The agriculture, forestry and fisheries department will call in the police if an internal probe into claims that department officials have become involved in actively identifying beneficiaries that assist a company’s BEE status to meet fishing rights criteria reveals corruption, according to department spokesperson Lionel Adendorf.
The Sunday Times reported last weekend that Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was embroiled in a "fish for friends" scandal, following allegations that her department authorised free fishing rights worth about R50-million for two politically connected companies.
After the news report was released, Adendorf put out a statement explaining why the minister could not be held responsible. "The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries takes full responsibility for the [fishing firm] Foodcorp deal and has already started a process to investigate this matter, and to identify people who might have been responsible for it," he wrote.
But he said the minister had delegated all the powers conferred on her in terms of the Marine Living Resources Act, except the power to make regulations. The minister was then expected only to act as the appeals authority in the fishing rights allocations, said Adendorf.
He told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday that Joemat-Pettersson had asked the department for a report on the issue, and had requested that Fordcorp give its side of the story in another report. Both reports had to be submitted by Friday this week.
It is suspected that the department identified the two firms as being able to assist in improving the BEE status of a company, said Adendorf, but this would be clarified in the reports.
"From there the minister will chart the way forward, which might include charges being brought against people who are found to be in the wrong, or it might be dealt with internally," said Adendorf.
Fishing rights fallout
The latest fishing rights allocations have caused problems from the outset. Many fishermen’s lives came to a standstill when the department made significant changes to its fishing rights process.
Of the 455 traditional line-fishing licences that the fisheries branch of government 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.
Joemat-Pettersson announced in February after an outcry from fishermen that Harris, Nupen, Molebatsi Attorneys had been hired to conduct an investigation into the fishing rights allocation process to determine if it was fair and legal.
Adendorf said on Wednesday that the minister had just received a copy of the much-awaited report. "She told me she got it yesterday, and she is studying its contents. That report is more about fishing rights allocation process," he said. "During the listening campaign she launched to listen to grievances over fishing rights allocations, the Foodcorp matter was raised. The minister then also asked the lawyers, and the department, to look into it."
The legal report is expected to carry weight as a former acting judge in the labour court, Hailton Cheadle, who also gave legal advice to the department for the 2005 allocation process, was asked to assist in the probe.
"The minister has checked to see whether anyone lodged an official appeal in the Foodcorp matter," said Adendorf. "No one had written to say they were unhappy. The minister did not become ’embroiled’ in the scandal, as was claimed in the newspaper report, just because she is heading the department. She felt it was unfair to her."
Joemat-Pettersson granted a two-month extension in February to previous fishing rights holders who had been declined by the department. Yet the traditional line fishermen proceeded to court, and the Cape Town high court granted an order in April allowing them to fish until the court decides on the review application brought by the South African Commercial Linefish Association.
The man responsible for the fishing permit allocations, the department’s former acting deputy director for fisheries, Desmond Stevens, was moved quietly from his post during the furore.
"Desmond Stevens went back to his old post in the department as director of stakeholder relations," Adendorf said. "He was not fired or demoted, he was just moved into his old post while the department identifies what went on."
In a previous interview with the M&G, Stevens said there was no foul play in the allocations. Lawyer Shaheen Moolla, a legal adviser to former fisheries minister Valli Moosa, was a constant thorn in his side until he moved out of the job. "Stevens is not qualified for the job. If he, in an open and transparent process, revealed his CV for this job, he wouldn’t even make the initial cut-off," said Moolla in an interview with the M&G after there was a barrage of protest over the allocations in January.
"He [Stevens] doesn’t even have the minimum criteria for the job, which are an honours degree or a postgraduate qualification in law, experience of at least 10 years in domestic fisheries and extensive knowledge of international fisheries management. His only qualification is that he is a member of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association."
Mortimer Manyana, former agriculture deputy director general in Mpumalanga, has now been placed in the post. Adendorf said the post had been advertised twice and the right person had not been found. "Manyana is one of the best public servants you can get," he said.
Manyana faces a department in turmoil, amid serious allegations levelled earlier this year by "concerned employees" at the portfolio committee of the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.
Members of the department protested outside the fisheries building on the Foreshore in Cape Town in March, and asked members of Parliament for urgent intervention after handing them a five-page document complaining of wasteful expenditure, nepotism, fraud and the scrapping of critical posts.
"Mortimer Manyana is doing well," said Adendorf. "We are cleaning up the department."