Dead Matter (Part Two): The lion, the conservationist and South Africa’s future deputy president (South Africa)

By March 16, 2021Law & legislation

South African Deputy President David Mabuza giving a speech. Image: GCIS

Kevin Bloom, Daily Maverick / Our Burning Planet | March 11, 2021

Read the original story here.

In the mid-1990s, when the US government began reintroducing wolves into the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, there was only one beaver colony in the entire national park.

The absence of wolves since the 1930s had triggered an explosion in the elk population, causing the animals to become more sedentary and to browse on young willow shoots — which in turn had triggered a die-off of the plants that the beavers depended upon for survival. By June 2020, thanks to an effect known as trophic cascading, the reintroduced wolf packs had indirectly generated a total of eight new beaver colonies. The ponds and dams built by these beaver colonies would, in turn, have a number of effects on Yellowstone’s stream hydrology, recharging the water table and providing shaded, cold water for fish.

These ecosystem-wide interactions, which occur when apex predators limit the density and behaviour of their prey, effectively blew Fred Daniel’s mind when he first heard about them — he had known that lions were a “flagstone species”, in that they were brilliant at attracting tourists, but he had never suspected they were also a “keystone species”, capable of enriching an area’s biodiversity.

Looking back, Daniel would thus gain a whole new perspective on the fact that the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency had unlawfully blocked his permit application for lions in 2007. Along with the elephants he had intended to introduce, these “ecosystem engineers” would, by many expert accounts, have turned Nkomazi Wilderness into a natural wonder of stunning proportions.

But there was one account that was perhaps more significant than the rest. In the affidavit he would submit to the North Gauteng High Court in May 2020, Charles Ndabeni — who served as chief executive of the parks agency between 2008 and 2011 — provided insider testimony on the scale and consequences of the agency’s deceit.

After declaring once again that “biological diversity and tourism [were] joined at the hip”, Ndabeni referenced the joint venture set up in 2007 between Nkomazi Wilderness, the Inkaleni Land Owners’ Association, Kerzner International, the Development Bank of Southern Africa and Dubai World.

“The big five would impact on the value of Nkomazi Wilderness and were crucial for financial and ecological sustainability and a requirement to build and operate seven-star safari lodges,” he testified, referring to the serious investment commitment that Sol Kerzner’s One&Only group had made in Daniel’s project.

Then, once he had provided the names of the parks agency’s two most senior scientists at the time — both of whom had endorsed Daniel’s application for lion and elephant permits — Ndabeni got to the nub of the matter.

“[The] application for elephant was approved on 2 October 2007,” he testified, immediately adding that “the issue of the permit was withheld by Jan Muller, and issued to Dubai World in September 2008, which included permits to reintroduce cheetah and lion.”

The thing was, Daniel had sold his remaining 50% share in Nkomazi Wilderness to Dubai World in March 2008, after the joint venture had collapsed. In her book Predator Politics: Mabuza, Fred Daniel and the Great Land Scam, journalist Rehana Rossouw would write that the parks agency had been “instrumental in destroying” the partnership. According to the evidence provided to Daily Maverick, which squared with the narrative in Predator Politics, the government agency was all too happy to bend its own rules when it came to the “corrupt” business practices of Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem and his Gulf-state underlings, but for Daniel — who had proved himself incorruptible — the rules were a constant brick wall.

So who, then, was Jan Muller? And what was his connection to David Dabede Mabuza, the man who would become deputy president of South Africa?

To begin to answer these questions it was necessary to return to the affidavit of Ndabeni, who had taken on the CEO role at the parks agency long after the fix was in. Muller, it so happened, was the incumbent head of Wildlife Protection Services at the agency when Ndabeni arrived, and the man to whom the latter’s internal investigation process — overseen by forensic consultant Paul O’Sullivan — ultimately pointed.

In one of Ndabeni’s first meetings on the matter with senior staff, Muller had reportedly informed him that Daniel “was a criminal who had acquired land illegally in Badplaas which he was now occupying unlawfully and that he was a troublemaker who thought he was above the law”. Ndabeni further testified that Muller had characterised Daniel as “a racist who exploited poor communities and placed more value on rocks, plants and wild animals than on people”.

Which was a strange thing for the head of Wildlife Protection Services to say, especially given Daniel’s track record of working with local communities, not least the Inkaleni Land Owners’ Association — the grassroots organisation that had been granted R75-million in free shares in the (scuppered) joint venture.

The reason for Muller’s intransigence, it turned out, was directly linked to his dual position as head of the Problem Animal Fund, which had been set up to sell hunting rights for escaped wildlife and was operating a separate bank account within the parks agency. It wasn’t long after Ndabeni had been informed of the separate account that he learnt of the irregular conjoining of two departments — one responsible for the issuing of wildlife permits and the other engaged in law enforcement. With Muller in control of both departments, Mpumalanga’s privately owned fauna were, officially, no better off than cattle on their way to slaughter.

Or, in the phrasing of Ndabeni under oath:

“It became apparent that the wildlife permit system had been repurposed from providing a critical service to the private sector, who relied on the system as necessary tools to maintain and protect biodiversity on their land, to a system that thrived on exploiting the province’s biodiversity to keep the [Problem Animal Fund] flush. To complicate matters, the law-enforcement arm was abused to eliminate any competition for the PAF [and] to create a monopoly that controlled the hunting and killing of wild animals, especially lion, elephant and wild predators.”

