/ 30 January 2014

Acting fisheries DDG in hot water over Facebook comment

The acting director deputy director general of fisheries Desmond Stevens.
The acting director deputy director general of fisheries Desmond Stevens.

The acting director deputy director general of fisheries, Desmond Stevens, has spoken out about his frustrations at being accused of racism after he posted on Facebook: "My Madiba-installed tolerance level for Caucasians has just expired."

"It was said in jest and I was referring to a neighbour who has been torturing us by putting branches in our driveway and calling the SPCA about our dogs," Stevens told the Mail & Guardian.

In his Facebook post, Stevens did not elaborate on what had motivated his comments. "My Madiba-installed tolerance level for Caucasians has just expired. My sincere apologies for the harm it might cause in the future," he wrote. "Please stay clear from me if you fit the universally defined descriptions." 

While his neighbour in Somerset West could not be reached for comment, the post upset line fishermen, who are waging a battle against the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, after many lost their fishing permits in the current allocation. 

The line fishermen are preparing to approach the high court in Cape Town next week with an application for an urgent interdict against the department's decision on the permit allocations. 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 those licences were given to new, unknown entrants.

As Stevens is responsible for the line-fishing permit allocations, some felt his comment might reflect his attitude to white fishermen. 

Clearly upset by the fuss, Stevens said this could not be further from the truth."There must be changes in the industry, but we have not been counting the number of white people in the industry and being punitive," he said. "We have followed all the correct procedures."

The permit allocations process has led to many in the fishing industry now focusing their anger on Stevens, who they say does not having the right academic qualifications for the job and should be removed from his post.

'A sin'

Stevens currently holds the position of treasurer general of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Military Veterans' Association and feels he is being made to feel like it was "a sin" to give up his ambition to be a civil engineer and throw himself into the struggle as an MK fighter. While he started work at the department after 1994 as an administration clerk, he said he had had to work his way up the ranks. 

"My dream life is to be behind the scenes. We are sensitive people, the life we led [as MK fighters] was harsh," said Stevens. "I don't want anybody to be unhappy, but now I have become Enemy No 1. I have to keep reminding myself not to take it personally."

Stevens has also recently taken flak after some members of the ANC's Umkhonto weSiswe (MK) military veterans became incensed at their treatment by the department.

The group were among 60 members of both MK and the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA) who were trained in marine anti-poaching methods and employed on contract to work for the fisheries branch. Their fury peaked after their contracts were mysteriously cancelled last June, and a week before Christmas they staged a sit-in of the department's boardroom in Cape Town and threatened not to leave until Stevens renewed their contracts. 

Some MK anti-poaching officials told the M&G this week that Stevens should not have kept them in the dark about what went wrong with the project.

An interim solution now appears to have been found and many military veterans are currently working on short-term contracts as anti-poaching officials in Hout Bay and Cape Town, as well as other areas in the Western Cape.

"We have been given three-month contracts, but we don't know what will happen to us after that," said an MK vet. "We were told we would eventually be permanently employed, so what has happened to the promises made by the department?"

The Military Veterans Marine Anti-Poaching Project emerged late in 2009, the early months of President Jacob Zuma's new administration. In a series of visits, he and Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson descended by motorcade and helicopter on Western Cape fishing communities, with promises of improved fisheries management and announcements that abalone fishing would be unbanned and relief money would be given to abalone permit holders. Amid the pomp in Hermanus were the military veterans, dressed in fresh, black jumpsuits, branded: "Military Veterans Marine Anti-poaching Project."

Many of the military veterans were deployed to Overstrand areas like Hermanus, Gansbaai and Kleinmond, where poaching is rife. Colleagues were not informed by the department the military veterans would not return to branches where they have worked for years, the M&G was informed.

"The military vets might not know the difference between Kinglip, Hake, Snoek or Galjoen, and they haven't been properly trained or had sufficient experience in following proceedures when they make arrests," said a senior department colleague. "But we need their help here because there is so much poaching going on." 

An MK representative, who declined to be named, batted off the criticism. "The military veteran anti-poaching officials were better trained that the government officials to tackle poaching," she said.

Why the anti-poaching project ground to a halt for six months is still unclear to some of the military veterans. The Marine Living Resources Fund's annual report for 2012 to 2013 reveals that the contract for the service provider who was hired to handle the military veteran marine anti-poaching project had been extended twice to allow for a "proper exit of Manuel Security and a hand-over to the new successful bidder".

The report stated that the R7 035 000 spent on extending Manuel Security's contract could have amounted to irregular expenditure, and it was awaiting condonement on this amount. 

Manuel Security managing director Babalwa Manuel declined to comment, but one MK military veteran involved in the anti-poaching project said they did not know why the company was involved in the project.

Stevens told the M&G there was no irregular procurement in the department hiring Manuel Security and all contract extensions had been condoned by the accounting officer of the department.

The fisheries department's spokesperson Carol Moses told the M&G the contract with Manuel Security ended in June 2013, and said there were no problems with the project.

"The department has signed a memorandum of understanding with the department of military veterans  to act as an implementing agent to ensure continuation," said Moses. "The department of agriculture, forestries and fisheries continues contracting the military veterans though an existing legal expanded public works programme implementer of the department, pending the full activation of the MOU with the department of military veterans."

While the problems with the Military Veterans Marine Anti-poaching Project look like they could yet be resolved, Stevens is unlikely to find the peaceful behind-the-scenes life he is seeking anytime soon.

With the line fishermen heading to court next week, it is his name which will again fall under the spotlight. – additional information by Craig McKune, Amabhungane