PUBLIC PROTECTOR IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY
Ace Magashule and Mosebenzi Zwane directly implicated in Vrede Dairy project, says former investigator
Former Free State premier Ace Magashule and MEC for Agriculture Mosebenzi Zwane were not only directly implicated in the Vrede Dairy project, which paid the Gupta family’s company Estina more than R280-million for nothing in return, but they also ignored National Treasury recommendations on flagged procurement irregularities, according to evidence.
A former investigator at the Office of the Public Protector, advocate Nditsheni Raedani, gave evidence on Thursday at the Section 194 impeachment inquiry into suspended Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s fitness to hold office.
Raedani worked at the office from 2008 to 2018 under the previous Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, and also under Mkhwebane. He was a member of the team that dealt with Mkhwebane’s final Vrede report issued in February 2018.
The advocate said he became involved in the process in November 2017 when he received an instruction from Reginald Ndou, his executive manager in the business unit, that he would be on the team finalising the investigation report.
He said that when Mkhwebane revisited Madonsela’s original investigation, there was evidence that Magashule and Zwane were implicated in the Vrede project. Both had also ignored an instruction from the Treasury to take disciplinary action with regard to procurement irregularities.
Magashule, Zwane ‘clearly involved’
“They were clearly involved,” Raedani testified to the committee.
“The National Treasury report was very clear about what the premier and the MEC were supposed to do in terms of preventing any further irregularities,” said Raedani, referring to a separate independent report by the Treasury which had flagged irregularities and made recommendations.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Mkhwebane ignored Treasury red flags, #Guptaleaks evidence verifying Vrede shakedown, inquiry hears”
He said findings had been made against both senior leaders of the province.
The committee also heard that then DA leader Mmusi Maimane had personally introduced some of the Vrede project beneficiaries to investigators at the Public Protector’s office in 2017.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Public Protector hears of failed promises in Estina dairy scandal”
Maimane had requested a meeting on behalf of the beneficiaries, who were keen to have the investigation speeded up. Maimane had also undertaken to provide the Public Protector with the personal details and contact addresses of all the beneficiaries.
An undertaking was given to Maimane that the final report would be released “in a few months”.
Raedani said that by the time the investigation was being finalised, “information [the details of beneficiaries] was still outstanding”.
Raedani said that a memorandum, prepared by him and fellow investigators Tebogo Kekana and Muntu Sithole, set out the view that the conclusion of the agreement with Estina (a Gupta money-laundering front) had violated the Constitution and that the accounting officer had acted improperly in inflating prices.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Exclusive: Meet the whistleblower taking a stand against Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane”
This was also the view at the time of the task team that worked on the Vrede report in January 2018, Raedani told the committee.
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In the week of 5 February 2018, Raedani, Kekana and advocate Isaac Matlawe were summoned by Ndou to a meeting.
While Raedani said he had still awaited feedback from Mkhwebane on his memorandum about the investigators’ conclusions, Ndou had instructed him to finalise the Vrede report, “regardless of the issues that were raised and that we thought were outstanding”.
Raedani explained that the first draft had been circulated to Ndou after quality assurance checks and then to Ntsumbedzeni Nemasisi, senior manager for legal services, a position created under Mkhwebane’s watch.
A culture had begun to develop, he said, of reports from investigative branches being sent to Nemasisi, who would “look at these objectively to determine if the reports were reviewable or not”.
That same week of 5 February, Mkhwebane had called Raedani and Kekena to a meeting where she indicated her displeasure at the work done on the Vrede draft as this had not reflected “her instructions”.
Mkhwebane and Nemasisi then issued new instructions “on how to amend the report”.
The two investigators left the meeting and went straight to their offices “and carried out the instructions and amended the report”.
Tracking changes on the document later revealed that it was Nemasisi who had first added the matter of “diminished resources”, such as financial and capacity constraints, with regard to an inability to track the beneficiaries.
“Notable changes were made in respect of removing the findings,” Raedani said.
These were findings of gross irregularity, improper conduct, abuse of power and infringement of the Constitution in respect of the accounting officer’s “procurement activities”.
Previous versions of the draft had contained the finding that the Department of Agriculture had failed to adhere to procurement prescripts, while Mkhwebane claimed that the department never entered into a public/private partnership with Estina.
That no invoices or receipts had been forthcoming — and that neither the head of the Department of Agriculture, Peter Thabethe, nor the director of Estina had been questioned — were concerns Nemasisi had correctly raised, said Raedani.
Photographs had also been removed from the final report on instructions from Mkhwebane, he told the committee. Later, Raedani sat down with the Public Protector and other officials and went through the Vrede report “paragraph by paragraph” in preparation for its release.
“The PP would dictate to me what to type. Towards the end, the PP took my laptop and typed herself,” he said.
He had not agreed with these changes, he told the committee, and had warned Mkhwebane “about what legal experts might say” about the report.
“I don’t care,” Mkhwebane had responded, Raedani said.
The Vrede report was completed at 1opm and released the following day.
Mkhwebane was suspended from office on 9 June. The parliamentary impeachment hearings got under way on 11 July.
The inquiry continues. DM