Standoff at Mpumalanga parks

Standoff at Mpumalanga parks

The theft of 112 pieces of rhino horn from the Mpumalanga conservation authority’s strongroom is at the centre of high drama among senior parks officials. The case remains unsolved, reports Sydney Masinga, amid gun threats and attempts to lock the CEO out of the offices

CEO Jacques Modipane back in his office this week, where he says he will stay. Photo: Sydney Masinga

Office lock-out

Drama unfolded at the embattled provincial Mpumalanga conservation authority when two of its most senior officials locked each other out of the office premises this week.

Police had to be summoned when the chief executive officer of the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA), Jacques Modipane, fought security guards to gain entry to the offices near Nelpsruit. The guards had been instructed by acting staff secretary, Bheki Malaza, not to let him in.

Malaza had been appointed acting staff secretary in a dramatic move last week following Modipane”s second suspension amid court interdicts and the changing of the provincial government administration.

“When I arrived here this morning, the security guards refused me entry, saying that the acting secretary instructed them to do so. I want to put it on record that Malaza was illegally appointed last week Thursday as acting secretary of the agency,” said Modipane.

He said he fired Malazi “on the spot” for insubordination for locking him out on Tuesday morning. “Where the hell does he get the guts to instruct the security to lock the CEO out of the premises?”

Gun threats

To make matters worse, Malaza has laid a charge of intimidation against Modipane for allegedly pointing a firearm at him a week earlier.

“We had a situation here last week Thursday, where Malaza and his hooligans interrupted a board meeting. They kicked my office door and threatened me. I told him that I will be forced to defend myself, but to avoid conflict I picked up my bags and left.

“A few hours later the police told me that Malaza went to the station and opened a case against me, claiming that I pulled a gun on him. There was no gun. That man is mad,” said Modipane.

Malaza, who was initially willing to speak to African Eye News Service on Tuesday morning, failed to do so when a sheriff of the High Court, who only identified himself as Nkuna, served him with a court interdict in front of Modipane and police officers.

Rhino horn theft

The MTPA, the conservation authority in a province where at least 182 rhinos have been poached since 2010, has been in disarray for several years.

Matters deteriorated so badly that 112 pieces of rhino horn were brazenly stolen from the agency”s strongroom on the night of April 20 this year. The horns had been removed from live rhinos in an effort to protect them from poachers, and were stored in a safe.

Both Modipane and Malaza have in one way or the other been linked to the disappearance of the MTPA rhino horns.

At the end of April, the then Mpumalanga economic development, environment and tourism minister Pinky Phosa fired MTPA board chairperson Clara Ndlovu, who had suspended Modipane without consulting her superiors.

Ndlovu returned as chair of the board last week after a court interdict that she be reinstated until the board follow proper procedures to remove her. She appointed Malaza, who was the agency”s legal advisor, as acting staff secretary.

Staff members, speaking this week on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the two men pointed firearms at each other on Thursday.

“We were even afraid to come to work because of all this drama. What if someone gets hurt? Some months back we were afraid to come to work because of snakes that were entering our offices, now we have to deal with deadly weapons at the workplace. This must come to an end,” said one of the staff members.

Bheki Malaza (right) is about to be served with a court interdict after he was fired for insubordination this week. Photo: Sydney Masinga

State of play

The theft of the rhino horns from the agency”s safe has not been solved. Investigators at the crime-fighting unit known as the Hawks have not ruled out the possibility that it was an inside job.

A senior security officer of the MTPA said this week it appeared the route to the safe had been marked out.

“We found markings leading from the fence straight to where the horns were stored. This clearly means that someone inside made sure they left markings for the people who stole the horns,” said the security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While he was the MTPA CEO in 2010, Charles Ndabeni and forensic investigator, Paul O” Sullivan, blew the whistle on MTPA officials who were conspiring with a syndicate to steal rhino horns from the agency”s safe.

In a damning report, which was submitted to the provincial government, Ndabeni fingered Malaza and former chief operations officer Edward Thwala as conspiring with a syndicate to steal the rhino horns.

Instead of investigating, the board ignored Ndabeni”s 2010 report and eventually asked him to leave in 2012.

After the 112 pieces of horn were stolen in April, Ndlovu suspended Modipane because she said he had refused to launch an internal investigation into the theft.

In the first week of May, Phosa reinstated him as CEO.

“Special leave”

In an internal letter dated May 20 sent by Malaza to all staff members, he said Ndlovu”s decision to put Modipane on “special leave” was because the CEO only sent an SMS to the board on April 21 informing them about the stolen horns, “instead of doing a proper briefing in a special board meeting”.

Malaza”s letter accused Modipane of disregarding the board”s advice that he should not include staff members in the internal investigation “because those colleagues were also suspects until they were cleared”.

“It is common practice that when an incident so serious like the theft of rhino horn [happens], the accounting authority (MTPA board) must be properly informed. In this case an SMS to the accounting authority cannot be a proper briefing,” wrote Malaza.

“The CEO indicated that there will be an internal investigation on (sic) the rhino horn theft. He said the investigation will be done by staff members and two police officials. I raised my concerns about that because the incident took place at the MTPA and those colleagues remain suspects until they are cleared, so how can they become part of the investigating team? The CEO refused to change this approach.” – African Eye News Service

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