Stop the abalone wars, Mr President

In the past three years the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has reported three cases of abalone theft with a street value of about R30 million. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
In the past three years the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has reported three cases of abalone theft with a street value of about R30 million. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

President Cyril Ramaphosa should immediately intervene at the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries to stop the raging wars over illicit abalone and corruption, maladministration and mismanagement from crashing the department.

If something does not give, this department will shortly follow in the footsteps of the department of water and sanitation, and become the second national department to crash.

The situation is so bad that the department’s director-general Mike Mlengana and his boss, Minister Senzeni Zokwana, are not on speaking terms, and the latter has reportedly written to Ramaphosa, asking him to intervene.

Let’s trace the genesis of the problems that are tearing the department apart.

In December 2016 the department awarded a company called Willjaro a R60-million tender to process, market and sell abalone confiscated from illegal poachers in Gansbaai.

A month later, in January 2017, Zokwana cancelled the contract after Deon Larry, a well-known abalone dealer, brought an application in the Western Cape High Court challenging the department’s decision to award the contract to Willjaro.

The company won the first round in court, but Zokwana successfully appealed. The matter will now be heard at the Supreme Court of Appeals in Bloemfontein.

In March last year City Press reported that the Hawks were investigating allegations that Larry had bribed President Jacob Zuma with R1 million in exchange for keeping Zokwana in his position.

Read: Zuma’s man in R27m bonanza

The report also revealed that Zokwana, former Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini and the department’s fisheries management deputy director-general Siphokazi Ndudane had each received a R300 000 bribe from Larry.

The department’s attorney, Barnabas Xulu, had denied the allegations at the time. Dlamini had also declined to comment.

In July last year Larry filed papers at the Western Cape High Court, demanding R2.5 million from three businessmen: Advocate Shaheen Moolla, Fryman Baaitjies and James Booi.

Larry argued in court papers that he had given Baaitjies R1.9 million in cash and had deposited R600 000 into his (Baaitjies) company’s account.

The money, Larry said in his affidavit, was for a failed rock lobster harvesting venture that he had planned to launch with Moolla, Booi and Baaitjies.

The venture failed because the permits to harvest lobster which Booi and Moolla had promised to secure had not materialised, Larry claimed in court papers.

But Chaile Seretse, who had filed the affidavit making the bribery allegations against Zuma, Zokwana, Dlamini and Ndudane had told City Press that Larry’s lawsuit against Moolla, Booi and Fryman was a smokescreen.

“He wants his [bribery] money back. He thought he would be given an abalone processing tender by bribing officials,” Chaile, who at the time was Willjaro’s chief operations officer had told City Press.

In their responding papers, Moolla, Baaitjies and Fryman had dismissed Larry’s claims as “outlandish”.

Larry had also refused to comment, only saying that he didn’t know what Baaitjies and Booi did with the money.

In February last year three tons of abalone worth R7.5 million was stolen from the department’s stores in Gansbaai.

An investigation by the fisheries management unit’s surveillance and monitoring director Nkosinathi Dana found that Ndudane, his acting boss Thembalethu Vico and the unit’s former chief financial officer Nazeema Parker were responsible for the theft.

Around May last year Mlengana, who had just returned from suspension on the back of a high court victory, charged Ndudane, Parker and Vico with theft and fraud.

Parker’s hearing was finalised last month and she was fired. Vico’s hearing is sitting this week, and Ndudane’s will take place between May and June.

Zokwana suspended Mlengana in July 2017 and charged him with gross misconduct, misappropriation of funds, failure to comply with the Public Finance Management Act, and failing to declare interests in a multi-million rand tender.

Sources close to Mlengana told City Press that Willjaro had also played a part in Zokwana’s suspension of Mlengana.

Meanwhile Zokwana is working overtime to force Mlengana to suspend Ndudane, Vico and Parker’s hearings.

Over and above unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw the director-general’s powers and a flurry of letters, early this year Zokwana went as far as launching an urgent court action to force Mlengana to suspend the hearings.

The minister argues that the stealing of the abalone, and a host of other issues including matters in which Mlengana himself is accused of corruption, is under investigation by the Hawks, National Prosecuting Authority, Public Protector and Public Service Commission.

Zokwana also wrongly argues that the theft of abalone should be treated as a protected disclosure because Ndudane reported the matter to the Public Protector.

But correspondence seen by City Press reveals that although the Public Protector’s office is investigating a series of allegations, including cases in which Mlengana is also implicated, the office has refused to treat Ndudane as a whistle-blower because she reported the matter after Mlengana had charged her.

Although Mlengana has a duty to hold his subordinates accountable, equally he has an obligation to do it in a fair and just manner.

City Press has heard that Mlengana has refused Vico’s request that his hearing be outsourced to independent external parties.

Vico reportedly argued that the internal hearing is problematic because the prosecutor and the person chairing the process are all appointed and are paid by the department, and therefore are not independent.

This is a valid point.

Vico, Ndudane and Parker have a serious case to answer, but Mlengana should not be seen to be subjecting them to a kangaroo court.

It is critical to stress that the credibility and integrity of the advocate who is prosecuting the trio and the presiding officer are not on trial in this column.

But the fact that they are appointed and paid by Mlengana does raise questions about their independence.

I don’t know many people who would disagree with the idea of outsourcing the hearings to organisations like the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Another unfair aspect of the hearing is that Mlengana is using the department’s funds to prosecute the trio, but they have to pay for legal representations out of their own pockets.

Although it is commendable that Mlengana has charged the trio internally with theft and fraud, it is rather strange that has he not pressed criminal charges.

It is quite clear that the fight between Mlengana on one side and Zokwana and Ndudane on the other is neither about the theft of the three tons of abalone in January last year nor about the Willjaro case.

It is about the control of access to resources, and abalone in particular.

Abalone is lucrative and poached consignments provide access to instant millions. It is telling that in the past three years the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has reported three cases of abalone theft with a street value of about R30 million.

But not only is abalone lucrative, it is also quite dangerous. Poached and illicit abalone could be used to fund organised crime, drugs and at worst, terrorism.

This is the main reason why Ramaphosa should urgently attend to the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ paralyses.

Sipho Masondo
City Press
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