With the intense excitement of the debate this week on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation speech last week, the media spotlight did not fall adequately on a significant story from Parliament.
It was quietly announced that the marine patrol and research ships, which play a significant role in the determination of the total allowable catches of the R6 billion a year fishing industry, were not being adequately operated by the navy.
This issue has been a matter of much concern since early last year when Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson announced that the SA Navy would take over the management of the ships.
This was after Sekunjalo – which is leading a consortium that was announced this week as the preferred bidder for the publisher of Business Report, Independent News & Media South Africa – was declared the preferred bidder for the management of the ships.
In short, Smit Amandla Marine, which had run the ships for years, lost the R800 million five-year contract. It took the department and Sekunjalo to court on the grounds that the adjudication of the tender had been dodgy. The department then withdrew Sekunjalo’s preferred bidder status and handed the function to the navy.
After months of controversy about the suitability of the navy for this task during which Joemat-Pettersson insisted that it was a first-class choice, fisheries deputy director-general Greta Apelgren-Narkedien announced on Tuesday that bar one or two exceptions all the ships were “alongside”.
To the novices of marine terminology, this means the ships are not sailing. The bottom line is that they are more or less unseaworthy. Somehow this took a year to work out. There are all sorts of problems about the funding of these ships, with the navy having to bear massive repair costs.
Apelgren-Narkedien also attacked an MP and an analyst who has been critical of the department. She accused them of spreading lies to the media about the fisheries branch.
ANC MP Salam Abram, who was not the MP named, gave her a lecture on how inappropriate it was for a state official to lambaste an MP.
Then the department, in a rare bout of efficiency, sent out a statement: “Fisheries branch of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries records a constructive positive meeting with portfolio committee.” It is deliciously absurd.
It said the fisheries branch had announced that the tender for the fisheries patrol management and research vessels “will be divided into two separate tenders”. The tenders are expected to be advertised in late March “and are envisaged to assist in broadening the scope of participation to include both smaller and larger players into the fisheries industry, and to contribute to employment”.
It goes on: “The deputy director-general says… today’s meeting has given us an opportunity to assess our operations and to flag all the worrying areas.”
It does not mention, like Abram did, that South Africa’s marine resources are being plundered because of the absence of ocean patrols, or that crucial fisheries such as hake are in danger of losing Marine Stewardship Council accreditation.
But we can be happy that “among the other suggestions (made at the committee) was a recommendation to present a turnaround strategy for the fisheries branch on how to better deal with the challenges within the branch”.
That is what they said. I kid you not.