Our Burning Planet

ENVIRONMENT

What happens when an ecosystem collapse and State Capture collide?

In two cases that reach the highest rungs of local politics, land rights scams have been linked to illegal hunting.

‘The problem we have here is that the animals don’t just need to be protected, they need to be protected from the people that are protecting them,” said forensic investigator Paul O’Sullivan, around 25 minutes into the first day of the virtual trial of case number 34502/2010 in the Pretoria High Court.

The time was 12.30pm on 17 August 2021, and since 19 July 2021, when the trial was meant to have kicked off, Daily Maverick had been seeking access to the documents and transcripts that we knew were out there somewhere. Given the matter’s history and cast of characters, we had every reason to suspect that the defendants in the case – either government entities or former and current employees of the state – had been leaning on the Stalingrad strategy to ensure that the evidence would never be heard by a South African court.

As outlined in our three-part Dead Matter series published in March 2021, the R1-billion civil claim, initially filed in July 2010, had been cast as a David and Goliath battle between conservationist Fred Daniel and Deputy President David Mabuza. As far back as 2003, when he was still buying up farm plots in fulfilment of his vision to regenerate one of the most threatened biomes on Earth – a vision, we noted, that for a time had become a reality under the name of “Nkomazi Wilderness” – Daniel had been blowing the whistle on the alleged land claims scam run by the Mpumalanga provincial government.

And Mabuza, when he took over as the Mpumalanga MEC for agriculture and land affairs in 2008, had reportedly taken the scam to a whole new level – so much so that in 2017 O’Sullivan would open a case of fraud against the future deputy president, arguing on his website that “pretty much all the land restitution claims in Mpumalanga” during Mabuza’s tenure as MEC were false.

Now, after a wait of 11 years, Daniel’s day in court had finally come. But before giving evidence on the allegedly fraudulent land claims, O’Sullivan would continue to provide testimony on the so-called “Problem Animal Fund” run by the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) in the mid to late 2000s.  

In the second quarter of 2009, O’Sullivan told the court, he had been approached by Charles Ndabeni, the then CEO of the MTPA, to conduct an investigation into “irregular activities” regarding animals that had escaped from the province’s game parks.

“During that investigation, I became aware that a bank account was being operated,” O’Sullivan testified, “a bank account that was outside the control of the MTPA. It was managed by a couple of individuals, and those were individuals that were running the Wildlife Protection Services, Jan Muller and a chap by the name of De Beer.”

In the report that he presented to Ndabeni in 2010, O’Sullivan added, he noted that the Problem Animal Fund had morphed from its original intention into “nothing more nor less than a slush fund.”

The slush fund was being used, he said, to bypass the Public Finance Management Act, whether for buying or for selling.

“Whenever they did any buying, they just went out and bought. Whenever they did any selling, and the only selling they were doing was the selling of hunting rights, they sold to whoever they felt like selling those rights to. I think I analysed a period of six weeks where six animals were shot, and a large amount of money came into the account, and there were no proper quotations for how that money was spent,” O’Sullivan said.

“Nobody could give me an explanation as to why the animals had to be shot. The most common animals being shot were hippos and buffaloes, which were quite high up on the list of hunters’ wishes. And in one case I saw a discrepancy: a hippo was shot one day for R15,000 and another day was shot for R20,000. So none of those figures added up, nobody could give a proper explanation.”

Then came the kicker in O’Sullivan’s testimony: “When I asked, ‘Why couldn’t you put the animal back [in the place] from where it had allegedly escaped?’ – and in most cases, these animals had escaped from the Kruger National Park – I was told it was much easier and cheaper just to shoot them.”

So there it was, the evidence that Daily Maverick had been waiting for weeks to hear. Thanks to the efforts of our attorneys, we had been granted access not only to the virtual trial but to all the legal documentation. And we also knew, from the second part of the investigative series that we had published in March, that there was a document in the trial bundle linking Muller of the MTPA to Mabuza himself.    

Dated 24 November 2008, the document was a memo on an MTPA letterhead, addressed from Muller to Ndabeni. The memo’s subject line referred to “recent developments at Nkomazi” – and while it was unsigned, it would read in hindsight as an attempt by Muller to throw Ndabeni off the scent.

The first item in the memo dealt with the confiscation of 72 animals from Nkomazi Wilderness – including eight leopards, four cheetahs, seven wild dogs and 24 indigenous ducks – during two respective raids in November 2007 and June 2008.

Covered at length in journalist Rehana Rossouw’s Predator Politics: Mabuza, Fred Daniel and the Great Land Scam, the story essentially involved a slapstick back-and-forth between the parks agency, the state attorney in the Mpumalanga premier’s office, Daniel’s former attorney Richard Spoor, a Jet Ranger helicopter, and the Carolina Magistrates’ Court.

As Rossouw would make plain in her astonishing book, the confiscations were all part of a much broader vendetta against Daniel. Back then, however, Muller had affected the stance and tone of an unimplicated third party.  

The second item in the memo concerned Daniel’s application for an animal rehabilitation centre at Nkomazi. Here, Muller felt secure enough to furnish his boss with a list of (somewhat circular) reasons why the application had been denied.

But it was in the memo’s third item, which dealt with Daniel’s application in 2000 to have Nkomazi officially proclaimed a private nature reserve – with one of his registered companies, Grand Valley Estates, as the “management authority” – that Muller may have been subtly attempting to scare Ndabeni out of his wits. Because, while Muller may have acknowledged that the Government Gazette had ratified the proclamation in August 2001, he would still frame the issue of management authority within the country’s most explosive context.

