WATCH: Bloemfontein Zoo – A monument to mismanagement and waste
Little remains of the Bloemfontein Zoo beside overgrown enclosures, but 40 staff members still earn a monthly salary for doing nothing.
A painting of a lion at the abandoned Bloemfontein Zoo, 7 December 2021, Freestate. Picture: Jacques Nelles
This video is no longer available. What was once a serene oasis where families could spend time together and schools went for outings in the middle of Free State's capital, has turned into a monument of public financial mismanagement, with millions of Rand continuing to be wasted, while animals either suffer or have simply vanished. Nearly R150 million has been pumped into the relocation of the Bloemfontein Zoo, and despite the facility being closed for more than a year, more than 40 staff members still receive monthly pay cheques for doing nothing. Life seems to have gone on in the…
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What was once a serene oasis where families could spend time together and schools went for outings in the middle of Free State’s capital, has turned into a monument of public financial mismanagement, with millions of Rand continuing to be wasted, while animals either suffer or have simply vanished.
Nearly R150 million has been pumped into the relocation of the Bloemfontein Zoo, and despite the facility being closed for more than a year, more than 40 staff members still receive monthly pay cheques for doing nothing.
Life seems to have gone on in the city, and the once-loved zoo is now an unrecognisable, neglected eyesore just outside the CBD, hidden behind unkept trees and long shrubs and bushes.
Since its permanent closure last year by the Free State Department of Economic, Small Business Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (DESTEA) as well as the Bloemfontein SPCA, due to mismanagement which led to the sickness and deaths of animals, the way forward for the zoo remains unclear.
Mangaung Municipality had set aside approximately R125 million to relocate the entire zoo back in 2013, said Freedom Front Plus ward councillor Elizabeth Snyman-van Deventer.
At the time they boasted of the planned new facility at Kwaggafontein just outside the city, where animals would be allowed to roam freely in large encampments, while visitors would supposedly be view them while being driven through the facility in caged trucks, turning the concept of a zoo completely on its head.
Eight years later, none of this had come to pass, and all that can be shown for their efforts are the abandoned old zoo, and an R18 million double fence in Kwaggafontein, marking the location of the intended new zoo property.
Even at this new location, outside the Langenhovenpark neighbourhood, Northwest of the city, The Citizen found the multimillion-rand fence riddled with gaping holes and openings at the bottom.
The property houses several wildebeest and buck which, according to locals, often manage to escape through the fence into the nearby residential areas.
These animals, according to the city, were not from the zoo though.
Despite the large expenditure, it was revealed that no further development was to take place, and the planned relocation would be scrapped.
This means that since the erection of the fence in July 2016, at total cost of R18 432 892.10, no further improvements or constructions have taken place.
In response to questions by Snyman-van Deventer, former acting city manager Teboho Maine said the former mayoral committee, headed by sacked mayor Olly Mlamleli, pulled the plug on the project three years ago.
“[There] will not be any development in Kwaggafontein because the project was canned as per the Mayco [mayoral committee] Lekgotla that took place on 19 and 20 October 2018. The Executive Mayor proposed that the project be canned and Lekgotla adopted as such,” Maine said.
Maine admits that no other animals were moved to the new property and that they had no planned developments and refurbishments of the now closed Bloemfontein Zoo.
This major decision was, however, taken in an ANC lekgotla and not by the council of Mangaung, begging the question of how it could not simply have been implemented without council oversight, said Snyman-van Deventer.
“Apparently the decision not to relocate the zoo was taken in an ANC lekgotla. Was this at any stage brought before council because the decision taken to relocate the zoo was a council decision?,” she asked.
There’s no zoo, but there are zoo workers
The final nail in the zoo’s coffin was struck in March last year, after it had initially temporarily shut its doors in November 2019.
This came shortly before the start of the ongoing national lockdown, following orders from the SPCA after several animals starved to death in the facility.
But while the pandemic and strict lockdown regulations left millions without jobs, the staff of the now closed Bloemfontein Zoo, however, have retained their jobs and salaries.
