Durban - How did a 27 year-old ANC Youth League official and an army sports instructor - both with limited work skills and experience - end up as nature conservation directors of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife?
This is just one of the questions emerging after a new “temporary” board was set up to oversee the troubled nature conservation agency, amid a curious reluctance to publish the CVs of the new appointees.
Ezemvelo is the successor to the world-renowned Natal Parks Board that saved the southern white rhino from extinction, pioneered innovative wildlife capture techniques and helped to secure two of South Africa’s first UNESCO World Heritage sites.
After a series of controversies in recent years, several senior staff fear that Ezemvelo is sliding into further decline because of major funding cutbacks and leadership instability, while simultaneously battling an unprecedented rhino poaching onslaught in the flagship Hlhuhluwe-Imfolozi Park.
Ezemvelo has been plagued by leadership problems, mounting salary costs, labour unrest and a government task team report in 2014 that led to the suspension of former CEO Bandile Mkhize.
The report brought to light massive pay hikes for several senior executives at a time when Ezemvelo barely had enough money to pay two-thirds of the staff, as well as claims that Mkhize rewarded his “friends” in Ezemvelo with salary grade hikes.
Calling for disciplinary action against Mkhize, the task team also questioned whether certain board members “had the necessary qualities to act in the best interest of the organisation”.
Criminal charges are also still pending against Ezemvelo for the conservation agency’s role in ripping up and draining a protected wetland in northern KZN in 2014 under the guise of an “alien plant eradication project”.
It is understood that provincial Treasury auditors raised concerns that at least two new board members may not be suitably experienced to direct the affairs of a State-owned entity with a multi-million rand budget – although this has been denied by the new Ezemvelo board chairman, Zwile Zulu.
Thulisa Ndlela and Sipho Maxwell Mtolo were appointed to the board earlier this year by provincial Environmental Affairs MEC, Sihle Zikalala, who also chairs the ANC in KZN.
Mtolo began his military career in uMkhonto we Sizwe in the early 1990s, before becoming an infantryman, PT instructor and sports officer in the SANDF. Now he runs a construction company that recently won a joint tender to repair the roof of King Goodwill Zwelithini’s royal palaces.
His more youthful colleague, Ndlela, is regional spokesman for the ANC Youth League (eThekwini region). While he studied international relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, his work experience appears limited to brief stints as a library assistant and programme officer for a civil society group.
In a newspaper advert late last year, Zikalala invited nominations for new board members to be submitted to his departmental ministry head Kwazi Mshengu, who is also provincial chairman of the ANC Youth League and wants the eThekwini municipality to allocate R1 billion a year towards a new “youth development unit” in Durban.
KZN Treasury auditors drafted a report voicing concern over the appointment of Mtolo and Ndlela during an internal audit into Ezemvelo and its parent body, the Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA).
The draft report states: “During the audit it was noted that the following members (Ndlela and Mtoo) did not have the necessary experience that is required and expected of a member”.
In response to initial queries, KZN Treasury spokesman Musa Cebisa said: “There is absolutely no truth to the fact (sic) that KZN Treasury had dissatisfaction about the qualifications of some members of the Ezemvelo Board. It is also not true that there is something to this effect that we communicated. We had no opinion on this matter at all.”
Later, when challenged with more specific details about the draft report, Cebisa back-tracked significantly, stating: “It appears that this allegation came to the attention of the service providers that were appointed to conduct an audit . . . . Since the issue around the board was not part of their mandate and scope, the allegation was referred to Ezemvelo for verification.”
When asked to clarify if this was an admission that Treasury service providers did indeed question the qualifications of the two board members, Cebisa responded: “We are saying they might have raised the matter, but we felt that we needed to focus on the mandate at hand and leave other matters to Ezemvelo to deal with.”
But Ezemvelo Board chairman Zulu responded: “Sorry I don't know what you are talking about. Provincial Treasury has not raised the issue with me and I don't expect them to do so. “
Mtolo said he was not at liberty to discuss board matters and Ndlela has not responded to phone and email requests for comment.
The latest controversy comes at a time when 84% of Ezemvelo’s conservation budget goes on salaries and the operational budget has been slashed by at least 30%. For some units, the cutbacks have been even more severe with several staff fearing that vital conservation work will be paralysed by a lack of fuel or the inability to pay overtime for poaching patrols.
Ezemvelo chief executive David Mabunda is also believed to have come under pressure to resign. He was brought in just over two years ago to restore stability to Ezemvelo after his predecessor Bandile Mkhize bailed out with a golden handshake, despite a damning report about grossly-inflated salary hikes for top executives.
Mabunda has declined to comment on reports that will resign at the end of this month (JUNE). He left SANParks in 2014 shortly after media reports that he stood to gain nearly R81 million as a BEE shareholder following a land claim on the Mala Mala private game reserve. Mabunda defended himself, stating that he had never concealed his involvement with Mala Mala and that his share option transaction was above board and “fully disclosed to the necessary authorities”.
Back at Ezemvelo, questions have also been raised about the nomination and selection procedures for the latest board appointments, and the fact that the new board has a tenure of just one year (instead of the normal three-years).
Curiously, Ezemvelo, Zikalala’s office and the board chairman have all rebuffed requests (from this reporter) to release the CVs of new board members. The MEC’s spokesman, Bongani Mthembu, also ignored emails requesting answers to several questions, including whether any board appointments were influenced by party political factors.
Unlike Mtolo and Ndlela, other board members appear to have more extensive and appropriate work experience in legal affairs, academia and administration.
Ann McDonnell, the Democratic Alliance provincial spokesperson on environmental affairs, has asked Zikalala’s department for full details on their interests and qualifications in the field of nature conservation because the Act regulating Ezemvelo requires that: “The members of the board must have an interest in nature conservation” and also be drawn from a defined category of interest groups “to achieve, as far as practical, a balance of interests and expertise within the board."
One senior executive, speaking on condition of an anonymity, said: “Ezemvelo is about to go to the dogs. We need more people on the board who have a genuine interest in safeguarding biological assets for future generations.”
Another senior staffer, said: “I think we are going down. We just don’t have the calibre of leadership to turn things around. Mabunda has been on extended stress leave and no longer engages staff as he used to. He appears to have been isolated by political infighting.”
Durban environmental law expert Jeremy Ridl - who has successfully challenged the legality of previous Ezemvelo board appointments, said: “It is pity that the appointment process is conducted so clandestinely, and that the public has no opportunity to test the suitability of candidates who are considered for appointment to the board.”.
A former Natal Parks Board senior executive commented: “What can one say about bringing in kids from the Youth League to sit on the board? These are serious portents, preparatory to a change in direction – but in which direction, who knows?”
Conservation Action Trust