Influence was the name of the game at the critical climate talks in Paris this week. And for South Africa, it meant arriving with a strong contingent that could shape the kind of deal the country wanted, said the South Africans.
A list of delegates showed that 137 South African officials attended the talks, and the delegation was adamant that each member had a role to play.
Many questioned whether South Africa was wasting taxpayers’ money by sending so many delegates.
Just under 40 000 people from around the world attended the COP21 climate talks over the past two weeks. An agreement was due to be signed at the weekend after delegations spent days and nights hammering out a potentially historic deal.
Biznews said that while it was important for South Africa to participate in the climate negotiations, 10 delegates might have been a more appropriate number. Several ministers, department officials, Eskom executives, mayors and academics made the trip. But included in Team SA were a number of veterans with vast experience in negotiating at such a conference.
President Jacob Zuma also attended the start of the summit with 18 presidency officials, including a presidential interpreter, photographer and personal video photographer.
It is unclear what the total costs were of flying out the delegation because the different government departments had not consolidated their budgets for the trip.
But the South African delegation hit back at critics, saying the team had done the country proud and it was not deterred by “uninformed critics”.
Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said South Africa’s “active and vigorous participation” in the talks was “not negotiable”.
Molewa said the number of delegates who were listed was incorrect, but she could not provide an exact figure. She said many of the officials present had already been stationed in France, while many of the names listed had not attended.
Environmental affairs spokesperson Albi Modise said it was not helpful that when teams spent sleepless nights serving South Africa, ensuring that national interests were secured and the planet saved, critics distorted the facts.
“They underestimate the magnitude of work being done here and focus on counting heads out of context and try to mislead our nation,” he said.
He added that the Paris deal had come about as a result of long hours, working around the clock on complex, multiple, parallel work streams, formal and informal meetings, negotiations and consultation sessions and side events.
“South Africa is regarded as a constructive negotiator because it plays a major role in ensuring that parties reach consensus in negotiations,” he said.
Interestingly, South Africa’s delegation was more or less par for the course, considering that the country chaired the most important negotiating block at the negotiations, the G77 plus China. South Africa was also not among the 20 largest delegations at the talks.
Nine of the 20 were from Africa. Guinea, with 398, was the second-largest continental delegation followed by Ivory Coast, with 338 delegates. Trinidad and Tobago, as well as Syria, had the smallest delegation, with three representatives each.
The US, a critical player at the talks, had 124 delegates, making it the 35th-largest delegation.
China boasted 326 delegates. Morocco, which is hosting the talks next year, had the most negotiators at 439. Brazil had 319 official delegates.
Host country France registered 395 delegates.
South African civil society delegate at the talks Rehana Dada said South Africans had to appreciate the complexity their delegation was dealing with.
Though civil society often differed with the delegation, its members agreed that the delegate numbers were justified.
Dada said it was crucial for South Africa to be a force at the talks.
“I’m just glad we have the resources to have a large delegation. Because of this, South Africa is able to stand on its own at the talks. We can influence a treaty that will have a great impact on the world,” she said.
South Africa’s leadership in the G77 plus China required a great deal of support from delegation members, she said.
“It takes a lot of effort to hold the unity of this group together. You need a large delegation to do that.”
Apart from the big policy decisions being made, COP21 had also been a meeting ground where many side deals were struck and critical connections made.
Most of the South African delegates were staying at the Hyatt, near the Champs-Élysées, and most officials reportedly flew business class.
But Modise said government officials at the talks stuck strictly to the cost-containment requirements spelt out by government and had taken measures to ensure reasonable expenditure.
Ironically, many of South Africa’s negotiators did not even see much of the inside of their expensive hotel rooms this week, as they negotiated around the clock.