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Friday, 3 October 2008

Millions missing from parks board

YOLANDI GROENEWALD, JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

An explosive internal forensic report revealing widespread corruptionat the embattled Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal parks organisation could lead to extensive prosecutions inside the organisation.

Already the entire board, including KwaAmaZulu football club owner and sugar tycoon Patrick Sokhela, has been suspended because of the report.

The report on the affairs of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, by auditing firm Deloitte & Touche, follows an investigation ordered in November last year after the auditor general found that R22-million allocated for special wildlife projects was missing.

The Mail & Guardian understands that it has already led to a clean-up campaign inside Ezemvelo, with individuals named in the report told to pay up or face prosecution.

The report discovered massive conflicts of interests regarding tenders in Ezemvelo, some relating to board members. It also found evidence of inflated travel claims and failure to disclose business interests.
It is understood that the board comes in for heavy criticism for, among other things, voting to increase members’ annual salaries from about R140 000 to R800 000, despite Ezemvelo’s financial woes.

KwaZulu-Natal’s agriculture minister Mtholephi Mthimkulu suspended the board after the report was tabled at a hearing of the provincial legislature’s public accounts committee last month. The Scorpions were called in to conduct a criminal investigation.
But Sokhela and the four other board members -- Ilan Lax, Philani Shangase, Thulani Nkosi and Obed Shange -- are fighting back. Last week they lodged an urgent application in the Pietermaritzburg High Court to have their suspension overturned.

They argued that the decision to suspend them was unlawful and should be declared void. They said that there was “no duty” on them as board members “to disclose each and every interest that they have”.

The case was adjourned to October 9, but Judge Anton van Zyl ordered Mthimkulu to show why the suspensions should not be set aside. In addition to the board members the report is understood to implicate 47 employees -- three at executive level and 25 at management level -- in misconduct.

Mthimkulu’s spokesperson, Khulekani Ntshangase, defended the decision to keep the report confidential. “It is not prudent to release a report that contains serious allegations against people, splashing their names across the headlines,” he said. “We would rather investigate and conclude before we go public.

“We have put [together] an interim team to administer this entity,” Ntshangase said. “We are looking at finding a suitable chief executive who will help us have clean financial statements coupled with productivity.”


Ntshangase said one employee has already been prosecuted and given a suspended sentence and fine. He also has to repay misappropriated funds.
Another 47 individuals accused of minor crimes will be compelled to reimburse the money they fraudulently took, he said. Five others are subject to criminal investigations, while another had to reimburse Ezemvelo about R180 000.

When he suspended the board Mthimkulu told reporters that “with their suspension they have been given the opportunity to clear themselves”.

Referring to their court action, Ntshangase said board members should not delay the process if they have nothing to hide.

At the time the investigation was ordered Sokhela dismissed the missing R22-million, saying that “it was just not recorded on the annual financial statement”.

He said the money was meant for projects relating to poverty alleviation, nature conservation and alien-plant eradication and that the board had always accounted for such projects separately from Ezemvelo.

Sokhela did not respond to messages sent to his cellphone by the M&G.

In addition Ezemvelo chief executive Khulani Mkhize has been on “special leave” since June, after he allegedly crashed a hired rental van during a tour to Tembe Elephant Park.

This is not the first time Sokhela has been linked to irregularities in a state institution. Earlier this year it emerged that he had not serviced his R800-million loan from the Land Bank, which wanted to call in the loan.

Last year the Johannesburg High Court ordered him pay a debt of R23,2-million to Dynamos soccer club boss Pat Malabela, whom he had bought out to elevate his team to the Premier Soccer League.

Some of his cars and furniture were seized in the process.

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