Forty distressed African penguins have been caught up in a political row over who should take the blame for the oil-spill disaster in Cape Town.
Used to illustrate the devastating effect of the spill that began last week from the Seli 1 wreck, the endangered penguins were collected from Robben Island by the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, a non-profit organisation.
The Seli 1 ran aground three years ago and maritime authorities pumped out hundreds of tonnes of fuel in an attempt to prevent an environmental disaster, but oil has leaked from the wreck since then. The Turkish bulk carrier was en route to Gibraltar carrying about 600 tonnes of fuel and 30 000 tonnes of coal when it ran aground.
Questions are now being raised about why the wreck was not removed from the sea by the authorities to prevent a threat to marine life and to Bloubergstrand, one of the peninsula's popular beaches.
The Mail & Guardian has established that four vessels equipped to break up oil slicks are sitting without crew in Simon's Town harbour. This follows a heated row over irregularities in a new contract awarded by the agriculture, forestry and fisheries department to combat illegal fishing along South Africa's coastline. Some of these boats double up not only as patrol vessels, but also assist in fighting oil disasters because they are equipped to break up oil slicks.
Smit Amandla Marine held the contract to crew, manage and maintain the research and fisheries patrol vessels for 12 years, until its current contract came to an end in March this year. The role of the former acting deputy director general of fisheries, Joseph Sebola, in the controversial awarding of the R800-million tender to Sekunjalo Marine Services Consortium has not yet been resolved and the newly awarded contract was withdrawn.
Democratic Alliance MP Pieter van Dalen, spokesperson on agriculture, forestry and fisheries, pulled no punches about who he blames for the mess. "The devastating effects of a kilometre-long oil slick near Bloubergstrand could have been prevented if Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson did her job, instead of sowing institutional dysfunction in her department," he said. Van Dalen said the minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries had decided to transfer the functions of her department's marine fleet to the navy after the bungling of the multimillion-rand tender over who was to manage the vessels.
The South African Marine Safety Authority had warned in early July that the navy would not be able to respond effectively to any oil spill off the coast, he said.
"The warning followed its inability to audit the marine patrol vessels that are being managed by the navy. The vessels have been confined to Simon's Town harbour since the beginning of April," said Van Dalen.
The authority's regional manager, Dave Colly, said he had approached the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries and written it a letter to inform its officials that the boats were sitting in the harbour unmanned. "We now do not have the staff to run the boats. I just do not know how they manage to do this. Two hundred people lost their jobs."
If the boats had been sent out when the first oil slicks were spotted, they could have churned up the water and assisted in preventing a concentrated oil slick, said Colly. "But the vessels have not moved."
Palesa Mokomele, spokesperson for Joemat-Pettersson, said her department provided a service to the department of environmental affairs.
"To date neither the South African Marine Safety Authority nor the department of environmental affairs, which are the steering committees in this regard, have formally approached the [department] to assist. Having said that, the minister cannot be blamed for this matter."
The national department for environmental affairs' spokesperson, Zolile Ngayi, said it had been helping the city to work on the clean-up.
"We approach the [department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries] only when we need their ministry to help us," he said. "We provided a surveillance aeroplane and helped in the operation. The oil spill is under control and has broken up now."
It emerged this week that a request by the department of transport for R40-million from the treasury to remove the wreck is expected to finally come before the Cabinet this month.
For some of the African penguins, this might come too late.
The South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds' development and marketing co-ordinator, Francois Louw, said the ongoing pollution from the Seli 1 was a major concern. The oil slick is drifting in Table Bay, which is the main feeding ground for seabirds from Robben Island and the West Coast National Park. "The relatively small number of birds affected is not an accurate indication of the overall impact of the spill on the marine environment," said Louw. "The marine biodiversity is already under threat, especially for our penguins."