South Africa

Public Protector: Controversial Vrede dairy report completed before Mkhwebane took office

By Rebecca Davis 6 March 2018

Appearing before MPs in Parliament on Tuesday, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane received a grilling about her office’s controversial report on the Vrede dairy farm, labelled a “whitewash” by opposition politicians. But Mkhwebane’s defence was simple: she was not responsible for preparing the report. By the time Mkhwebane took office in January 2017, she says the report was already complete. By REBECCA DAVIS.

When Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane quietly released a report into the Vrede dairy scam in early February, it was greeted with some consternation. Absent from the report was any mention of the Gupta family, who are now wanted by the Hawks as a result of their involvement in the project. Also absent: any attempt to investigate the role that Free State provincial leaders Ace Magashule and Moswebenzi Zwane may have played in setting up the farm, which investigations have shown helped siphon off government funds into Gupta bank accounts.

But those hoping that Mkhwebane would have answers for these omissions were left disappointed after her parliamentary appearance on Tuesday morning.

Appearing before the justice committee, Mkhwebane told MPs that the report was completed by the time she took office in January 2017.

The investigation was finalised in 2014,” she said, and by 2015 the Public Protector “think tank” – the internal unit responsible for discussing reports – had already decided that the report was ready for publication.

When the DA complained to Mkhwebane after she took office that the report was long overdue, she went back to check on its status and found that the report was ready.

The fact that the investigation had been undertaken several years ago, Mkhwebane said, was one reason why it did not look into the involvement of the Guptas. By the time the #Guptaleaks revelations had been published in 2017, “the investigation had long been completed”.

Beyond this, however, Mkhwebane said that the original complaint – laid by DA Free State leader Roy Jankielsohn – failed to mention the Guptas.

The report was focusing on totally different issues,” she said.

The DA’s Glynnis Breytenbach pointed out that Mkhwebane could have decided to incorporate new information into the investigation as it came to light – relating to serious allegations of corruption, money laundering and theft.

There was nothing preventing you from extending the scope of the report,” Breytenbach said. “Why didn’t you?”

Mkhwebane reiterated that the report had only focused on maladministration and financial mismanagement, as directed by the original complaint.

That is not stopping any (future) complaint from being launched, and we can investigate,” she said.

The Public Protector dismissed the idea that she should have incorporated into the report information made available by investigative reporting in the media.

We don’t just take information from the media and include it in the report,” she said.

Mkhwebane declined to go into much further detail because the report has been taken on review by the DA and the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC), and as such she invoked the sub judice protection.

Opposition MPs were clearly dissatisfied, but not left with much room to manoeuvre. Asked why she didn’t hold a media briefing to accompany the release of the Vrede report – as her predecessor Thuli Madonsela used to – Mkhwebane simply replied that she was not obliged to do so.

The EFF’s Nthako Matiase reprimanded Mkhwebane for “an attitude of ‘I don’t care’,” and lamented the fact that no politicians have thus far been held accountable for the Vrede scam.

If we ever thought Nkandla was scandalous, this is worse,” he said.

But in the end, the most dramatic statements of a slow morning were made by members of advocacy group Black Land First, who filed into the committee room late and took up standing positions against the wall.

Upon a signal, the BLF members removed rolled-up posters from their clothes and unfurled them to reveal messages of support for the Public Protector: a silent protest.

Photo: Members of advocacy group Black Land First held a silent protest in support of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Photo: Leila Dougan.

Unless those who are raising the banners lower them, they will have to be removed by people who are entitled to retain order in the proceedings of Parliament,” committee chair Mathole Motshekga warned.

The posters stayed up, and Parliament security proceeded to usher the BLF members relatively peacefully out of the room.

In a subsequent statement, BLF termed the justice committee “nothing but a kangaroo court in defence of white monopoly capital”. DM

Photo: Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane appears before Parliament’s justice committee, 6 March 2018. Photo: Leila Dougan

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