For the past 23 years, ANC warlord and Free State Premier Ace Magashule has presided over a medieval dead zone, in which his courtiers ran around getting loaded, while the serfs got properly screwed. Now, Ace has re-upped an ancient political paradox: he has risen to become one of the most powerful people in the land, at the same time as his dreadful little fiefdom is coming under unprecedented scrutiny. With President Jacob Zuma’s head on the block, this is the story of a country in transition, about how the balance of power is shifting under the ANC’s new leadership. And how it still has a long way to go. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Come and Go
It was early on a Monday afternoon, and traffic was backed up at the most famous brick wall in South Africa.
This is not to say that the Estina farming compound, the site of the botched Free State-funded Vrede Dairy Project – from which at least R220-million was siphoned out of a local empowerment programme into Gupta banks accounts – was actually milking the 1,400 cows it had promised its stakeholders. That would be absurd. Instead, a gleaming blue-light BMW X5 rolled up to the gates. Inside sat skittish faux-media tycoon Mzwanele Manyi, who zizzed up his power windows when a journalist approached, as if avoiding a strain of antibiotic resistant crotch-rot. He was trailed by a Ford Figa stuffed with a crew from ANN7, the television station he sort of bought from the Guptas, and which, according to an internal investigation undertaken by media monolith Naspers’ pay-TV carrier MultiChoice, did not in any way serve as a corruption funnel for incentivising cabinet ministers – a huge relief for those of us slowly losing faith in the integrity of the apartheid-fattened billionaire Stellenbosch set.
Photo: A gleaming blue-light BMW X5 rolled up to gates. (Photo: John Hogg for Daily Maverick)
Was Manyi’s arrival at Estina the most meta thing ever to occur on Free State soil? Very possibly. A short time after cowering in the back of his X5, Manyi silently led his troupe away from the gates and down the road towards town. And a few minutes after that, his little convoy returned, as if reshooting a scene in a local high school adaptation of an unknown Samuel Beckett play.
There they idled, waiting.
This was a clear breakdown in Gupta Inc’s vertical integrative strategy, or whatever buzz term is in use these days. And who can blame the Brothers Grim for their newfound sloppiness – they are facing unprecedented scrutiny from the Asset Forfeiture Unit, a suddenly interested National Prosecuting Authority, a newly established “State Capture” commission to be chaired by deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, an allegedly revivified Hawks, and any number of civil society organisations or press houses hoping to claim a scalp or two. Worse, their protector and key beneficiary, President Jacob Zuma, is facing attacks from nearly every functional institution in the country, including four of the ANC’s Top Six, along with a majority in the party’s decision-making National Executive and Working Committees. Holding an umbrella to this vicious shit-storm is a provincial warlord about whom more in just a moment.
Still, why travel to Vrede, where more ink has been spilled than milk? The answer is that we now live in Ramaphosastan, a country laser-focused on eliminating corruption, and where the likes of Free State Premier Ace Magashule, who now quarterbacks the ANC from Luthuli House, will soon be forced to answer for a small portion of his perfidy. For some reason, Vrede has become State Capture’s Ground Zero – perhaps because it’s only 180km from Johannesburg, and the Hawks like to be home for dinner. Or perhaps it’s because hundreds of millions earmarked for local black farmers was scammed so brazenly, and used in part to underwrite what the former CEO of KPMG once described as “the event of the millennium”, a.k.a. the world-famous Gupta wedding. There’s no real sense to these things – there’s no real sense to anything, really – and so the Hawks have targeted or semi-targeted or have been seen to be targeting Estina, the forlorn Potemkin co-op on a dirt road leading from Vrede to Nowhere.
How It Is
Rush hour at Estina just got busier and busier. Transformation being untransformed, a heavy-duty tow-truck belonging to an outfit named Willie Basson roared up to the gates, and was promptly waved onto the property. Willie Basson is one of the established white businesses that dominate Vrede, a buzzing agricultural community that is not quite the sad little dorpie depicted in news reports. Indeed, following a munificent rainy season, the Free State resembles parts of Switzerland, with rolling hills, enormous skies, and herds of gently ruminating ninja cows waiting for their moment to get even.
While there is lots of money in Vrede, the town remains a life-sized diorama of the apartheid years – obscenely segregated, with two sprawling locations defining the borders of an otherwise prosperous agricultural community. It is also a life-sized representation of what South Africa under the ANC has become: a small white community banking on legacy wealth, engaged in “legitimate” business (while not shying away from mopping up the odd tender after the original beneficiaries fail to deliver); a politically connected tenderpreneur class that feeds off Premier Ace Magashule’s largesse; a small caste of middle-class black farmers or farm-related business folk surviving on hard work and moxy, and a whole lot of poor people with little or no work.
