Former Free State agriculture department head Peter Thabethe. Photo: SABC screengrab/YouTube.

Johannesburg - The former head of agriculture in the Free State battled to account on how Estina, a Gupta-linked company, was chosen as a local partner for the Free State Vrede dairy farm even though the company lacked experience. 

Peter Thabethe, a retired former head of the department of agriculture, returned for a second day on the stand on Friday at the Zondo commission. 

He continued to face tough questions from commission chair deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo and evidence leader Advocate Leah Gcabashe. 

On Thursday, Thabethe detailed how he spearheaded the now failed Vrede dairy farm project and how he did “desktop” research to find the best dairy producing company to partner with on the project meant to uplift underprivileged farmers. 

He said he settled on Paras Dairy, an Indian company, which he said was the best choice to partner with on the project because the company collected dairy from small producers which was what his department had planned to do. 

On Friday, he detailed how he travelled to India with an Ashok Narayan, who he said was an adviser to premier Ace Magashule. He said Narayan was helpful on the trip as a translator between the Paras representatives in New Delhi and him. 

Thabethe said he was quite satisfied with the outcome of the trip and a representative from Paras flew down to South Africa to talk further on the project. He said it was then that it was decided that Paras would need a local partner if it was to do business with the provincial government. 

He said it was then that Estina came into the picture as a local partner for Paras.

Thabethe battled to answer questions on whether he had interrogated Estina as the perfect partner for the project. 

He maintained that locally they checked on the company’s registration and tax compliance which was the only things that needed to be a line before a business deal could take place with the government. 

Zondo appeared unconvinced by the explanation and pressed Thabethe on why a more an in-depth investigation was not done on Estina and whether it was legal or not. 

“So your only interest in Estina was that they were tax compliant, nothing else?” Zondo asked. 

Thabethe said: “What we wanted was with Paras”. 

“And what they (Estina) were involved in you were not interested in in terms of their business? You are the head of a government department and you have identified a company in India that you want to work and you need a local company to be involved in the project. I would have thought that at least you would be interested in whether this company is involved in the same sector and even if it is what experience do they have and how are they run and who are the directors?” Zondo asked. 

“You did not mind that their business was not involved in the agriculture sector?”

Thabethe responded; “We did not do it (extensive research) because we have never done it with any other company”. 

Gcabashe introduced evidence that Estina had no background in agriculture when it was chosen as a local partner for Paras. Estina was a commercial business venture before October 2012. 

Thabethe insisted that he was not interested in the services offered by Paras as that was the main company that had the experience needed in the project. 

The Vrede dairy farm project was allocated over R200 million by the Free State government. Only 2% of the funds were allocated to the project and none of the small farmers who were meant to benefit saw any of the funds. 

Last year, Thabethe and a few Gupta associates were arrested and charged for their involvement in the project. In February 2018 his home and the Guptas' properties were raided. The charges were later provisionally withdrawn by the national prosecuting authority. 

Political Bureau