Coast KZN

26 Jul 2017

Surprise move to merge Shark and Park boards in KwaZulu-Natal

Tony Carnie (News 24 Correspondent)


The KwaZulu-Natal government is planning to weld together two different organisations: one that was set up to protect animals from people, the other to protect people from animals.

Now, faced with a State-funding cash crunch, the KZN government has announced plans to merge the 70-year-old provincial nature conservation agency Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife with the KZN Sharks Board, an organisation set up primarily to kill or ward off man-eating sharks.

The proposal has come as a surprise to several conservation leaders concerned about the future of the conservation agency at a time when Ezemvelo has been wracked by leadership instability and funding cutbacks.

Reacting to the merger plan, a former Ezemvelo senior executive remarked: “What! The one organisation kills animals and the other is supposed to save them!”

To add to the instability of the proposed amalgamation process, Ezemvelo chief executive David Mabunda resigned this week – barely three years after his predecessor Bandile Mkhize was suspended in the wake of a damning government task team report on massive salary hikes for top executives and allegations of “jobs for pals”.

Mabunda – a former chief executive of SA National Parks who was brought in to restore stability at Ezemvelo in early 2015 after the departure of Mkhize – has insisted that his decision to depart was “amicable and mutual”, despite leaving before his contract expires in 2018.

A new management board was also appointed in 2017 amid concerns that at least two board members were chosen for overtly political reasons rather than their professional experience or interest in nature conservation.

Curiously, the new board also has a tenure of just one year, whereas Ezemvelo boards are usually appointed for three years.

Sihle Zikalala, the provincial ANC chairman and MEC for the Department of Economic Affairs, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, announced in June that the KZN government was planning to merge a number of government-funded bodies as part of a rationalisation process for public entities.

Zikalala told the provincial parliament that government was committed to building a state with “organisational capacity and systems that facilitate [the] realisation of a set agenda”.

Combined with low economic growth, low projections for revenue collection and increasing debt service costs, it was now necessary to implement a rationalisation process for KZN’s 18 provincial public entities.

‘Conservation efforts are costly’

Over the last year, a body known as the Rationalisation of Public Entities Task Team (Ropett) had evaluated provincial public entities, a process that included the possible down-scaling of functions, transfer of functions, abolishment or mergers. This had included an evaluation of both Ezemvelo (with a staff of almost 3 000 people) and the KZN Sharks Board (with just under 200 staff).

“Ropett acknowledges that conservation efforts are costly and that the current operating model of Ezemvelo is not adequately addressing its funding requirements. The subsidy received from government is insufficient to address all the entity’s needs and funds have to be supplemented by own revenue,” said Zikalala.

“However, as tourism facilities are currently not maintained to acceptable standards (due to lack of funds, capacity constraints and competing priorities) the ability of the entity to generate own revenue is diminishing.”

While acknowledging that Ezemvelo’s primary mandate was nature conservation, Zikalala said the Ropett process recommended that Ezemvelo had to change its operating model and outsource “a significant portion” of its eco-tourist facilities and services to the private sector hospitality industry.

Likewise, the KZN Sharks Board had not received adequate funds to fulfil its mandate, while some funds for research, bather education and shark/marine protection had been re-allocated to support the new Maritime Centre of Excellence to train students for the maritime sector.

As a result Ropett had recommended that Ezemvelo and the Sharks Board be merged, with one board overseeing the functions of the newly merged entity.

Other than suggesting that Ezemvelo should outsource some tourism operations to the private sector, Zikalala did not outline how the merger might increase revenue or cut costs – although the creation of a single board is expected to reduce salary and allowance bills for the current two boards.

Ezemvelo currently has 11 board members, while the Sharks Board has 10. Further cost savings could conceivably result from the appointment of a single chief executive and the rationalisation of two management and staff teams.

‘Functioning optimally’

According to Zikalala, the rationalisation task team had also found that some boards were not “functioning optimally” and there was a need to investigate an optimal size for management boards, the number of board meetings and a uniform remuneration model for board members.

While labour unions have not commented so far, Zikalala said in-principle decisions on the rationalisation process had been conveyed to organised labour.

Zikalala said the provincial executive council would consider comments and feedback from unions, chief executives and other stakeholders, but the provincial government was confident that the rationalisation process would be concluded by December 2018.

Ezemvelo, initially known as the Natal Parks, Fish and Game Preservation Board, was set up in 1947 to enforce wildlife and nature conservation laws and was also acclaimed internationally for Operation Rhino, an initiative to rescue the southern white rhino from the brink of extinction and restock other wildlife reserves.

The Sharks Board was established in 1962 to install shark nets and other bather protection measures following a series of fatal shark attacks on swimmers at Margate and South Coast beaches in the late 1950s that threatened to damage the province’s tourist economy.

While the board’s primary mission is to protect swimmers from attack using bather-protection nets or baited drumlines, the Sharks Board also conducts research on the conservation of sharks and other marine creatures and has gradually reduced the number of nets along the KZN coastline to limit the number of deaths for sharks, dolphins, turtles and other creatures that get caught in nets every year.