Ace Magashule failed to ensure accountability in Vrede project, finds public protector

Vrede farm beneficiaries were 'sold empty dreams', says Busisiwe Mkhwebane

21 December 2020 - 16:51
Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has found that there was political interference and improper conduct in the Vrede dairy farm project.
Public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has found that there was political interference and improper conduct in the Vrede dairy farm project.
Image: Esa Alexander

There was definite political interference in the Vrede dairy farm project, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane said on Monday.

And, she said, her office had referred its latest report into the controversial Free State farming project to the National Prosecuting Authority's investigative directorate as part of the evidence in the ongoing investigation.

The report fingers, among others, former Free State premier Ace Magashule, former human settlements MEC Mosebenzi Zwane, former human settlements director-general Elizabeth Rockman, social development MEC Mamiki Qabathe and former agriculture department head Peter Thabethe.

Mkhwebane was speaking on Monday as her office released its quarterly investigation reports.

In the Vrede case, the public protector was tasked with investigating whether there was any political interference in the project, which was aimed at assisting emerging farmers. If there was, she was then tasked with probing whether this amounted to maladministration and improper conduct in terms of section 6(4) of the Public Protector Act.

The project yielded no results, and instead saw more than R330m paid to Estina, a Gupta-linked company.

Mkhwebane ruled that there was indeed political interference and improper conduct.

“It is unfortunate that the beneficiaries were sold an empty dream by those who were elected and responsible to change the local community’s lives for the better,” she said.

Mkhwebane said the evidence she considered to arrive at the conclusion confirmed the presence of people linked to the Gupta family and to politicians. It showed how the project was conceptualised and implemented.

“I therefore find that Magashule and Zwane, Qabathe and Rockman, failed to execute their oversight responsibilities entrusted to them in terms of sections 125, 133, 136 and 195 of the constitution, even after they received the NTAG’s report which was notifying the FSPG (provincial government) of improprieties relating to the Vrede dairy project,” she said.

“The constitution, as highlighted in my analysis of evidence, places a great responsibility on members of the provincial exco to provide leadership, guidance and oversight to the provincial administration while also holding such state functionaries accountable, which they failed to do.

“The conduct of Magashule and Zwane, Qabathe and Rockman in this regard therefore amounts to maladministration and improper conduct in terms of section 6(4) of the Public Protector Act.”

Mkhwebane said the allegation that the provincial executive council improperly appropriated funds to ensure the payment of Estina, even after DARD’s (agriculture and rural development department) cancellation of the contract, was substantiated.

“I therefore find that Magashule and Zwane, Qabathe and Rockman, and the subsequent appointed MEC’s of DARD, failed to execute their oversight responsibilities entrusted to them in terms of section 125, 133, 136 and 195 of the constitution by approving the appropriation of additional funding for the project after receiving the NTAG’s report and even after termination of the Estina contract,” she said. 

Mkhwebane said the conduct of Zwane, Thabethe and Qabathe in failing to ensure proper oversight, accountability, management and implementation of the project by Estina resulted in the beneficiaries being prejudiced by termination of the contract, “thereby causing them a loss of the benefit of development and their 51% shareholding in the project as undertaken in all subsequent interactions with the community members”. 

The office of the public protector has ordered the premier of the Free State to take action within 30 working days.

The action should include issuing Qabathe with an appropriate sanction for failure to exercise oversight responsibility as the MEC.

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