The public protector’s office is investigating accusations that officials in strategic positions at South African National Parks (SANParks) manipulated tender procedures to benefit friends and family, circumvented supply-chain processes and created artificial disguises to prevent auditors from detecting malpractices.
The Democratic Alliance this week also initiated a parliamentary inquiry into charges by a whistle-blower that SANParks management had squandered millions of rands in dodgy deals.
The self-styled whistle-blower — a former Kruger Park employee who asked not to be named — accused SANParks management and the Kruger administration of “milking the national heritage dry through widespread corruption, maladministration and poor corporate governance”.
His accusations of nepotism included the awarding of a contract for security services worth at least R25-million to a company that had a close association with SANParks chief executive, David Mabunda.
“This entity had an appalling service delivery record in the Kruger, including poor access control at the entrance gates, collusion with poachers and taking bribes,” said the whistle-blower.
“In 2007 some of their security personnel were involved in a robbery within the Kruger. It was also discovered that armed poachers were gaining access into the park through the entrance gates under the watch of its security personnel.”
The security company that replaced this outfit in November had close personal links to the Kruger Park’s executive manager, Abe Sibiya, and its finance manager, he said.
The company had immediately escalated the tender conditions and charged for vehicles it had not supplied.
The whistle-blower said during the period covered by his “secret investigation”, rangers in the Kruger National Park had been subjected to cost-cutting measures and rhino poaching had increased drastically.
“In 2008 — management imposed strict restrictions on poaching-combating operations under the pretext of cost curtailment,” he said.
Overtime for rangers and protection services was cut to a bare minimum, which meant most rangers could not work extended hours, or on Sundays and public holidays. A travelling threshold of 1 500km a month was also imposed on patrol vehicles for rangers and 2 000km a month for protection services.
He sent his accusations to the public protector’s office, but they were leaked to the SANParks chief executive in January 2011 and were quashed, he said. As a result he was fired last June.
Kgalalelo Masibi, spokesperson for the public protector, this week verified that his complaint had been received and said the allegations were being investigated.
National auditor general Terence Nombembe’s audit report for 2010-2011 found that tenders worth R3.585-million had been awarded to SANParks employees with an interest in service providers.
“The entire figure does not necessarily constitute irregular expenditure. Only R322 000 of this figure resulted in non-compliance due to officials not declaring their interest,” the auditor general’s head of communications, Jeanny Morulane, said this week.
The DA’s Gareth Morgan said he had submitted 15 questions about procurement practices in the Kruger to the minister of environmental affairs, Edna Molewa. “If even a quarter of the allegations that were raised [by the whistle-blower] are true, it points to widespread and systemic irregularities in the park. The questions will drag the minister directly into this matter and force her to confront the issues,” he said.
SANParks’s 2010-2011 annual report identified procurement transactions worth R5.8-million as irregular expenditure. It said R5.3-million related to goods and services that were not part of a competitive bidding process.
SANParks’s communications head Wanda Mkutshulwa this week denied the whistle-blower’s accusations, saying they were fabricated by a disgruntled former manager of safety and security who was fired because of maladministration and dishonesty.
She denied any members of the executive management had interests in material contracts undertaken by SANParks. She also denied that they had personal relationships with any of the contractors mentioned by the whistle-blower.
Auditors SizweNtsaluba Gobodo examined the accusations last year and “they found no wrongdoing on the part of the individuals implicated and the organisation”, she said.
Asked whether rangers had been subjected to cost-cutting measures, Mkutshulwa said: “SANParks, like any other organisation, is employing cost-curtailment measures in order to improve efficiencies and financial management.”
SANParks had increased the budget for ranger equipment from about R280-million to R450-million.
It had also bought additional vehicles and aircraft, as well as new equipment such as night-vision goggles. Fifty more rangers were appointed in 2010 and this year another 150 would be appointed, to take the number to about 650 in the Kruger Park.
Rhinos killed as rangers strike
Rangers in the Kruger National Park have been on strike for two weeks, demanding that apparent disparities in salaries be cleared up. During this time, eight rhinos have been poached.
The strikers’ representative, Richard Ndlovu, said some general field rangers were earning R26 000 a year, whereas others were earning R120 000. He said rangers who had been working there for decades were earning less than newcomers.
Danger pay was also a problem: the rangers received about R200 a month, Ndlovu said, but other SANParks employees, who only visited the park, got R320 a month while they were there. When the rangers slept in the veld during anti-poaching operations, they received a ‘sleeping allowance” of R25 a night, but someone from head office would get R288 a night for staying in the safety of a camp such as Lower Sabie. Ndlovu said the absence of the rangers had already led to people sneaking into the park to chop wood and kill impala and other animals. Although the park was in the process of hiring 150 more rangers, a step the department of environmental affairs had encouraged, they would have nobody to train them in field craft. The use of retired rangers was also problematic because they did not have the skills to wage the ‘modern” battle with poachers, Ndlovu said.
But park spokesperson William Mabasa said the timing of the strike was tantamount to ‘blackmail”. He said the workers had waited until the week the park launched its new anti-poaching initiative — involving the army, police and rangers — to go on strike, even though they had been given permission to strike in November. ‘They calculated it very well,” he said. Mabasa accused Ndlovu of ‘mixing things up” and ‘lying”. He said employees received R280 a day each whenever they had to travel from their base of operations. The only other stipend was for rangers and was the sleep-out allowance of R25 a night, he said. The unions working in the park had explained this to the workers, but they decided ‘to do their own thing”.
Despite the deaths of the rhinos, Mabasa said the new anti-poaching system was working well, but he admitted that it would be ‘much more effective” if the rangers returned. The new rangers would start training at the end of the month and it would take them six weeks of basic training before they went into the field for experiential learning, Mabasa said. — Sipho Kings McDermott