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All employees of the provincial conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife have been ordered to sign a declaration of secrecy promising to take their “secrets” to the grave – unless they are authorised to reveal information by chief executive Bandile Mkhize.
An Ezemvelo spokesman told The Mercury yesterday that the rationale was to combat rhino poaching “among other things”, but several staffers have interpreted it as a move to intimidate them from disclosing information to the media.
One senior staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that Mkhize had berated staff two weeks ago for “running to the press” and “undermining Ezemvelo”.
“Here we were at a function at the Royal Showgrounds to honour staff for up to 40 years of long service, and the CEO uses very aggressive language and warns people that they will suffer his wrath if they speak to the press.
“The whole thing has been very badly communicated, and people are nervous about why they are being told to sign this declaration.”
Another source noted that Mkhize had been angered by recent reports that were critical of Ezemvelo, including a story in The Mercury last month about a hippo being shot and donated to King Goodwill Zwelithini.
Another staffer said even junior staff such as cleaners had been told to sign the document, but several had expressed concern that they did not understand the language or the reason for having to sign.
“We hear that it is being done in the name of stopping rhino poaching, but there is not one word in the document which mentions rhinos, rhino horns or poaching.”
According to a copy of the Ezemvelo “Declaration of Secrecy” leaked to The Mercury, staff are asked to acknowledge that: “I understand that I shall be guilty of an offence if I reveal any information which I have at my disposal by virtue of my office and concerning which I know or should reasonably know that the security or other interests of the Republic require that it be kept secret from any person…”
Staff are asked to acknowledge that they are familiar with the Protection of Information Act (act 84 of 1982), and Section 4 of this act in particular.
“I understand that the said provisions and instructions shall apply not only during my term of office but also after the termination of my services with the organisation… I am fully aware of the serious consequences that may follow any breach or contravention of the said provisions and instructions.”
However, the 1982 act appears to be written specifically to prevent official state security secrets from being passed to “foreign states”, “hostile organisations” and for the “combating of terrorism”.
Section 4 of the act refers specifically to secret official codes, passwords, documents, prohibited places, armaments, defence of the republic, military matters and contracts relating to prohibited places.
Durban environmental attorney Jeremy Ridl said the declaration sent shivers down his spine.
“It takes me back to the days of going marching. It is creeping and insidious, and employees of Ezemvelo are now terrified about speaking up.”
Ridl said, that in his opinion, the declaration was unconstitutional.
“It compels a person to keep their mouths shut and to not speak the truth – whereas the constitution says that you are protected in your freedom of expression and imposes an implicit obligation on people to tell the world when things are going wrong… If I were asked to do so, I would not sign it.”
Chief executive Mkhize did not respond to requests for comment, but according to Ezemvelo spokesman Musa Mntambo, the conservation body was trying to avoid sensitive information “landing up in the hands of rhino poachers… we suspect that information is being leaked from the inside”.
Asked why the declaration did not refer to rhino or rhino horns, Mntambo said the declaration was intended to prevent “the leaking of information”. In terms of Ezemvelo’s communications policy, only Mkhize, himself (Mntambo) and certain authorised staff were allowed to deal with the media.
“But this thing should not be seen as discouraging people against the media,” he insisted.