Smelly and rotten: R16.5m abalone case gets weird
Was it just plain armed robbery, as the minister says, or an unauthorised undercover entrapment operation?
Four months after a senior official blew the whistle on colleagues whom he accused of helping themselves to three tons of poached abalone from a government store, a cabinet minister told parliament the shellfish were stolen in three armed robberies.
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Senzeni Zokwana made the statement in a written reply in June to DA MP Pieter van Dalen in which he denied involvement of any government officials in the theft of abalone.
Zokwana said the “armed robbery” on December 18 was one of two at the Cape Town store, and one at a store in Gansbaai, that resulted in the loss of poached abalone worth R16.5-million.
“To our knowledge no government officials were involved in any of the theft incidents,” said Zokwana.
But on February 14 a senior official at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries had sent a 12-page memo to the acting director-general. It concerned the saga that started on December 18 and resulted in abalone being removed from the stores, and allegedly replaced with rotten abalone on February 7.
Nkosinathi Dana, the director of monitoring and surveillance in Daff’s fisheries branch, titled the memo – which is in the possession of Times Select - “Report on the release of dried confiscated abalone contrary to prescripts and existing delegations”.In it, he described how the acting chief director of monitoring, control and surveillance, Thembalethu Vico, and a colleague allegedly engineered the removal three tons of abalone, worth R7.5-million, for an unauthorised undercover entrapment operation. Vico has told Times Select this was part of a smear campaign.
Dana’s memo also accuses the deputy director-general for fisheries, Siphokazi Ndudane, of being involved in the removal. Ndudane is on the record denying this.
The DA’s Van Dalen accused Zokwana of lying to parliament to protect the officials. “The minister lied to parliament and he buried certain issues and, because he knew about it and tried to conceal it, he has to be involved or he is trying to protect certain people,” Van Dalen told Times Select.
Zokwana’s spokesperson, Khaye Nkwanyana, told Times Select the director of public prosecutions was looking into a sophisticated heist in which the abalone was allegedly “swapped” for “rotten and smelly” abalone by three senior officials and crime intelligence officers.
But he said the minister would not talk about “operational matters” and that he declined to comment on Van Dalen’s allegations.Responding to Times Select inquiries, Vico called Dana’s memo a “calculated smear campaign. These are malicious and unfounded allegations that, in my view, are calculated to smear my integrity and the [Ndudane’s] integrity,” he said.
The Hawks confirmed they were investigating “three incidents of abalone theft” at the Paarden Island store on December 18 2017; October 29 2015; and May 14 2018, and it is understood that the circumstances surrounding the undercover operation are being investigated as part of the investigations.
Dana, who is in charge of Daff’s fisheries anti-poaching effort, said in his memo that, on December 18, Vico asked him to release three tons of abalone for a secret undercover operation.
The plan was to use the abalone to set up a “legend” for a “source” who had told police he had been approached by a Chinese syndicate to export poached abalone via his business. The syndicate insisted that he first export three tons of his own abalone to gain their trust.
Dana, the only official without whose support abalone from the department’s 90-ton stockpile cannot be released, refused to give the go-ahead due to “glaring shortfalls” in the operation’s planning.
This was despite the fact that the crime intelligence officers in charge had obtained authorisation for an undercover operation from the acting deputy director of public prosecutions in the Western Cape.
Among the shortfalls he listed were:
Money from the transaction with the Chinese syndicate, an unknown amount, would be paid into the bank account of the source. It and the abalone would be lost.
The source, an established abalone processor, had lied to his crime intelligence handlers about how abalone procurement and processing from the state's stockpile worked.
The source did not need the department’s abalone because he was a legal and established processor.
Even though Daff officials would be committing various crimes by issuing false documents during the operation, there was no indemnity clause to protect them from prosecution.
Dana said instead of heeding his request that they reapply for the operation with the help of Ndudane and Parker, Vico gained access to the stores and circumvented his department to secure the abalone.
Ndudane asked the acting custodian of the facility for the keys and gave them to Vico, who was acting under her instructions, he said.
When deputy director of public prosecutions Adrian Mopp returned from leave and cancelled the operation, Dana said he received a tip-off that Vico and the police officers would attempt to return the abalone on February 7. So he set up an ambush to catch them.He and his team confronted Vico, weighed the boxes and recorded the abalone. “As the offloading was taking place, it was observed that the returned abalone was of very poor quality ... This abalone was also smelling badly and most of it not fit for human consumption,” he said.
Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said the investigation of the three thefts at the Paarden Island store was not yet finalised. “It’s an ongoing investigation and no arrest has been made at this stage. We are following all possible leads.”
Vico said then acting director-general Mooketsa Ramasodi, who received Dana’s memo, asked him to respond, which he did. “Mr Ramasodi informed us that the matter will be dealt with by the three ministers, that is, Daff, Police and the minister of the Department of Justice,” he said.
He denied claims that he circumvented any processes to authorise the release of the abalone, and called for an investigation into Mopp’s cancellation of the authorisation for an undercover operation.
Vico said Zokwana and the deputy minister at the time, Bheki Cele, were informed about the operation. “It is apparent that certain individuals made a concerted effort to stop this operation and divert the focus of attention away from themselves,” he said.
Times Select reported earlier this year on a secret document drafted by one of the officers involved in the operation claiming that when Dana learned of the plan he “single-handedly managed to derail and foil” it.
In this version of events Dana is accused of derailing the operation because it would expose the main Chinese syndicates operating in South Africa who Vico said “there are allegations that Mr Dana himself works for”.
On February 20, the investigating officer opened a case of defeating the ends of justice against Dana.
Last week, Daff director-general Mike Mlengana placed Parker and Ndudane on suspension and it is understood a letter of suspension has been drafted for Vico, who is overseas.
Nkwanyana said: “They have assured us that they are still seized with the matter at the level of the director of public prosecutions, so whoever would be found to be guilty, the minister would immediately act against those accordingly.”..