State Security Minister David Mahlobo. File picture: Phill Magakoe

Durban - Pressure is mounting on President Jacob Zuma or the public protector to set up an urgent and independent investigation into top-level rhino horn corruption following sensational claims linking State Security Minister David Mahlobo to a locally-based Chinese smuggling syndicate.

Mahlobo has denied the claims and threatened to sue the Al Jazeera news channel following the “unfounded and slanderous allegations” made against him in a documentary released at the weekend.

The Chinese embassy also issued an official statement on Monday voicing indignation over attempts to “smear the image” of China, after apparently rebuffing Al Jazeera’s earlier requests for comment.

But several local and international wildlife conservation groups and the Democratic Alliance have called for a thorough investigation into the claims made by the Doha-based media corporation.

Here are some of the reactions:

Democratic Alliance

“The DA calls on President Jacob Zuma to place the Minister of State Security, David Mahlobo, on special leave pending a full and proper investigation into his relationship with self-confessed criminal, Guan Jiang Guang.

“Clearly, Mahlobo cannot continue in his current position and must be put on special leave. It is grossly inappropriate that someone privy to information on and tasked with combating organised crime finds himself associating with suspected members of Chinese organised crime syndicates.

“The dwindling integrity of our intelligence services is at stake and we call on the President to show decisive leadership in removing Mahlobo until such time as his relationship with Guang is thoroughly probed.”

Chinese Embassy

“The Chinese Embassy in South Africa has noted Al Jazeera’s documentary ‘The Poacher’s Pipeline.’

“I wish to stress that the Chinese government adopts a consistent and firm position on the protection of endangered wildlife. As a contracting party to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), China has made unremitting efforts to protect wildlife on multiple fronts. China has also actively engaged in international cooperation with countries at the source and the destination, as well as along the transiting routes of wildlife trafficking to address the issue. All of these efforts have been widely recognised by the international community.

“The Chinese Government has been relentlessly firm in combating the illegal trade of endangered wild species and wildlife products. China maintains zero tolerance for the relevant crimes, and criminals receive strict sentences according to law.

“I want to emphasise that China has instituted strict disciplines and regulations for its public officials, including diplomats posted overseas and officials travelling abroad. Public officials are prohibited from purchasing or taking part in the purchase of any endangered wild species or wildlife product. Upon discovery of any violation, officials that are involved are subject to severe punishment according to law and regulations.

The Embassy also noted that some foreign media would every so often play up alleged wrong-doing of certain individuals, in the hope of smearing the image of China and undercutting China-South Africa and China-Africa relations. We find these moves ill-motivated, and would hereby express our strong indignation and firm opposition.”

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa:

“Al Jazeera must be commended for their investigation which has brought these very concerning and serious allegations to light.

This is just the latest in a series of apparent incidences of high-level political and diplomatic involvement in the illicit trade of rhino horn.

While we see some successes and arrests at a poaching level, there is a distinct lack of action higher up the organised criminal networks.

As focus and pressure is placed on Viet Nam during the Ha Noi conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade on 17 and 18 November, it is vital that South Africa shows its commitment to rhino conservation in the fullest sense.”

WWF-SA chief executive Dr Morne du Plessis said: “We join others in their call for a full investigation into these allegations. As home to 80% of Africa’s rhinos, the world is depending on South Africa to fulfil its greater commitment to addressing the high-level trafficking threats to our rhinos.”

StopRhinoPoaching.com

A spokesman for the organisation was not in any position to comment on the claims made against Mahlobo.

However, the organisation was calling for “thorough investigation into any person suspected to be involved in rhino-related criminal activities - but especially so if such a person is an official able to influence or interfere with cases.”

SA National Parks

“It would be improper for SANParks to respond to allegations which still have to be verified. The Focus Africa Foundation has never placed any tangible information to back their claims hence it would also be improper to entertain their claim.”

Durban environmental attorney and Earth Watch founder Jeremy Ridl

Ridl emphasised it would not be fair to implicate the minister on the strength of rumour.

“However I believe the allegations are serious enough to invite investigation by a body outside of government. This could be dealt with by the Public Protector’s office. This is the only entity that is theoretically independent of government, that has the legal power to investigate the claims.

“A judicial commission of enquiry would be ideal, provided the commission were given an independent investigative team to gather the necessary evidence. The problem is that there is no mechanism for private sector investigators to be appointed to undertake this task. It would be in the hands of the “Hawks”, or the “Green Scorpions” (Environmental Management Inspectors appointed in terms of NEMA).

“The bigger problem is that a judicial commission would have to be appointed by the president. He has enough on his plate at the moment…Unless the Public Protector is prepared to receive a complaint and pursue the allegations with vigour, the story could blow over and nothing will be done.

