COP17 Launches a New Leader for the Climate Community

COP17 Launches a New Leader for the Climate Community

As the Durban climate change summit draws to a close, regular attendees may share my sense of déjà vu. Yes, we have certainly seen and met new leaders from governments, NGOs and corporations this last fortnight, but the same global figures tend to dominate proceedings at the COPs and we know we will see these familiar faces at the next climate summit.

It's all too easy, therefore, to forget our hosts. In Durban, South African leaders from a variety of fields made their mark and it's important to acknowledge their contribution. Not only did they bring great charisma and local color, but they left the regular itinerant delegates with a clearer understanding of the complex challenges faced by emerging markets.

President Jacob Zuma entertained his audiences with anecdotes of his homeland and reaffirmed his government's commitment to emissions reduction. We heard from a range of impressive ministers and local business leaders. Among the most noteworthy contributors were Trevor Manuel, President of the National Planning commission and former Minister of Finance, Edna Molewa, the minister of environmental affairs and Brian Dames, CEO of the local utility, Eskom.

But the most lasting impression came from the intervention of Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and President of COP17. I was attending a celebration that preceded the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's Business Day at Durban's Docklands Hotel. I admit that, after perhaps too many people had spoken from the stage, my level of attention was dropping.

And then she appeared on stage, highlighted by a spotlight in a room decorated like a nightclub and apparently ready for a concert. And she rekindled my interest immediately. There was something special in her elegant posture, high head, colorful dress and shining jewelry, complete with an Angela Davis hairstyle. Her voice had the metallic intensity and high level impact of a revolutionary passionaria. But her intervention was intense and controlled, smart and modest.

The Minister had attracted criticism at the time of her nomination as COP17 President for her lack of experience. But she worked her audience impressively that night.

She won us over with tales of her childhood when she carried the heavy water can to her home on her head. Her life, which included her path from ANC engagement to ministerial responsibility, has been intense and tragic. But it gives her the legitimacy to help lead the political fight against corruption.

She strongly defended the role and importance of women in Africa -- farmers and entrepreneurs -- with a firm tone and smiling face. And she spoke powerfully about adaption to climate change, reminding us of the necessary "access rights" in developing markets: access to water, to energy, to land use. She also had the humor to leave to the "wise men" the discussions on technology transfers and land rights.

She preached on the importance of the climate change negotiations for the emerging markets and was adamant that Durban would not be the end of the Kyoto process. She is convinced there will be a positive outcome to the launch of the Green Climate Fund.

But her intervention was strongest when illustrating what is new in Durban after Cancun: the growing recognition in the emerging and developing markets that eradication of poverty needs to work hand in hand with the war against climate change. That will require unsatisfactory compromises at times until the masses are ensured access to energy, which is key for economic development.

So when we arrive at the next climate summit, let's hope Maite Nkoana-Mashabane attends and becomes a familiar face in the COP community, winning us over with her potent mix of charm and conviction.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane photo CC-licensed by UNFCCC.