Photo: While there is lots of money in Vrede, the town remains a life-sized diorama of the apartheid years – obscenely segregated, with two sprawling locations defining the borders of an otherwise prosperous agricultural community. (Photo by John Hogg for Daily Maverick)
In other words, the authorities have glommed onto the perfect metaphor for South African rot, and have duly started faffing about with investigations and prosecutions and the like.
You can forgive the cows their apparent circumspection.
More Pricks Than Kicks
Anyway, and for the record, here’s how the Estina scam worked.
According to a member of the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa, who didn’t want to be named due to an understandable fear of being killed by Ace’s network of local thugs, in the winter months of 2012, a Phumelela municipality vehicle outfitted with a loudhailer drove around town. A town crier called for “people who are interested in agriculture” to gather at the Mhlabunzima Hall. The meeting was addressed by none other than local Mafia don and agriculture MEC, Mosebenzi Zwane, who shortly thereafter won the Department of Mineral Resources portfolio from the Guptas President Zuma.
Zwane was the perfect swamp creature for the Zuma era, largely because he had no compunction in fucking over his neighbours. That day, he gave a speech about how a wonderful dairy project was going to transform the lives of local black people: a holistic programme that would result in the building of roads and a clinic, along with the dairy and its downstream initiatives, while kids would receive bursaries and the cows themselves would literally shit money. And thereafter they talk about the cash – the project would cost just over half a billion rand, and would require locals to sign up in order to become beneficiaries. Those who were accepted would have to agree to sell their cattle, and would then be given an allowance of a million rand each to purchase new stock, which would become part of the Estina co-operative.
All they needed to do, said Zwane, was sign on the dotted line, register, provide their ID numbers and other particulars, and then the funding would kick in.
“Since then, they’ve been waiting for money, for the construction to be finished, for the cattle to be purchased for the farm. They had a few more meetings for training, and were given guidelines. No one ever got money. Not a cent,” said the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa rep. “Meanwhile, for speaking out, we are facing death at any time.”
Indeed, not one of the beneficiaries I spoke with really believed that any of this bullshit would see the light of day. Press reports have made it seems as if the 80 or so beneficiaries from Phumelela Municipality were completely destitute and totally credulous, but this is not the case. Several are solidly middle class in the context of a Free State farming town, with side gigs and cattle of their own. But all of them were angry – more than that, they seemed offended that their time was wasted and their intelligence insulted by a regime that stole almost for the sake of it.
Photo: Silas Moeti Mokonehatsi (Photo: John Hogg for Daily Maverick)
Silas Moeti Mokonehatsi, a gaunt older man in a Hunter’s Dry cap, said, “We’re angry because they said we must sell cattle. Luckily I didn’t sell.” He has fourteen head, he told me, and if he had dumped them as per Zwane’s instructions, he wouldn’t have been able to send two of his kids to university, both of whom are currently being educated thanks to Mokonehatsi’s bovine bounty. “The children would have nothing,” he spat. Since 1995, he has had no formal work. His income comes from his battered sky-blue Toyota bakkie, circa 1982.
“I could have used the money,” he said.
Doctor Radebe, who has won a deserved measure of fame for blowing the whistle on all this nonsense, was once a Democratic Alliance councillor for the Phumelela municipality. His job, the way he tells it, was mostly to spot the scams, all of which were so plainly obvious that only a minimum amount of sentience was required.
“You could see form the beginning that this thing was represented by Zwane and his team from agriculture, and he came to us in the council and briefed us. You could see it was a scam. No business plan, no feasibility study, and no budget. I said, ‘How can you come and represent something when you don’t have a budget in your hands?’ They said they’ll finance it in the next financial year,” which would have been 2013.
Photo: Doctor Radebe (Photo: John Hogg for Daily Maverick)
On the ground in Vrede, Zwane was a political god. The municipality was governed by 15 councillors, three from the DA, and the rest from the ANC. All of the latter were Zwane’s people, including the mayor, John Motaung, who was shunted onto council following the 2011 election. Let’s just say that they were entranced by Zwane’s proposal, which from an objective standpoint kept getting dumber by the day.