“This division [Wildlife Protection Services] came to the conclusion that the land claims might be the reason for the proclamation not being effected,” he stated.

At the time, again, Mabuza was the MEC for agriculture and land affairs in the Mpumalanga provincial government.  

The outfitters were putting money into our trust account and we were using that money to uplift the community. We built a crèche and drilled a lot of boreholes. We were also donating to the drop-in centres. That was up until 2015, when the benefits were stopped by LEDET and given to the Mabunda Traditional Authority.

In mid-January 2022, when the hearing of case number 34502/2010 resumes in the North Gauteng High Court, it is highly likely that Muller and Ndabeni will be called into the witness box. If so, the memo will almost certainly play a key role in their respective testimonies. Given the evidence that the court has already heard regarding Mabuza’s role in the land claims scam – as testified by O’Sullivan and Kobus Vermeulen, a former detective inspector with the Badplaas police – a picture will begin to emerge of the link between ecosystem collapse and State Capture. The rot in the MTPA, we will continue to learn, was simply a small part of the much wider rot in the provincial government.

To this end, it’s hardly a stretch to argue that the decision of Judge Cassim Sardiwalla, expected in the late summer of 2022, will have major implications for the future of South Africa’s game parks.

Because sadly, case number 34502/2010 does not just refer to an isolated incident from more than a decade in the past – the elements that led to the downfall of Nkomazi Wilderness, including the apparent culpability of the provincial authorities, are mirrored in a number of alleged scams that are taking place today.

In early December 2021, Daily Maverick published a 4,300-word investigation under the title “Communities, corruption and carcasses: when the Kruger National Park, the bushmeat trade and the Mthimkhulu’s complex history collide”.

Once again, the story took in the illegal hunting of the Kruger’s animals. But this time, instead of the MTPA, the relevant authority was the Limpopo provincial government’s department of economic development, environment and tourism, or LEDET.

It was a difficult story to report, with many moving parts, but essentially it centred on an eviction order brought in 2019 by the national minister of the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform (DARDLR), the MEC of LEDET and the Mabunda Traditional Authority. The potential evictees, who are still fighting the case in the Polokwane High Court, were the Mthimkhulu traditional community, comprising about 26,000 residents of the twin settlements of Mbaula and Phalaubeni on the banks of the Letaba River.

As Daily Maverick discovered, this community had a long and complicated relationship with its namesake 9,000ha nature conservancy, known as the Mthimkhulu Private Game Reserve. According to the applicants for the eviction order, the land did not belong to them but to the South African government, which had incorporated it in 1985 into the Letaba Ranch Nature Reserve. The community’s interpretation, which appeared to fit with post-apartheid land rights legislation – specifically, section 25(7) of the South African Constitution and the Interim Protection of Informal Land Rights Act (IPILRA) – contended that the government was only “holding the land in trust” on their behalf.

During our reporting, all of our smaller questions appeared to converge in one big question: why, after all this time – and particularly given the fact that numerous post-apartheid officials, including the former director-general of DARDLR, had recognised their rights – did the current government want the community off the land?

The answer, we found, could be located in the legal and sanctioned “offtake” hunting revenues that for many years had been flowing into the community’s coffers. The Kruger National Park, after all, had dropped its boundary fence with the Mthimkhulu Private Game Reserve back in 2002, ensuring a steady flow of buffalo and elephant.   

“We started hunting a long time ago,” Kotlani Elvis Mavunda, the Mthimkhulu’s de facto chief, told Daily Maverick during our visit to the region. “The outfitters were putting money into our trust account and we were using that money to uplift the community. We built a crèche and drilled a lot of boreholes. We were also donating to the drop-in centres. That was up until 2015, when the benefits were stopped by LEDET and given to the Mabunda Traditional Authority.”

Although Mavunda held the surname that aligned most closely with the traditional authority, he added, the signature on the 2015 agreement with LEDET had been that of Pheni Cyprian Ngove, the apartheid-era overlord of the Mthimkhulu community, who lived more than 50 kilometres away.

“An official from the government wrote a letter to us saying that anything we do we have to consult Ngove, because in writing it says that he is the chief of Mthimkhulu. It just happened like that one day, although all along the hunting rights had been given to us. We don’t know what changed.”

In exposing what it was exactly that “changed”, Daily Maverick was led into the murky world of hunting quotas and permits. We established, for the month of September 2021, that a hunt to the value of R2,87-million – for 13 buffalo and two elephant – was entirely illegal, simply because the Mthimkhulu had not granted a community resolution for the event, as required by section 2(4) of IPILRA. We also established that neither LEDET, DARDLR, the Mabunda Traditional Authority (i.e. Ngove) or SANParks were interested in telling us where the money had gone.

It hadn’t, of course, gone to the 26,000 members of the Mthimkhulu community. Clearly, the eviction order was all about bypassing section 2(4) of IPILRA. And the consequences of the apparent scam were that the community had been forced into the bushmeat trade – during our trip, we were confronted with images of severed baby hippo heads; elephant limbs in the back of a donkey cart; various small animals in states of decomposition in wire snares.

This, then, was the place where State Capture and ecosystem collapse met. In 2022, it appears, the South African public will learn a lot more. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • If proved Mabuza is linked to this scam he must go, be fired.A development by a private individual which held many benefits(legal ones) was bypassed ,because money was to be made albei ,illegally unethically and criminally.So what ,…k the citizens, the law, the constitution, nature conservation. It sounds so typical ANC,problem is this criminal ethos does not bode well for the country.