Graft and the environment

The worst political scandal in the United States’s history began with an insignificant burglary — a break-in on June 17 1972 at an office and apartment block in Washington called Watergate. The event led to a chain of exposés that eventually brought down a government.

A similar situation is brewing in South Africa — and it all started with a small, underfunded environmental group that refused to be side-tracked by powerful political interests.

The scandal of the Roodefontein Golf Development in Piesang River Valley, Plettenberg Bay, is not over and further investigation might reveal a network of corruption that could topple people at several levels of the government.

It all started in July 2001, when the Southern Cape and Western Cape region of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) took an interest in the development proposals of a company called Count Agusta Golf and Equestrian Estate.

The first assessments of its Roodefontein Golf Estate showed it would cause substantial damage to the environment. A loose amalgamation of concerned eco-groups called the Plettenberg Bay Community Environmental Forum, of which Wessa was a member, were confident that the development proposals would be sent back to the drawing board.

By January last year even officials in the provincial Department of Environment Affairs and Development Planning were concerned about the development proposals. So the forum was flabbergasted when, on May 6 last year, the company was given the green light to start development.

At the beginning of last year Ingrid Coetzee, the senior official delegated to rule on the application, told the developers that they did not even conform to minimum requirements.

But on April 17 Premier Pieter Marais of the Western Cape reportedly wrote a letter to the developers asking for a donation to his New National Party. The next day R300 000 was deposited in the party’s bank account. A short while later another R100 000 was deposited in another NNP account in Khayalitsha.

On April 19 David Malatsi, MEC for Environment Affairs and Development Planning, instructed Coetzee to approve the development. She was relieved of her powers when she refused.

The environmental approval, known as a record of decision (RoD), was issued on May 6.

“By this time, Wessa knew that something was seriously wrong,” says Andy Gubb, Wessa’s regional manager in the Western Cape. “We decided to appeal.”

Malatsi had by then taken over the application process and he turned down Wessa’s appeal. On October 24 a new RoD was issued to the developers that was more lenient than the first.

“What made us even more suspicious was that the developers moved on site on October 28 — four days after getting permission. This is unheard of,” said Gubb. “It can take six months to a year for developers to get their plans passed after the RoD is issued.”

Malatsi had meantime been promoted to national Deputy Minister of Social Development. But on December 19 acting environmental MEC Johan Gelderblom issued a statement saying that the NNP had suspended Malatsi pending an investigation. The provincial government announced that it would review its own development approval.

“We, as Wessa, asked if we could join the court suit as the government was concentrating on the politics of the case and we were more concerned about the flagrant environmental bungles,” says Gubb. “But on March 3 the developers withdrew their opposition to the suit and offered to pay Wessa’s fees. There would be no court case and Marais and Malatsi would face criminal charges. The development was put on hold indefinitely.

“It was a victory for us,” says Gubb, “but it was a hollow victory because no court judgement will be forthcoming. We have subsequently found out that the Count Agusta company is possibly a front for [the Mafia don] Vito Palazzolo and his son.

“Typically, watchdog bodies like ourselves work with limited resources. Developers have unlimited resources [the Roodefontein development is worth R750 million]. No environmental NGO has the resources to take on a Roodefontein-type case on a frequent basis and yet such cases abound.

“The Roodefontein case contains almost all the elements that are frequently problematical: inadequate or flawed environmental impact reports, a flawed public participation process, apparent political interference in the decision-making, an overturned appeal and destruction of our sensitive, natural environment.

“South Africa’s comprehensive suite of environmental laws seems to have little or no effect. Unfortunately, it would appear that economic growth, as opposed to sustainable development, is the overriding consideration — always.”

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