Durban - The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) has swooped on a R20 million KwaZulu-Natal farm - sold as part of the government’s land redistribution programme - and found that corrupt officials had allegedly swindled scores of poor farmers out of the lucrative deal.

Armed with a high court order, members of the SIU, the police’s Anti-Corruption Task Team and the Assets Forfeiture Unit raided Elizabeth Farm near Melmoth in northern KZN on Tuesday.

The farm was placed under curatorship while investigators hone in on the key roleplayers – believed to be officials from the provincial Department of Rural Development and Land Reform. They allegedly forged government documents and got illiterate farm workers to sign trustee forms they had no clue about.

This was the second raid this month on a Melmoth farm.

Two weeks ago the SIU placed the 2 100ha Boschhoek Farm under curatorship, 18 months after it was sold for R49m in what the SIU suspect was a dodgy deal.

According to well-placed sources in the SIU and AFU, the raids were part of a wider probe into the “suspicious sales” of more than 30 farms funded by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, for land redistribution.

Many of the farms are believed to have fallen into the hands of corrupt officials in the past four years.

The SIU, whose mandate is to recover and prevent financial losses to the state caused by acts of corruption, fraud and maladministration, began its probe into farm sales in 2011.

The raid on Elizabeth Farm this week is the culmination of a two-year investigation.

According to an affidavit filed in the Pietermaritzburg High Court by KZN deputy director of public prosecutions, Knorx Molelle, the department funded the sale of the farm based on a fraudulent designation memorandum presented to it by one of its officials.

The deal for the farm came after the land owners agreed to sell it to the community of KwaYanguye, which the department was told consisted of people who “work full time on the project”.

It was envisaged that the beneficiaries would work and become involved in commercial farming and tourism and that the profits attained would be shared among them.

A Land Redistribution for Agricultural Development grant was applied for which would cover land acquisition costs, or the cost of acquiring shares for qualifying beneficiaries.

The intended beneficiaries of the grant are primarily small-scale farmers able to make their own contribution, but who need top-up funding to cover their land purchases.

Politicians holding public office and government employees are not eligible for the grant.

The Nkayishana Trust was set up to facilitate the deal.

According to documents given to the land department, the trust had 146 beneficiaries.

In June 2009 Elizabeth Farm was transferred to Nkayishana Trust.

The department paid a total R20 053 830 based on 146 beneficiaries and each were allocated a grant of R137 355.

The acquisition of Elizabeth Farm amounted to R17.6m, leaving the balance for development purposes, court papers state.

An investigation into the deal uncovered several irregularities.

SIU investigators were able to track down 76 of the listed beneficiaries and obtained statements from 68 of them.

The statements reveal that of the 68 beneficiaries interviewed:

* 46 had never worked on Elizabeth Farm at any time.

* 51 had never been to Elizabeth Farm or resided there.

* 65 have not benefited financially from the acquisition.

* Two of the beneficiaries were employed at the Department of Education and three were employed at the Department of Transport.

* 32 did not know they were beneficiaries.

* None currently worked on the farm.

According to investigators, of the three who said they had benefited financially from the farm, one said he was paid R450 on two occasions - once when he worked on the farm, the other when he was given money for transport to return home.

Two others said they were paid R200 each for helping with the compilation of the beneficiary list at the time of the application for the grant.

Among the irregularities discovered by investigators were that nine beneficiary identity numbers were invalid and the sexes of 10 beneficiaries were wrong.

At least four beneficiaries had died.

No arrests have been made but investigators are at an advanced stage in their probe.

Daily News