Exclusive: Top-secret file links govt officials to abalone poaching
Leaked document exposes graft claims in the fisheries department
A tug of war over three tons of poached perlemoen has exposed claims of crippling corruption in the fight against organised crime.
A “top-secret” police crime intelligence document seen by Times Select recounts how an undercover operation aimed at the kingpins of an international abalone poaching network was allegedly derailed by the government official in charge of thwarting poaching and smuggling, Nkosinathi Dana.
But sources in Dana’s marine enforcement unit at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries responded with counter-claims this week. They said the undercover operation, which involved abalone being taken from Daff stores, was in fact a plot by corrupt police and department officials to steal the threatened mollusc.Thousands of tons of poached abalone are registered as legally imported goods each year in Hong Kong, where a “catty” (equivalent to 605 grams) can fetch as much as R5,800.
For years, law enforcement officials who have been trying to stop poachers plundering the dwindling resource, have blamed corrupt police and Daff officials for aiding syndicates.
A bust in Gansbaai three weeks ago, in which eight Daff officials were arrested by the Hawks for corruption, had short-lived success and hundreds of poachers are back in the water.
A source close to the illegal abalone trade said poaching had continued because Chinese smuggling bosses and their contacts in the police and Daff had been left untouched.In January, deputy director-general for fisheries management Siphokazi Ndundane signed off on the transfer of three tons of abalone to the police. It was to be used in a “252” (sting) operation aimed at Chinese smuggling kingpins.
Ndundane told Times Select investigating officers requested the department’s assistance after receiving authorisation for the operation from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
According to the secret document – an investigating officer’s feedback report in March to the deputy DPP in the Western Cape, Adrian Mopp – the plan was to use the abalone to lure buyers and arrest them.
But it claimed that when Dana, the Daff director for monitoring control and surveillance, learned of the plan in January he “singlehandedly managed to derail and foil” it.
On February 20, the investigating officer opened a case of defeating the ends of justice against Dana. The alleged offence was committed on February 1.The officer claimed Dana requested a meeting where he told his boss, chief director Thembalethu Vico, crime intelligence commanders and Mopp that the undercover operation was “hampering their current investigation into top officials within Daff”.
After the meeting, the officer said his commander ordered him to cancel the operation and return the abalone. On January 30, Vico contacted the officer and told him Dana had put an authorisation form signed by the DPP on his desk asking that the abalone be returned. But the officer said he was never shown the document.
“[Vico] found this very strange that I received no documentation or was ever consulted in the matter, that the investigation was stopped and that I was not even aware what was transpiring behind my back without my knowledge,” the investigating officer wrote.
At a meeting the next day, Vico told the officer he had made a “terrible and wrong decision by introducing Dana and his team” to the police. “Themba said that since then everything in the investigation went wrong and Mr Dana had been fighting for the investigation not to achieve any success or to continue any further,” he said.
The report concluded that Dana’s intervention led to police raids on a registered source’s businesses and put the lives of the source and his family at risk “as well as exposing the investigators to both SAPS members and the targets themselves”.
Dana told Times Select he “cannot confirm or deny” the allegations, referring questions to Daff. The department said the operation was stopped by the DPP.
Ndudane said her department was being investigated by the auditor-general over claims by Dana and other officials that she and Vico had planned to use the operation to “misappropriate” the abalone.
She said Dana had sent a dossier to the Daff acting director-general, Mooketsa Ramasodi, in which he claimed she and Vico had helped with the operation, which was conducted fraudulently.“He supposedly is claiming that myself and [Vico] and [the staff member] who released the abalone are in cahoots with the Chinese mafia,” she said.Mopp declined to comment, referring questions to National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila. He responded: “Please note that the NPA does not comment on 252 operations or any investigations that are being conducted.”
Vico denied the allegations against him. “The police came to us with an approved 252. They said to us they have intelligence information and an informer and that information is about bringing down the abalone syndicates,” he said.
He tasked Dana to assist the officers but it quickly became clear Dana was reluctant to do so. “The indication was that perhaps it was because of some other things the police know about him,” said Vico.
The head of governance‚ crime and justice division at the Institute for Security Studies‚ Gareth Newham, said the 252 operations were meant to be a mechanism to fight sophisticated crime but that they were often misused by operatives with ulterior motives.
“252 operations get signed off by judges and they’re at the mercy of law enforcement officials and, if law enforcement officials are honest and doing their jobs and operating within the law, they may give true information as to what they’re doing, but we also know that there’s been a serious problem within SAPS crime intelligence where they are applying for authorisations, [but] that they do it for other reasons,” said Newham.