By Chantelle Benjamin 26 March 2012 – A communication blackout following the announcement of a probe into tender practices by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has led to concerns of irregularities being covered up. Democratic Alliance MP and spokesperson on Fisheries Pieter van Dalen said he was concerned Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson was using the inquiry as a means of halting discussion in the media and parliament around the awarding of multimillion-rand tenders to Sekunjalo and Smit Amandla. “No minister should be allowed to hide behind an inquiry to avoid asking difficult questions,” he said. Van Dalen is the person who revealed an internal report by the department that raised questions about the awarding of an R800-million contract to Sekunjalo to police illegal fishing along the South African coast. Among the revelations that emerged was the fact that Sekunjalo had allegedly submitted four bids under different names for the same tender, and that the company owned a fishing fleet. Sekunjalo has written to Corruption Watch, defending its tender process saying that the department was aware that it had made all four submissions and that it owned a fishing fleet. Sekunjalo’s preferred bidder status was withdrawn after questions were raised about the tendering processes and procedures followed by the department. Issues around the awarding of the latest tender to police South Africa’s marine resources was further complicated by the minister’s announcement in parliament that existing service provider Smit Amandla Marine, whose contract ends on 31 March this year, was not appointed in an open tender process. This raises questions about tenders under the tenure of the former minister – now Minister of Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk. Joemat-Pettersson on March 22 announced that an independent inquiry was to be established, in which a committee led by a retired judge would scrutinise fisheries tenders and tender processes to determine whether there had been any maladministration or fraud. The terms of reference for the inquiry are still being determined, but it is possible that the department's inquiry may go further back than the time since Joemat-Pettersson took office as minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Clarity on the time period to be reviewed by the committee and other questions around the process are difficult to obtain, because the minister decreed at its announcement that “we [the ministry and department] will cease to respond or entertain any further allegations or queries” until the committee has completed its investigation. Corruption Watch was told in reply to a range of questions sent to the ministry, that if any of the queries submitted to the minister were not covered in the press statement released on 22 March, it was “tough luck”. Van Dalen said he is determined that the process be as transparent as possible. He said he would be asking the minister to provide more information on the criteria under which the committee, set up to conduct the inquiry, will work. He said he also intends asking the minister to “ensure that the inquiry’s terms of reference and time-frames for completion are made public” and to “ensure that the committee’s final report and recommendations are made public”. Van Dalen is also critical of the minister’s comments at her announcement with regard to the inquiry, that black empowerment company Sekunjalo was an “innocent” when an inquiry had yet to be conducted. He said her position that Sekunjalo was the “victim” of the department’s “flawed processes” would not alter the fact that Sekunjalo was the subject of investigations by the Public Protector and the Competition Commission. In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has confirmed that discussions are being held with the Navy about taking over some aspects of the policing of marine resources until the review, expected to start in April, has been completed. It’s not clear if Smit Amandla, who has the fleet and resources, will assist the Navy in some way. Van Dalen told Corruption Watch that he still believes Smit Amandla is best equipped for the job, but has always felt the Navy should take a more active role. “I think the Navy should have been given the task of running the policing of South Africa’s marine resources a long time ago. They have the credibility and the capacity. “They are always asking for money and they will be a lot more active instead of sitting around with a lot of expensive equipment.” He said research should still be left to the department, however. Spokesperson for Tourism Minister Van Schalkwyk, Melene Rossouw said the minister, who was out the country, was not likely to comment on the inquiry even if he was in the country. “He would respect the decision made by Minister Joemat-Petterssen to hold an inquiry on any matter she wished to,” she said. Rossouw said decisions around the awarding of tenders were the responsibilities of the director-general, not the minister. Sekunjalo, in the meantime, has told Corruption Watch that it is the “innocent party” in faulty “tender processes and procedures” followed by the department. It expressed frustration at its depiction in the media, saying it did not understand why it had been targeted for such negative coverage. Sekunjalo CEO Khalid Abdulla said in a letter that the Sekunjalo bid was structured as a consortium between certain of its subsidiaries, KND Naval Design and 30 black-owned SMMEs. He said contrary to media coverage, Sekunjalo was capable of meeting all deliverables required for the contract, given its provision of marine engineering services to its own shipping fleet and that of its own shipping fleet. It also had berthing space and harbour facilities along the coastline. He said they had disclosed the fishing operation during the bid process. On its four separate bids, the company said: “Each of the bids [structured on a different economic model] was fully and transparently disclosed and supported by presentations as part of the bid adjudication process. “The decision of the Sekunjalo group to submit four alternative bids was for the purpose of providing the department with the most flexibility in choosing a financial model that was most cost-effective for its purposes and accordingly most beneficial to the fiscus,” he said. Abdulla said he believed the tender would have provided a much-needed boost to small companies in the Cape Town area. “We have repeatedly stated that our business should be judged on its delivery and cost savings to government along with job creation and skills development, and more importantly enterprise development.” The department has not said when it might hold a second tender process. ExcerptA communication blackout following the announcement of a probe into tender practices by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has led to concerns of irregularities being covered up.