KZN Wildlife’s premier splurge

2014-06-28 00:00

THE province’s cash-strapped conservation arm forked out R1,5 million from money generated from the selling of game to fund a lavish cabinet sitting.

The money was spent on a two-day event at Didima Lodge located in the Cathedral Peak valley of the Khahlamba Drankensberg Park where Premier Senzo Mchunu met with his newly appointed MECs to discuss various issues, including fiscal responsibility.

But a whistle-blower, who leaked confidential documents to the Weekend Witness, believes there is a culture of “misspending” within Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and called the Didima splurge “the last straw”.

The decision to hold the event at Didima was taken by the premier’s office a few days before Mchunu was inaugurated on May 26.

And in what has been described as a “frantic” period, Ezemvelo released R1,5 million on May 26 for “urgent” upgrades to the organisation’s premier tourism lodge.

But Ezemvelo has refused to comment on the expenditure that included nearly R500 000 being spent on gifts and décor alone.

In fact, the organisation’s spokesperson Musa Mntambo referred all questions to the office of the premier and said the assumption that the money spent belonged to Ezemvelo “wasn’t entirely correct”.

Mntambo distanced the organisation from any of the expenditure despite records showing it was spent by Ezemvelo on an asset belonging to the organisation.

The premier’s spokesperson Ndabe Sibiya said the provincial government has taken a decision to use its own assets for all government related business.

“As government, we will always use our facilities to make sure they become venues to use for everyone. Our government facilities must compete with the private tourism sector,” said Sibiya.

He said if money was spent on gifts, it is likely the gifts may have been bought in a large volume and would have been items such as notepads and pens.

“Ezemvelo were responsible for all the costs [of the upgrade of the facility]. If there are any issues with alleged irregularity, they should answer. We were simply clients.

“Much like when we use private accommodation, we would have paid for our stay. The upgrades will be used by future guests — the lodge is in great condition,” said Sibiya.

The whistle-blower said there was a case of financial mismanagement.

“The procurement teams were running around madly. The conservation teams are battling to get funding — some don’t even have enough fuel to run patrols, while other camp managers cannot get funding for much-needed maintenance and repairs, yet funds are released without question to upgrade one of Ezemvelo’s top lodges,” said the source.

A confidential e-mail string confirmed that two days before the Premier’s visit, funds were released by Ezemvelo.

In the string, Ezemvelo CFO Darius Chitate told middle-management finance clerk Bronwen Struwig that because the anticipated 150 guests were high profile there were “a number of improvements that need to be done at the resort as a matter of urgency”.

Attempts to contact both Struwig and Chitate were unsuccessful.

The former CEO of the wildlife organisation Dr George Hughes, who headed the organisation for 13 years, said while upgrading a facility on an urgent basis was not necessarily the best practise, he said it is not unusual.

“When we got a visit from a high ranking politician, we would quickly fix a place up. This is nothing new.

“It might have been a bloody good thing [for Didima]. A brush up of R1,5 million would not have been excessive,” said Hughes.

Head of Wildlands Trust Andrew Venter said while upgrades are necessary, the Didma upgrade was probably not planned.

“There is also a desperate need for additional conservation budget. A key question is probably why conservation money was spent on tourism? This may also be a clear sign that the EKZNW is totally under-funded,” said Venter.

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