Cape Town-120505- Tina Joemat-Pettersson has breakfast at the Cape Town Club to address the process of fishing policies and quotas. Picture: Candice Mostert

Declaring that her ministry was not “a Hollywood” set, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson instigated a trail of destruction through her department on Friday by suspending the acting deputy director-general in charge of the fisheries sub-department, allegedly on the grounds of promoting fronting.

This followed a pledge at the Cape Town Press Club early on Friday to crack down on allegedly corrupt officials in her department. She later suspended Sue Middleton as promised for signing off a deal which would allow 15 Smit Amandla Marine personnel to provide skills on a navy ship which was now carrying out the marine patrol function.

The minister’s threat was made at the club only after she demanded that shadow fisheries spokesman Pieter van Dalen was evicted from the club meeting venue.

During her address, she launched into a mighty attack on the company which recently lost the R800 million tender to run the marine patrol function – policing the marine resources of South Africa and determining the total allowable catches.

She said that the renewal of the Smit Amandla Marine contract in 2005 without a tender and then again in 2010 and 2011 – and for two months again this year – was the closest thing to an undermining of “the rule of law” she had ever witnessed. The last three extensions were under her watch as minister.

Joemat-Pettersson referred to the Hake Trawlers’ Association – but its real name is the South African Deep Sea Trawling Industry Association (Sadstia) – which she accused of the criminal offence of fronting for Smit Amandla Marine in conducting research on the hake allowable catch on the SAS Africana, which went to sea last month. “It is nothing other than fronting,” she charged.

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the association had been irregularly signed by a senior official, she reported. It later transpired that Middleton had signed the MOU. This, the minister insisted, was entirely irregular and had been done without her knowledge or the director-general’s knowledge.

Middleton, who has been with the department for 15 years, was ironically the official who has defended the minister’s actions over the bungling of the Sekunjalo Consortium’s preferred bidder status for the marine patrol contract. Sekunjalo later withdrew from the tender after Smit Amandla questioned the adjudication process in court.

A clearly distressed Middleton said on Friday: “I don’t want to comment at this stage. I can confirm that I have been suspended.” She would not discuss the details of the suspension and declined to answer questions about the memorandum of understanding.

Smit Amandla Marine spokeswoman Clare Gomes reacted with “dismay” at comments made by the minister, who said it was remarkable that a R2.8 million bill had been presented to the department by Sadstia, exactly the bill that Smit Amandla charged.

Smit Amandla confirmed that personnel – understood to be 15 – were provided to the ship. They had been working on the ship before the patrol function – which helps to develop the total allowable catch for hake and other deep sea fish resources – was moved to the navy. The personnel, who left on April 16, would be at sea for 60 days and would be involved in “skills transfer”, Smit Amandla confirmed.

Roy Bross, Sadstia secretary, categorically denied the fronting allegations. He confirmed a service level agreement had been signed between the association and the department. Sadstia had not charged a markup for approaching Smit Amandla to provide the personnel with the specific technical experience of this vessel.

“We were merely trying to assist Daff (the department) as well as our industry.”

He said that critical hake biomass and pelagic hydroacoustic surveys were required to work out the volume of fish that would be available for the upcoming season. Unless the survey commenced, there would have been the risk of cancellation of the marine stewardship council certification, “thereby jeopardising the capability of the industry to export its products which could result in major job losses”.

“Our organisation was concerned that these critical surveys would not take place as scheduled, following the transfer of the vessels to the navy,” he said.