Tony Carnie, Daily Maverick | October 15, 2020
Formerly renowned as one of the leading conservation agencies in Africa, Ezemvelo has been dogged by a series of controversies involving political appointments, forensic audits, funding cutbacks and a leadership vacuum for more than a decade.
Ezemvelo has also been without a permanent CEO for more than three years and with the suspension of chairman Dr William Mngoma and 10 other board members, conservation veterans are concerned that the organisation’s decline will become increasingly difficult to arrest without decisive interventions and stable leadership.
“There is a lot of concern when an organisation like this can be left to run in limbo and it would be a great shame if it was left leaderless and rudderless for too long. Even two months is a long time to remain in a vacuum, without formal oversight,” commented Pat Goss, a Durban businessman and chartered accountant who served on the board on a voluntary basis for almost a decade, including a six-year stint as board chairman which ended in 1998.
He cautioned that there could be significant legal ramifications if important decisions taken by an acting chief executive over the past two months were challenged by third parties, if they were not formally ratified by a board or properly designated interim accounting authority.
Goss noted that Ezemvelo, which employs over 2,200 permanent staff and has an annual budget of over R1-billion, was a significant employer that plays a crucial role in attracting foreign and domestic tourism as well as protecting natural heritage and mountain catchment areas which supply water to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
“Ensuring the future of Ezemvelo has very wide social and economic implications. We cannot afford to have a province without a properly run conservation agency and I would think that decision-makers need to explain what is being done,” he said.
He noted that the board was established in 1947 and that for most of its existence, board members received no salaries, and were remunerated only for travel and subsistence costs to attend board meetings.
“Previously, when Ezemvelo advertised for new members it was not unusual to get 80 applicants – an absolute treasure house of diverse and skilled candidates who were willing to volunteer their services.”
However, fees and allowances for the Ezemvelo board have risen dramatically, exceeding those paid to board members of SA National Parks and other provincial conservation agencies.
Di Dold, former conservation head of the KZN branch of the Wildlife and Environment Society – and who served on the Ezemvelo board from 2010-2014 – said she was concerned that appointments to the board were increasingly guided by politics rather than selecting candidates with a sound knowledge about the functions and ethos of the organisation.
“What has been happening for the past two months since the latest board was suspended?” she asked.
Nomusa Dube-Ncube, the provincial MEC for Environmental Affairs, announced on August 18 that she was suspending the entire board of Ezemvelo due to “prima facie allegations against the board as a collective”, noting that “allegations of maladministration were published by various media houses”.
She did not specify which media reports she was referring to, but the Sunday Tribune reported earlier this year that Ezemvelo hired six bodyguards for Acting Chief Executive Ntsiki Dlulane at a cost of R226,000 per month after he allegedly received “serious threats” for cancelling a R22-million Ezemvelo construction contract.
With the suspension of the board, Dlulane appears to have been left solely in charge of the agency – despite assurances from Dube-Ncube that an interim accounting authority would be appointed.
Dlulane lists his qualifications as a diploma in construction management and quantity surveying from Mangosuthu University of Technology, a B.Tech degree in quantity surveying and a one-year “post-grad in business management” from the Management College of Southern Africa.
According to Dube-Ncube, concerns about the future of Ezemvelo were raised at a provincial budget hearing in April.
“This virtual meeting was robust and characterized by honest reflection on the state of Ezemvelo, one of our most important entities in the province. In a true sense of democracy, ever since that meeting, leaders of political parties have been speaking with one voice on the need to ensure the stability of Ezemvelo,” she said.
As a result, she exercised her discretion to suspend the board and also requested the provincial Finance MEC Ravi Pillay to institute a forensic investigation into Ezemvelo by an external entity and to also designate an appropriate person as the accounting authority.
Dube-Ncube said she would also brief premier Sihle Zikalala and members of the executive council about the overall management of Ezemvelo and steps to be taken to turn around the situation.
“Last, but not least, I undertook to inform the members of the public about all interventions. Members of the public are critical because as public representatives, we represent their aspiration. They are the taxpayers we were elected to serve.” But in the two months since her announcement, very little seems to have been done and the provincial government has failed to explain what steps it has taken.
Daily Maverick sent several questions to MECs Dube-Ncube and Pillay last week, including a request for a preliminary progress report on the forensic investigation – details on who had been appointed to lead this investigation; who had been appointed to act as the interim accounting authority and whether hiring six bodyguards for Dlulane was justified.
In response, Dube-Ncube’s office said that internal processes were “underway” to ensure that an appropriate person was designated to act as the new Ezemvelo accounting authority.
“Critically, it should be remembered that in the statement of the 18th August, we pointed out that we wished not to cloud all processes focusing on instituting this forensic investigation at Ezemvelo with unnecessary comments in the media and other platforms.
“It is for these reasons that, for now, we prefer to only indicate that we are making great progress. At an appropriate time, progress reports will be submitted to the Provincial Executive Council and Honourable Members of the Portfolio Committee: Conservation.”
Pillay’s office provided no response, other than to state that the responsibility for forensic investigations was transferred from Pillay’s office to the Premier’s Office.
Lennox Mabaso, a spokesperson for the Premier’s Office and provincial executive, also failed to shed light on specific queries, stating only that “government is on top of the situation and there has been a lot of progress”.
Nevertheless, some staff report that they have not received updated communication about latest developments within the organisation, while at least two members of the board expressed frustration this week that no investigators had been in contact to request interviews, eight weeks after the 11-member board was suspended.
“There is a stain on our professional reputations hanging over our heads. I am willing to cooperate, but I have not been furnished with any specific charges or been contacted by any investigators,” said one board member who did not wish to be named.