In other words, Muller had denied Daniel his application for lion and elephant permits because the legitimate work of the MTPA was an obstacle to the contents of its secret account, which he personally controlled. And while it was unclear whether Muller had ever heard of the concepts of trophic cascading or keystone species (when invited to comment for this series, he told Daily Maverick that his counsel had advised him to decline), it was a fait accompli that as the head of Wildlife Protection Services such knowledge was a core component of his job.

Either way, where the keystone species of Mpumalanga’s private reserves should have been allowed to perform their evolutionary role — or better yet, where they should have been “protected” as ecosystem engineers; remarkable animals that for tens of millennia had regenerated and balanced the virgin African bush — they had become items to be bought and sold, their bodies cut up and served as bushmeat, their heads mounted as trophies on hunters’ living room walls.

Of the thousands of documents that Daniel’s legal team were poring over during their preparation for the appearance of Case Number 34802/2010 in the North Gauteng High Court, there were two that appeared to establish an evidentiary link between the parks agency and Deputy President Mabuza. One of these documents, which displayed an agency letterhead and was addressed to Ndabeni as the CEO, was authored by Muller himself.

Dated 24 November 2008, its contents concerned “recent developments at Nkomazi” — and while it was unsigned, it would read in hindsight as an attempt by Muller to throw Ndabeni off the scent.

The first item in the memo dealt with the confiscation of 72 animals from Nkomazi Wilderness — including eight leopards, four cheetahs, seven wild dogs and 24 indigenous ducks — during two respective raids in November 2007 and June 2008. Covered at length in Predator Politics, the story essentially involved a slapstick back-and-forth between the parks agency, the state attorney in the Mpumalanga premier’s office, Daniel’s former attorney Richard Spoor, a Jet Ranger helicopter and the Carolina Magistrates’ Court. As Rossouw would make plain in her astonishing book, the confiscations were all part of a much broader vendetta against Daniel. At the time, however, Muller had affected the stance and tone of an unimplicated third party.

The second item in the memo concerned Daniel’s application for an animal rehabilitation centre at Nkomazi. Here, Muller felt secure enough to furnish his boss with a list of (somewhat circular) reasons the application had been denied.

But it was in the memo’s third item, which dealt with Daniel’s application in 2000 to have Nkomazi officially proclaimed a private reserve — with one of his registered companies, Grand Valley Estates (Pty) Ltd, as the “management authority” — where Muller may have been subtly attempting to scare Ndabeni out of his wits. Because, while Muller may have acknowledged that the Government Gazette had ratified the proclamation in August 2001, he would still frame the issue of management authority within the country’s most explosive context.

“This division came to the conclusion that the land claims might be the reason for the proclamation not being effected,” he stated.

When Muller wrote these words, as Ndabeni would have known, Mpumalanga’s MEC for agriculture and land affairs was none other than Mabuza. What Ndabeni could not have known was that the chief coordinating officer of Mpumalanga’s regional tourism organisation, Athol Stark, would later offer identical testimony to the Carolina Magistrates’ Court. Stark would recall an incident that had occurred in 2006, when he had visited the office of Ndabeni’s predecessor, Abe Sibiya, to discuss Daniel’s situation. During the meeting, Sibiya had stepped out to make a call — and so, what Stark had inadvertently overheard would go down on the court record:

“I heard what they were discussing and Mr Abe Sibiya was telling the gentleman that the land claims must be, is the reason, why the permits must not be issued… and I thought, my goodness, I am not supposed to even be standing here and I stepped back into the office.”

How this too linked back to Mabuza, who at the time was a member of the Mpumalanga provincial legislature, was one of the central subjects of Rossouw’s book. The land claims on Nkomazi Wilderness, as Daniel’s legal team had proved as far back as 2000, had all been bogus. The claims had allegedly been part of a huge and ongoing scam in the Mpumalanga government to inflate farm prices and split the difference with middlemen. But Mabuza, when he took over the MEC role in 2008, had reportedly taken the game to a whole new level — so much so that in 2017 forensic investigator O’Sullivan would open a case of fraud against the future deputy president, arguing on his website that “pretty much all the land restitution claims in Mpumalanga” during Mabuza’s tenure as MEC were false.

Daniel’s problem, needless to say, was that he didn’t know when to quit.

“The first time I heard David Mabuza’s name,” he told Daily Maverick during a series of follow-up meetings at his home in late 2020, “was some time in 2003, when Pieter Visagie ran around saying he had political connections.”

Visagie, it transpired, was the most notorious of the middlemen identified by O’Sullivan. As evidence of the connection between Mabuza and Visagie, the investigator would include on his website an approval-of-payment document for R3.3-million to the latter, signed in January 2009 by the former MEC.

And yet, despite such evidence, Mabuza would consistently deny all wrongdoing, with the office of the deputy president informing Daily Maverick for this series that it would rather not comment on the “blatantly false allegations” and instead leave the matter for “the justice system to impartially perform its constitutional duty.”

Even so, there was no denying the culture of corruption that had been rotting the Mpumalanga government since the late 1990s — and here, the damage to the province’s irreplaceable biodiversity extended a lot further than Nkomazi Wilderness.