Zwane’s department said that they wanted to lease 4,400 hectares of municipal land close to town, most of it rented at the time by commercials farmers for about R5-million a year. “I said, you can’t do that, because you’ll have to buy them out,” said Radebe, shaking his head. And so the farmers were bought out of their leases, and the agriculture department was also suckered into purchasing their crops. Already, the Estina project was a windfall for local farmers.
Except that all of those farmers were established and white.
After that, the entire project was removed from the aegis of the council. Radebe watched as the agriculture department took the IDs of the beneficiaries and used them in order to meet Black Economic Empowerment legislation requirements, and he watched as they raised their half a billion. In 2013, he watched them buy heifers, and he watched the department set up a contract stipulating that Estina owned 49% of the Vrede Dairy Project, while the beneficiaries owned 51%. He watched as a man named Kamal Vasram, the farm’s sole “director”, a former IT mouthbreather with no agricultural experience and serious links to the Guptas, managed to kill about 45 head of cattle, and dump them in the stream locals used as drinking water.
Radebe took it all to the media; amaBhungane took it live. Along with Daily Maverick’s Scorpio investigative team they broke it even further, employing the #GuptaLeaks emails. And the rest is history.
Doctor Radebe is now making a killing as a farmer. Business is booming. Cattle prices are nearing historic highs. But he still can’t help getting a little miffed at the state of the province’s financial affairs. He points out that Estina is still being funded by the province to the tune of R20-million a year. It is still paying R5-million for the lease. The lease contract between the municipality and premier’s office lasts for 11 years, so that’s a R55-million boondoggle right there. Then the premier’s office leases the land to the agriculture department, which in turn leases it to Estina for an agreed term of 99 years. The amount?
R0,00. Bupkes. Nothing.
The scam, you have to admit, is genius.
“Very clever,” agreed Radebe. “But before you think of arresting Zwane,” he said, “you have to arrest Ace.”
Crap’s Last Tape
Well, okay then. Two weeks ago, the Hawks paid a visit to Vrede, and stayed for the weekend, using the South African Police Service precinct house to interview 78 beneficiaries whose names were on a semi-official list. They were able to work off an Asset Forfeiture Unit State Capture report that made reference to the farm, which stated, “Only an amount of R2,425,461.28 out of a total [spent] of more than R220,202,652.00 was described as relates to farm activities.” A nice, round one percent. Good job, Guptas!
The Hawks also took the time to raid Ace Magashule’s office pertaining to the Vrede matter, and with good cause: you cannot run a country like this. Most regular people in Vrede seem to think that Ace wrangling himself the secretary-generalship of the ANC is a disgrace, but – like the ANC delegation from the Free State who helped engineer his rise during last year’s national electoral conference – it’s one they’re happy to facilitate if it means getting him the fuck out of the province.
With Zuma in political purgatory, humming the classic Clash song as delegations meet with him and try to convince him to step down, the rest of the country is dealing with his legacy. Ace, of course, knows that Zuma is his last best hope at survival, and he’s doing everything he can to extend Zuma’s political lifespan.
It’s embarrassing to watch.
And while Vrede has been placed squarely at Mosebenzi Zwane’s feet – the man was born to be a fall guy – it was as much Ace’s as it was anyone’s. There were a hundred beneficiary positions earmarked for the Estina scam, and Ace insisted on taking 20 of them for his own people. Ace took 20% of everything.
The man has now apparently been reduced to babbling like a fool at National Working Committee meetings, unused to not getting his way. And if the Hawks don’t take him down, the ANC’s own integrity commission will, triggering a special national general council that will erase his ass with extreme prejudice.
It’s important to remember, however, that Ace Magashule rose to power in the Free State long before Zuma was president. In fact, he’s part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. That doesn’t say anything positive about the ANC. Men like him, and like his boss, and like his boss’s bosses, are done.
There’ll be others after them. As Samuel Beckett put it, “You’re on Earth. No cure for that.” As if to underline that fact, later on Monday Mzwanele Manyi took to Twitter to post Soviet propaganda pictures from within Estina, carefully framing his shots so that the joint looked abundant with cows. Manyi was smiling like an ingrate, another willing patsy for his masters in Dubai. The cows, however, looked irritated.
Assholes like this will be around long after Zuma is gone. Vrede tells us everything anyone ever needed to know about how they operate. DM
Main photo: Following a munificent rainy season, the Free State resembles parts of Switzerland, with rolling hills and enormous skies. (Photo: John Hogg for Daily Maverick)
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.