SA Fishing in chaos – corruption and hidden agendas at work

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South Africa’s fisheries authority is in a state of crisis, paralysed by a factional war between its two most senior officials and hollowed out by a culture of corruption, GroundUp reports.

This has left the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) unable to perform many of its most basic tasks, including allocating fishing rights and enforcing regulations. An exodus of skilled staff, including top scientists, has aggravated the problem.

As a consequence, the fisheries sector, a critical pillar of the Western Cape’s economy, is plagued by deep dysfunction, a state of affairs that disproportionately affects poor people. Government programmes intended to uplift fishing communities – now hotbeds for abalone and crayfish poaching – have repeatedly stalled.

The rot at the department, entrenched for many years, has been laid bare by a power struggle between director-general Mike Mlengana and his deputy, Siphokazi Ndudane. Even the minister for the department, Senzeni Zokwana, has become embroiled in the dispute, siding with Ndudane.

Over the last 18 months, their rift has played out in a bewildering sequence of suspensions, court cases and accusations of criminality. Reporters, law firms, unions and opposition politicians have been drawn into the fray, sometimes unwittingly being used for factional agendas.

The department has spent tens of millions of rand on legal fees for both officials, in some cases hiring opposing sets of counsel. In the last two years, the department has also commissioned at least three forensic reports into corruption, although even these have been tainted by allegations of improper influence.

From both sides, there are claims that the department has been “captured” by private interests, ranging from tenderpreneurs to abalone poaching syndicates. In this series, we review the evidence, based on court records, internal documents and more than a dozen interviews.

Instability and ‘looting’

A scientist by training, Ndudane was appointed deputy director-general of DAFF in February 2016, responsible for managing fisheries. She says she was the 11th person to fill the position in seven years.

“My assumption is that the branch has to have instability for those who continue to loot the system,” she told GroundUp in a recent interview. “I was hoping to achieve order.”

This year, Ndudane was suspended for four months, accused by Mlengana of fraud, theft, extortion, forgery and other grave misconduct. Ndudane maintains that she is the victim of a smear campaign, orchestrated to sideline her and allow unfettered corruption at the department to continue. But some of the charges against her are troubling.

Mlengana himself was suspended last year on a range of charges, including allegedly steering a lucrative abalone processing contract towards his business partners. As soon as he returned to office, this April, Mlengana moved to oust Ndudane, but was temporarily blocked by Minister Zokwana.

Finally, in July, Mlengana placed Ndudane on precautionary suspension, revoking her access to the department. Ndudane took the matter to court – running up further legal costs – and returned to work, provisionally, in October. (The case is ongoing, but the judge ordered Ndudane to resume her duties.) Beneath the tit-for-tat disciplinary and legal action is a deeper tussle for control of the department, which serves as gatekeeper to the fishing industry.

Generating some R6bn annually, fishing is big business in South Africa, with a wide array of companies and interest groups jostling for access. Then there is poaching, a shadow economy worth hundreds of millions more. According to Traffic, a non-profit organisation that monitors wildlife smuggling, poached abalone is South Africa’s third most valuable fisheries export, surpassed only by hake and squid.

With such vast sums of money at stake, the department has become a natural target for corruption. Like all government agencies, DAFF also issues tenders for big projects, ranging from construction to processing confiscated fish. At almost every level, the department has been compromised by graft, from low-paid fisheries inspectors right up to senior management.

“There’s a fight to keep control of the network,” said Pieter van Dalen, spokesperson on fisheries in the Democratic Alliance.