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Fisheries dept announces plans to suspend 'scapegoat' director

Glynnis Underhill

​The department of agriculture has issued notice of its intention to suspend Desmond Stevens, who his lawyer says is being used "as a scapegoat".

Director of stakeholder engagement Desmond Stevens. (David Harrison, M&G)

The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries issued notice of its intention to suspend its director of stakeholder engagement Desmond Stevens, who was responsible for the fishing rights allocation process that was unexpectedly set aside on Thursday.

In a surprise announcement, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson said she had no choice but to set aside the fishing rights allocation process, FRAP2013, despite a legal audit finding no evidence the process had been corrupt or deliberately manipulated. 

“Regrettably however, it reports that the FRAP2013 process did not make sufficient use of legal advisors, which has resulted in a number of potentially fatal weaknesses,” the minister said. “It also appears that some of the essential policy criteria did not find their way into the assessment process or were inconsistently applied across all the sectors.” 

Stevens was the acting deputy director general of fisheries before he was quietly moved back to his old position in stakeholder engagement in March. This followed an outcry from fishermen over the fishing right allocations, announced on December 31 last year, and allegations of impropriety. 

The department’s notice of its intended precautionary suspension of Stevens does not appear to be related to the setting aside of the allocated fishing rights. His lawyer Michael Bagraim, who is an expert in labour law, said the allegations being made against Stevens were “incredibily vague”. “It seems they could be trying to use him as a scapegoat,” said Bagraim. 

“Every single thing he has done from day one has been with the blessing of the minister [Joemat-Pettersson], and guidance from various departmental heads and the director general.” 

Letter from director general
The director general of the department, Edith Vries, sent a letter to Stevens on Wednesay asking him to provide reasons by Thursday afternoon as to why he should not be suspended. 

Yet Bagraim said he had written to the department to seek further clarity on the allegations against Stevens, which the department claimed may constitute irregular conduct. “No one in their right mind would make allegations like this, unless they were on a fishing expedition,” said Bagraim. 

The department has no reason to suspend Stevens, said Bagraim. “The only justification can be is if someone is going to fiddle with evidence or a witness, and that is not the case here,” he said. 

In its letter to Stevens, the department stated that it intended investigating whether he had solicited funds without approval from a service provider contracted to provide support to the fishing rights allocation process (FRAP 2013). 

Yet Bagraim said there had been no substantiation of what lay behind this allegation.  The department also stated in its letter that decisions Stevens had made affecting Foodcorp and Bongolethu Fishing during the period he acted in the fisheries post, will also be investigated by the department. 

But until further details are provided, Bagraim said it would be impossible for Stevens to provide reasons as to why he should not be suspended. 

‘Substance to the allegations’
“I have written to ask for substance to the allegations against him. It is incredibly vague,” he said. “We need the information that informed this decision.” Department spokesperson Lionel Adendorf said Stevens had not yet been suspended. 

“He is still employed by the department as director of stakeholder relations. He has not been suspended or put on special leave,” he said. “Even if he was, this is not a matter we would want to comment on.” 

In her bombshell statement put out to the media on Wednesday, Joemat-Pettersson said she received the audit of the fishing rights allocation process that she had requested from Harris, Nupen, Molebatsi Attorneys. This audit report showed that, despite many allegations, no evidence could be found that the process had been deliberately manipulated or had been corrupt, she said. 

As the FRAP2013 process did not make sufficient use of legal advisers, this had resulted in a number of potentially fatal weaknesses, the minister said. Joemat-Pettersson said she had been advised that it will not be possible to rectify the shortcomings by way of individual appeals, or to defend the allocations in court challenges, as one had already started and others were expected. 

“Such legal challenges would put the entire FRAP 2013 process and outcomes at risk,” she said. “In order to avoid continuing uncertainty and to pre-empt further legal challenges, I intend to set aside the entire FRAP 2013 process, including all decisions and outcomes.” 

New fishing allocation decisions
Pending the new fishing allocation decisions, those who were allocated rights in terms of the FRAP 2013 process could continue to exercise these rights in the meanwhile, said Joemat-Pettersson, while former rights holders who lost out in the FRAP 2013 could apply for an exemption to continue fishing. 

There was a mutiny from fishermen after the department made significant changes to its fishing rights process, which was handed down on December 31. In a previous interview with the Mail & Guardian following public meetings called by fishermen to discuss the issue, Stevens said there were no irregularities in the fishings rights allocation process.

Of the 455 traditional line-fishing licences the fisheries branch issued in 2005, only 205 were confirmed in the new allocation handed down on December 31. A hundred of these licences were given to new, unknown entrants, which apparently included former gangster Ernie “Lastig” Solomons, as well as a skipper on one of the fisheries department’s patrol boats. 

The line fishermen proceeded to court to dispute the fishing rights allocations, with many of the poor among them making contributions of R1 000 to pay for the costly legal process. The case was on the roll in the high court in Cape Town.


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