South Africa

VREDE HEARING

Public Protector hears of failed promises in Estina dairy scandal

The newly appointed Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane during an interview on October 08, 2016 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

The emerging black farmers who were meant to benefit from the Vrede dairy farming project have told the Public Protector how Free State politicians sold them dreams while the Gupta-linked Estina made millions.

Phindile Ngwenya, 23, wasn’t one of the 80 emerging farmers meant to benefit from the Free State’s Vrede dairy project. Her father Philemon Ngwenya was.

On Thursday, she attended the Public Protector’s hearings with the intended beneficiaries of the project, which allegedly saw around R240-million siphoned off to the Gupta-linked company Estina, because her father could not be there.

He was murdered in October 2018.

No one has been convicted of his murder, but his daughter and other beneficiaries believe it was because he was outspoken about the alleged corruption, which implicates senior ANC politicians.

Phindile summarised her experience of politics in the area: “Empty promises. Killing people. You talk the truth, you die.”

Ngwenya’s murder hung over Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s hearing on Thursday at the Mhlabunzima Memorial Hall in Thembelihle, Vrede.

Due to the climate of fear and concern over recriminations, some people who were not beneficiaries were asked to leave and the media was prohibited from filming the faces of those who testified.

Some of them are worried that their lives are in danger and they do not want to be exposed,” said Mkhwebane.

The Public Protector’s report on the scandal, released in February 2018, highlighted gross procurement irregularities and maladministration in the Free State department of agriculture’s deal with Estina, but it did not tackle the involvement of implicated politicians, including former Free State premier and current ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule and former provincial agriculture MEC Mosebenzi Zwane – both linked to a number of allegations of corruption involving the Gupta family.

The Public Protector’s report also failed to assess the effects the failed project had on the 80 beneficiaries, who saw none of the benefits promised.

The Public Protector’s invitation to the meeting said it was “part of her own initiative investigation” to follow up on the gaps in the report, but on Thursday Mkhwebane said the initiative stemmed from a request from Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice.

The intended beneficiaries said Zwane, in meetings, had promised them training and jobs as part of the dairy farming project to help uplift their families and the community of Vrede. They were encouraged to sell their cattle and told that the government would buy them new livestock.

Zwane and his successor as provincial MEC of agriculture, Mamiki Qabathe, held meetings to try to convince small-scale farmers to join the programme, Mkhwebane heard. In a meeting with Zwane, beneficiaries were told they would receive a 51% stake in the new Agri-BEE company.

The group of prospective beneficiaries also met with Magashule, Mkhwebane heard.

We came to these meetings but when we came out we couldn’t understand or know what was happening,” said Ephraim Dlamini, one of the intended beneficiaries. He said during the meetings they were told not to ask about specific financial details regarding the project.

After listening to around 20 testimonies, Mkhwebane said, “It’s a very sad story because I think people were promised that they would benefit from the project but it’s very clear that they were only called, their details were taken and they were never involved in the running of the project.

The feedback is that promises were broken. They had high expectations,” she added.

She said the beneficiaries were also concerned that copies of their IDs had been taken, supposedly to Pretoria to process their applications, and they worried about how their personal details might have been used.

The Public Protector said it was a positive that no one sold their livestock to join the project.

All of them kept their livestock but the sad thing is they had expectations,” said Mkhwebane.

She said some farmers wanted the dairy farm to be sold and “sorry money” paid to beneficiaries. Some speakers appeared to distrust any attempt to restart the project. She said the Public Protector’s office did not have the power to order the farm to be sold and payments made.

A lot of them are saying they want the dairy farm to continue,” she said, citing beneficiaries who spoke about the need for jobs and development in the area.

Mkhwebane said she has already interviewed Magashule and will schedule interviews with Zwane and Qabathe. If any potential cases of criminality were found, she said she would refer them to the Hawks and NPA for investigation.

In November, the NPA provisionally withdrew charges against eight individuals linked to the alleged theft of R250-million in relation to the Estina dairy farm case because prosecutors could not access the information needed to prosecute the case.

The DA laid the original complaint with the Public Protector and the party’s Leona Kleynhaus, a member of the Free State provincial legislature, said she attended the hearing on Thursday at the request of the beneficiaries.

They’d never been given any information. They had never benefited in any way,” she said.

All I know is the injustice that has been perpetrated against these simple people is criminal,” Kleynhaus continued, “That is sadistic. I am glad that the Public Protector is finally hearing from these people themselves in their own words.” DM

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