W ere it not for the demands of protocol placed on her by her job, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica wouldn't mind being just Sis Buyi.

W ere it not for the demands of protocol placed on her by her job, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica wouldn't mind being just Sis Buyi.

Who calls her by that name?

"Everybody" she says with a warm smile.

A very down-to-earth person, Sonjica is one of those cabinet ministers who have straddled the Mbeki-Zuma transition without attracting too much attention to their allegiances, should they hold any.

A teacher for 14 years before the government postings beckoned, she knows nothing better than doing her job.

Her current post is just up her alley, a mere extension of her persona.

"I'm an outdoor person," she says.


It is no wonder that greening the environment, especially in the townships, is at the top of her 'In' tray.

In her address at the local government indaba on the environment last Thursday, the minister batted for cleaner, greener townships.

"I would like to challenge you as municipalities to prioritise, among other things, waste management and the greening of our townships to restore the dignity of our people ."

She had earlier told representatives of the country's 283 municipalities that since they were at the coalface of service delivery, they were "best positioned to champion clean environments and ensure that our people benefit from the legislation aimed at giving them access to clean and habitable environments".

She had been on a walkabout in Mamelodi, Pretoria, on Mandela Day in one such clean-up campaign, the minister told the Fourways, Johannesburg, gathering.

In her outdoor fun activities, the KwaZakhele, Port Elizabeth grandmother "of two beautiful kids" loves nothing more than taking the tiny tots to the beach.

Those who insist on driving their monstrous 4X4s along the beaches would clearly find no fan in the minister, who is thrilled at the existence of the Green Scorpions.

Water, the first half of her political responsibility, gives her sleepless nights.

"South Africa is a water scarce country," she explains. "We're one of the 30 driest countries in the world. We get 50 percent less rain [than other countries that get rain]. So we have to look after our resources."

She rubs it in that if we continue with our wanton ways we could "be a desert in the next 25 years".

She takes issue with the wasteful consumerism of golf estates, where lawns could be irrigated with recycled water. Use water efficiently, she said repeatedly during the interview. "Recycle."

What further compounds the problem is that there's a dire skills shortage in the areas of water and the environment.

"They are highly specialised areas and we don't have enough expertise here."

In greening the environment the minister takes comfort in the fact that jobs will be created and as education spreads, interest might grow [for studies in this direction by young people].

She tears into the racist Land Act of 1913 and the Water Act of 1936, which ensured that people were denied access to this precious resource simply because of the colour of their skin. Her ministry has, as a result, started a war - water allocation reform that "seeks to redress this imbalance".

Joburg Water is not the only entity that supplies good quality water in the country, she says. The municipality of George, says the minister, is also among those.

As a result 2010 - the buzz word on everybody's lips - does not frighten her.

"We'll be able to provide clean good quality water."

She speaks of the need to guard our wetlands with almost the same passion she reserves for her two beautiful grandchildren.

Climate change, says Sonjica, should be demystified so that it is understood by all.

"It should not be an issue for the educated elite. All of us should understand how we contribute to climate change when we do such simple things as drive our cars instead of walking to the shops."

Her work ethic is amazing. One can only hope that those who partner her ministry in its work can up their ante.

"We must be reminded that we are all here as representatives of our people who have, without fail, elected the ANC to office despite the challenges they might be facing in their own communities. We cannot afford to fail them," she said, concluding her speech at the indaba with municipalities.

No one is better suited than the soft-spoken Sonjica to whip errant municipalities back into line, targets of civic scorn during the myriad service delivery strikes.

When she's not attending conferences unpacking such issues as biodiversity and the government's commitment to reduce its loss by 2010, Sis Buyi is at home cooking umnqqusho.