoration business established with start-up capital co-financed by CEPF and De Beers is harnessing a local workforce.  Through the programme civil society involvement in biodiversity conservation in the Succulent Karoo has increased significantly, growing from fewer than five organisations in 2003 to over fifty today.

The programme has also begun to mainstream biodiversity into industry practices, including in the mining sector. Examples include the Black Mountain mine in the Bushmanland Inselberg area, and the restoration practices of mine dumps in Namaqualand. A newly formed company NM Restoration engages mine operators by bringing in restoration expertise and scientific field experiments to develop novel restoration methods. Best practice guidelines for the potato, rooibos, wine and 4x4 industries have also been developed, and are underway for the ostrich industry. In the Klein Karoo, guidelines for the game industry have been developed together with carrying capacity and vegetation condition maps.  All of this lays a strong foundation for an adequate response to climate change.

So addressing climate change in South Africa will require that we reduce our contributions of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, as well as preparing to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change and its effects on water , agriculture, the built environment and the nature and distribution of disease affecting both humans and animals.

This will mean that over time there must be a decrease in our reliance on fossil fuels and on coal based power generation, in favour of a shift to cleaner, less carbon intensive and renewable forms of electricity.

The Karoo’s ancient landscape offers a space for a major contribution to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gases.  In particular, the Karoo has a sunshine resource unparalleled in global terms.  In the quest to harness the power of the sun to generate energy on a large scale, the Karoo is unquestionably the best location for future initiatives. 

In this regard, the Karoo has an important potential to be the heartland of a new solar industry in South Africa.  Given the amount of both sunshine and of land, the Karoo could be the area in which initiatives such as the establishment of Concentrated Solar power would be piloted and rolled out.  This new technology is the first in the world to offer the possibility to both generate solar power at scale, and store it, that would in time make a major contribution to base load demand.  This is beginning to be discussed as a serious option in South Africa.  The Karoo would be the logical place for such a development to be located and this could pave the way for a whole new industry to be established that would offer potential not only for jobs, but for the science economy in this part of the world to be expanded significantly. 

Similarly, researchers looking at the potential for the establishment of carbon sinks have done initial work that indicates that Spekboom – a plant widely found in the Karoo may have huge potential to absorb carbon.  This work is in its early stages and should not be overemphasized until much further work is done.  However we should b open to the discoveries of science and the potential to utilize them to both save the planet and at the same time generate new economic and job opportunities.

So climate change is a challenge.  One which we should meet with a positive will, creativity, and an approach open to innovation and sound stewardship.  On this basis we may find that into the future, we can flourish in a different way.

The new world will require us to be creative and innovative.  But we are blessed with resources that few others have.  We need to have faith in ourselves, we need vision and guts.

I would like to end with a quotation from a famous South African.  He was a founding member of the African National Congress and a great scholar and thinker.  As it is election time and I am not allowed to campaign here, I will let the words of one of our great thinkers do this for me.

The man was Pixley Ka Seme.  He was born in 1881.  He started school in a local mission school in Kwazulu Natal and went on to graduate from Columbia University in New York and later the first Zulu man to graduate from Oxford University in England.  He wrote of the African Renaissance.

“Where South Africa appears on the agenda again, let it be because we want to discuss what its contribution shall be to the making of the new African Renaissance.  Let it be because we want to discuss what materials it will supply for the rebuilding of the African city of Carthage. Africa cries out for a new birth, Carthage awaits the restoration of its glory….Tribute is due to the great thinkers of our continent who have been and are trying to move all of us to understand the intimate inter-connection between the great issues of our day, of peace, stability, democracy, human rights, cooperation and development… We know as a matter of fact that we have it in ourselves as Africans to change all of this.  We must, in action, assert our will to do so.  We must, in action, say that there is no obstacle big enough to stop us from bringing about a new African Renaissance.”

I don’t think it’s too late to heed Ka Seme’s words.
Thank you

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