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Fishy tender inquiry in danger of being abused

Pieter van Dalen, DA Deputy Spokesperson on Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
22 March 2012

Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Tina Joemat-Pettersson yesterday announced that she will be instituting an independent inquiry into the procurement processes and procedures at the Fisheries branch of her Department.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) welcomes this move, which constitutes an acknowledgement by the Minister that her Department's Fisheries arm has been poorly administered.

But the inquiry must not be allowed to become a delaying tactic or a whitewash. There are already worrying signs that this might be the case.

Firstly, in the same breath as she announced her intention to set up an independent investigation, Minister Joemat-Pettersson said that Sekunjalo is an "innocent company". How she can determine the inquiry's verdict before it has even begun its investigation is anybody's guess.

Secondly, the Minister declared that "from now until the Committee concludes its investigation, [the department] will cease to respond to or entertain any further allegations or queries as those would now be in the jurisdiction of the Committee." No Minister should be allowed to hide behind an inquiry to avoid answering difficult questions. If new evidence of wrongdoing is uncovered by the DA, we will certainly demand answers from the Minister.

For the inquiry to be credible, it is essential that the Minister takes the following steps:

Set out exact criteria that will ensure the independence of the committee. This would send a strong signal that the Minister is committed to the committee carrying out its work in an objective manner. I will be writing to the Minister today to put forward this proposal.

Ensure that the inquiry's terms of reference and time-frames for completion are made public.

Ensure that the committee's final report and recommendations are made public.

In addition, the Minister must assure the South African people that she is committed to taking the action necessary to turn the Fisheries Department around, and holding those responsible for its maladministration to account. Independence is indeed a necessary condition for credibility, and the Minister's decision to institute an independent inquiry is a step in the right direction. But this will not exonerate her Department from the Public Protector and Competition Commission investigations into the awarding of fishy tenders.

Let us hope that this is a genuine attempt by the Minister to stop the rot in her Department. If it turns out to be a whitewash or delaying tactic to avoid answering difficult questions, the DA will expose it.