Mangaung Municipality could not disclose how many staff remained in the employ of the zoo or the cost on the public purse, but according to sources, more than 40 staff members were still “working” at the zoo.
Their employment was confirmed by acting city manager Maine in his written replies to Snyman-Van Deventer.
He wrote: “The zoo employees are still working at the zoo keeping the enclosures and the surroundings clean.”
Only one staff member was spotted during the entire visit by The Citizen to the zoo this week, with a worker randomly starting a tractor and mowing the overgrown lawn about 30 minutes into the visit. His efforts were short-lived, and stopped a short while later, with the grass not much shorter or neater than when he started.
According to one of the security guards, who wished to remain anonymous, “too many” people work at the permanently closed facility. Their only job being to feed the 11 buffalos – the only wild remaining animals at the property.
According to the guard, one would be lucky to see a single employee left at the facility by 14:00 on any given day.
“They just come and feed the buffalos and then leave. There are too many people working here. They are usually gone by 12PM. They have been working here for many years, so it only makes sense that they continue working here because where else must they go?,” he asked.
While the purpose of their employment is to maintain the zoo, the former wonderland in the heart of the city was instead marred with overgrown plants, dried up fountains, dirty animal enclosures which seem to not have been touched since the zoo’s closure, with weeds growing out of pavements and the concrete braai stands.
New Mangaung mayor promises zoo will reopen
Not all hope is lost for the facility though, as newly elected mayor and former Mangaung speaker Mxolisi Siyonzana has now said plans are underway to boost tourism in the city, and this includes reviving the dead zoo.
Speaking to The Citizen on Thursday night, he said he would be engaging with the MEC for DESTEA in the coming weeks to discuss the reopening of the Bloemfontein Zoo.
“He is going to brief me his reasonings for the zoo to be closed. Maybe we will look at the processes of making sure the zoo is opened,” he said.
“I don’t want it to remain closed for tourism purposes. At the same time, the zoo is part of the history of Mangaung. The zoo is in the city centre and not all cities have a zoo like that. We will also need to speak to those who know the rights of animals but the intention is to make sure the zoo opens.”
Siyonzana refuted claims that the R18 million fenced Kwaggafontein land was a waste, despite the project being canned by his predecessor. The land would be used for wild animals which are not be suited for zoo enclosures, he explained.
“You have animals that cannot be in the city centre. You have animals that would like to be free, and such animals will be better placed in a place like Kwaggafontein, but other animals, of course, they will be at the zoo. We are going to look at all of those and check which animals are going to place them at those areas,” he said.
The mayor refused to disclose information about the currently employed staff at the closed-zoo, saying this was not meant to be discussed with the media.
Siyonzana said: “It was [DESTEA] that decided to close the zoo and it’s important to engage with the MEC. I don’t think before we have such discussions with the MEC that we have to talk through the media first.”
Mangaung municipality spokesperson Qondile Khedama, however, confirmed on Friday that indeed the zoo staff members remained employed, but since the metro was still under administration, the administrative team was working on its financial recovery plan.
“Those people [zoo workers] are still working there. Management is exploring better ways of handling the issue of the zoo because it is the only public zoo in the Free State. We are also mindful of the fact that we are currently under administration and at the centre of the administrative team is the financial recovery plan, which we are doing with the National Treasury.”
“As management, we draw financial decisions from the National Treasury and with the help of the provincial intervention team as deployed by the Premier of the Free State. The integral responsibility of the provincial intervention team is ratifying every item with financial implications,” he told The Citizen.
What happened to the remaining budgeted R125 million to relocate the animals, meanwhile, remains unclear. Khedama insisted that had never been used, after the project was canned.
But according to Snyman-van Deventer, some of the funds were used to relocate the animals to various sanctuaries after the closure of the zoo.
“How much of this money was used is not known… When we ask questions on the zoo, we receive shocking answers. The previous mayor [Ollie Mlamleli] and mayoral committee took a one-sided decision to discontinue the development of the new zoo… Our zoo was founded in 1910. All of this is such a tragedy,” she said.