13 April 2024 | 10:09 AM

Bucking the system

Key Takeaways

Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson tried to smooth the way for the apparently irregular importation of rare sable antelope worth tens of millions of rands after the company involved made it clear that it was cutting her adviser’s husband-to-be into the deal.

This emerges from a letter sent by the company to Joemat-Pettersson, leaked to the Mail & Guardian.

The attempted import, of about 150 antelope from Zambia, is on hold after an industry group obtained an urgent interdict on the grounds that it posed a foot-and-mouth risk. The disease is endemic in Zambia.

Joemat-Pettersson maintained this week that her actions had been in line with President Jacob Zuma’s mandate to increase intra-African trade and that she would “not compromise South Africa’s foot-and-mouth status”.

She said she had “no idea” whether George Mtshiza, who soon afterwards married her adviser, was involved in the application to her department to allow the transaction.

Joemat-Pettersson’s denial is directly challenged by a letter that Swanvest 234, the applicant company, wrote to her last September.

Signed by Swanvest director Chris Visser, a diamond baron from the minister’s Northern Cape home province, the letter complains about the Agriculture Department’s refusal to allow the import and asks Joemat-Pettersson for her “favourable consideration of this application”.

The letter concludes by informing her that the directors of a company called Flaming Silver Trading 216 would have a 20% stake in the project. Mtshiza was then, and remains, Flaming Silver’s sole director. The letter also lists Mtshiza as one of two contact persons for the project.

Mtshiza soon afterwards married Elder Mosia, regarded as a friend of Joemat-Pettersson and her ministerial adviser at the time. Joemat-Pettersson redeployed her to a senior post in the department in March.

The minister’s subsequent attempt to push through a protocol permitting the importation of sable from Zambia — despite an apparent total ban because of the foot-and-mouth risk — raises the question of whether she was influenced.

The saga started early last year when Ed Kadzombe, a well-connected and controversial Zimbabwean businessman resident in South Africa, obtained rights to a number of sable from the Zambian Wildlife Authority.

In their letter to Joemat-Pettersson, Visser and Swanvest say they sent a business plan for the importation of the animals to her department that June, only to be told that there was “no policy in place”.

At the end of July Mpho Maja, the department’s then-director of animal health, confirmed to them that there was “an embargo on the importation of hoofed animals from Zambia”, based on a risk analysis by the department.

Nevertheless, Visser associate Aitjie van Wyk caught 153 sable in the Kafue National Park in August, Van Wyk told an investigator appointed by the Red Meat Industry Forum, which was concerned about the foot-and-mouth risk and later interdicted the department.

The stakes were high: according to the industry forum’s affidavit when it applied for the interdict, the animals were taken to pens near Lusaka, by which time “R16-million was mentioned” as having been spent.

Once in South Africa, they were reportedly worth R1-million each — a massive return on investment.

Questions raised

Visser and Swanvest were aware of the foot-and-mouth risk. Writing to the minister in September to complain about her department’s ban, they attached a University of Pretoria veterinary professor’s report on how the animals might be imported “without the risk of spreading any diseases”.

They also offered to pay for a departmental vet to go to Lusaka to “independently draw blood and do the necessary tests”.

After the letter, things started moving:

  • October/November 2009: Maja was suspended for two weeks for reasons that could not be established;
  • November 2009: departmental veterinarian Mike Modisane paid a second visit to Lusaka to take samples, said the industry forum’s affidavit. The date of the first visit was not given;
  • December 7-9: President Jacob Zuma paid a state visit to Zambia, accompanied by ministers including Joemat-Pettersson. A memorandum of understanding “on cooperation in the field of agriculture and livestock farming” was signed by the two governments. Modisane accompanied Joemat-Pettersson;
  • December 21: Joemat-Pettersson gazetted, for comment, a “protocol” allowing for the importation of sable from Zambia under quarantine conditions;
  • January 2010: another departmental vet visited Lusaka to collect blood samples, said the forum’s affidavit.

The process raised eyebrows. When the industry forum sought an interdict in the North Gauteng High Court in late January, it argued that there was a blanket ban on importing from Zambia because of the foot-and-mouth risk, and that under international rules this could be overturned only after a proper risk assessment.

The forum added: “The fact that veterinarians from the department have been actively involved in facilitating what is currently still a prohibited process, raises grave concerns as to whether a fair and transparent process is being following in this matter. It all seems a fait accompli.”

The minister’s protocol itself raises questions, because of its timing — four days before Christmas, which might have reduced its visibility — and because it was not broad policy, but referred to the circumstances of a specific deal.

The protocol was not written by the department, but in part by the same University of Pretoria vet commissioned by Swanvest. Professor Valerius de Vos, whose report was attached to Visser and Swanvest’s letter to the minister in September, confirmed this week that he wrote the protocol with colleagues.

This week Joemat-Pettersson denied trying to sneak through the protocol, saying: “Government and this sector operates all year round. Therefore business, consultations and events take place all year round. Government works over holidays, with business offices remaining open.”

The industry forum’s interdict application was not opposed by Joemat-Pettersson, who agreed to an order of court barring her department from allowing the importation of sable from Zambia pending a full risk analysis.

Visser referred questions to his attorney, who by the time of going to press had not responded. Repeated attempts to reach Mtshiza failed.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. www.amabhungane.co.za

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amaBhungane

Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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