Minister of agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries Senzeni Zokwana. Picture: GCIS
Minister of agriculture‚ forestry and fisheries Senzeni Zokwana. Picture: GCIS

The troubled department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries is looking to get its house in order in the new year following months of instability which compromised its ability to fulfil basic tasks such allocating fishing rights and enforcing regulations.

The instability in the department is also said to have contributed to the exodus of scientists and other staff members who play a key role in research and development.

The problems at the department threaten SA’s fisheries sector in particular, which has annual sales of more than R5bn, and is seen as a key jobs driver in coastal areas.

Earlier in 2018, agriculture‚  forestry and fisheries minister Senzeni Zokwana accused his director-general Mike Mlengana of an “abuse of power” after the latter suspended a senior official in the department.

Mlengana had suspended Sipokhazi Ndudane‚ who is deputy director-general responsible for fisheries‚ after she was accused of misconduct including fraud and theft. Ndudane subsequently approached the courts to challenge her suspension. Her court application was successful, but she will still face a disciplinary hearing, according to the department.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

“The disciplinary process handled by the director-general’s office on all officials suspended is a concern to the minister in terms of the elongated period,” Zokwana’s spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana said on Wednesday.

“He has directed the director-general to hasten all these processes so that capacity is restored back in the fisheries. We expect exactly that with the new year dawning. We have been working without a skills deficit on issuance of fishing licences. Those leaving [the department] do so not because they see a disquiet in the system,” he said.

“Some, like the director responsible for small-scale fisheries [fishing permits] left because of being poached by the World Wildlife Fund with an offer we could not counter, so [the director] goes with some scientists. But it’s not significant a number as to de-capacitate the department.”

Nkwanyana said filling of these critical posts is a priority for 2019 because “we are on target to conclude on small scale fisheries permits in four coastal provinces”.

Mlengana has previously clashed with Zokwana. The irregular awarding of a tender for abalone distribution was at the centre of a spat between the minister and the director-general.

Abalone has a high market value and is one of the most sought-after delicacies locally and abroad. According to various reports, there are claims that the department has been “captured” by private interests, ranging from tenderpreneurs to abalone poaching syndicates.

The DA has called on Zokwana to commit himself to a firm plan on how his department would open the sale of confiscated abalone to public and parliamentary scrutiny. The department has over the years sold off confiscated abalone, apparently to fund antipoaching operations.

However, the processes have not been  open to scrutiny. Responding to a written question from COPE in Parliament earlier in December, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the minister had assured him that the department was functioning effectively.

“The minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries has apprised me on the allegations levelled against senior officials in his department. He further indicated that disciplinary proceedings for some of the implicated officials are currently under way, while for others, investigations are proceeding. These processes have not yet been concluded and I expect a report from the minister once they are concluded,” said Ramaphosa.

“The minister has assured me that despite these allegations and related processes currently under way, the department is effectively implementing strategic programmes,” the president said.