14 June 2024 | 01:03 AM

Officials lock antlers over sable import saga

Key Takeaways

The senior official who blocked the importation of rare Zambian sable antelope, a multimillion-rand deal backed by Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the agriculture minister, is facing demotion.

The Mail & Guardian revealed two weeks ago how Joemat-Pettersson tried to smooth the way for the importation after a former director of animal health, Mpho Maja, blocked the deal. Maja cited concerns about the threat of foot-and-mouth disease, endemic in Zambia.

The M&G also reported that the husband of the minister’s special adviser had an interest in the deal, though the minister denied being aware of this at the time.

It has now emerged that:

  • Maja was mysteriously suspended for two weeks last year at a crucial point during the permit application;
  • In March, after the Red Meat Industry Forum had won an interdict preventing the minister from introducing a new import policy without a risk assessment, Maja was moved to the director general’s office; and
  • Last week, after the M&G’s report, acting director general Peter Thabethe told her to move to the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute — an effective demotion.

The M&G understands Maja has refused to move on the grounds that she has received no written explanation. She was not told what her new post would be — she was instructed to speak to the head of the Agricultural Research Council, under which Onderstepoort falls, to find out where she would be placed.

Questioned on Maja’s transfer, spokesperson Tsotso Sehoole said: “The decisions of restructuring are an executive matter and will be treated as such.”

The ministry declined to answer questions about why Maja was suspended between late October and November last year. She was reinstated without being charged.

But it appears that her suspension coincided with desperate attempts by the company involved in the antelope deal, Swanvest 234, to secure an import permit.

Legal correspondence obtained by the M&G shows that in late October, Swanvest was under severe pressure because some of the antelope, in quarantine in Lusaka, were dying from the stress of captivity.

But by October 27, five days after Maja’s suspension on October 23, Swanvest was apparently confident that approval was imminent. A letter from an attorney representing Eddie Kadzombe, the Zimbabwean businessman who brokered the deal, quotes assurances by Nico Gouws, Swanvest’s lawyer.

“We have contacted Mr Nico Gouws in this regard, who has assured us that South Africa has already given [an] indication that the animals may be imported and that one final visitation is required to Zambia to draw final blood and, as soon as the blood is clear, the import permit will immediately be issued.”

The formal application for the import permit had only been submitted that day, October 27.

The attempts to sideline Maja seem to have been triggered as early as July last year, when she told Swanvest director Chris Visser that his company’s application for permits could not be considered because of an embargo on the importation of hoofed animals from Zambia due to the foot-and-mouth risk.

That response prompted Swanvest to appeal directly to the minister in September. Joemat-Pettersson tried to lift the import embargo on December 21 last year, when she gazetted a “protocol” allowing the importation of sable from Zambia under strict quarantine conditions.

The minister was interdicted by the Red Meat Industry Forum in January. By agreement, she was ordered by the North Gauteng High Court to conduct an import risk analysis to satisfy industry stakeholders that there was no risk to the local industry.

The sable import deal also included a handover of two white rhinos, to be donated by Swanvest to the Zambia Wildlife Authority in gratitude for allowing Visser to keep the animals in quarantine in Lusaka Park.

In an affidavit to Zambia’s High Court on May 17, Visser said the delivery of the rhinos would coincide with a ceremony attended by Zambian President Rupiah Banda and President Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s office has denied there was ever a plan for him to participate in such a ceremony.

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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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