Traffic

Richard Newton, spokesman for the international wildlife trafficking monitoring network Traffic, said: “Such serious allegations warrant a full and thorough investigation to expose and deal appropriately with any misdemeanours and clear the air for those who have nothing to hide.”

How report exposed poachers' links to minister

In a special report titled “The Poachers Pipeline”, undercover members of the Al Jazeera investigative unit filmed a Chinese national, Guan Jiang Guang, who claimed that Minister Mahlobo was a regular visitor to his massage parlour in Mbombela (Nelspruit) and intimated that the minister and his wife were involved in the rhino horn “business”.

“When there is a big project his wife is out in front.

“He is behind the scenes. In South Africa it is very common that the wives are doing business...

“Officials will never do business in their own names,” Guang is heard saying to an undercover Al Jazeera source.

Guang is also shown displaying a photograph of himself and Mahlobo, saying: “He came to my massage parlour every week or at least twice a month. I know him very well.”

Pursuing a second line of evidence, Al Jazeera interviewed private intelligence consultant Nigel Morgan of the Focus Africa Foundation who also claimed that Mahlobo could be linked to political interference in horn smuggling investigations.

Morgan claimed his foundation had a contract with SA National Parks (SANParks) that involved disrupting illegal horn syndicates.

Inexplicably, he claimed, SANParks had cancelled the contract two years ago after he helped to arrest a number of alleged smugglers in a sting operation at Emperors Palace Casino in Gauteng.

He claimed there were elements within the police and “political elements” who feared that “we were getting too close to some people higher up the line”.

While it might have been a coincidence, he said, Morgan claimed that Mahlobo took over as Minister of State Security just a month before the Focus Africa contract with SANParks was cancelled.

Minister threatens legal action

Mahlobo, in a statement through his spokesman Brian Dube, said he noted “with grave concern and disappointment the unfounded and slanderous allegations made against him” about alleged links to the illegal rhino horn trade.

“The basis of this ‘linkage’ was said to be Mahlobo’s visits to the local Mbombela Spa owned by a self-confessed criminal Guan Jiang Guang. At the time Minister Mahlobo visited the Spa he had no idea as to what Mr Guang was involved in.

“The minister refutes these ludicrous allegations with all the contempt that they deserve and reserves his rights in respect of those making such false claims.

“Additionally, he strongly rebukes Al Jazeera and other local publications and broadcasters that reported on the story in a sensation-seeking, unprofessional and reckless manner.

“Guang apparently stated that he had some sort of friendship with Minister Mahlobo and that the Minister on some occasions attended to his private residence as well. This is not true. Minister Mahlobo is not a friend of Mr. Guang and has never visited him at his residence.

"The photo that appeared on Al Jazeera and in the Sunday papers is a photo taken when the minister was being treated at a manicure table and Guang requested a photo to be taken. This is clear from the photo itself.

“The vague allegation made by Mr. Nigel Morgan that his company’s contract was terminated by Kruger National Park as a result of possible interference by Minister Mahlobo is rejected and will be dealt with in the appropriate forum.

“It is extremely reckless and mischievous for an internationally renowned broadcaster like Al Jazeera to be broadcasting such misleading content despite our response. They are basically linking the fact that I used to visit a spa in Mpumalanga solely for the services that they render, to the illegal poaching of rhino horns by its owner – which I have also just been made aware of now through the aired broadcast.

“A number of my comrades, friends and high profile personalities visit the Mbombela spa, take photos with Guang’s family and some of his staff. Are these individuals now also involved in the illegal rhino trade?

“People drop names of high profile individuals and take photos – does this mean friendship or connection? I don’t think so.

“Minister Mahlobo says this is tantamount to defamation and is appalled at being ‘linked’ to any activity and its syndicates and or individuals that are seeking to further deplete the country’s endangered rhino population.

“I am not a friend of the guy, nor have I been ever to his home or have received any of his employees into my home. Finally my wife has no business relationship with the man or his employees."

Consequently, Minister Mahlobo has initiated the following remedial actions:

* Requested the Mpumalanga police commissioner to immediately investigate all allegations made against him in the documentary.

* Requested that the commissioner take action against Guang for illegal rhino poaching activity.

* Requested the Commissioner to additionally look into claims by Guang that he employs illegal immigrants and circumvents immigration laws

* Engaged a legal team to investigate possible defamation action against Al Jazeera, the publications, Guang and Mr Morgan and for defamation and the reputational damage that this documentary and the newspaper articles have caused to the State Security Ministry and his family.”

The Mercury