Johannesburg - The former head of agriculture in the Free State has faced tough questions at the Zondo commission regarding why a low ranked Indian dairy producing company was chosen to help start a small scale farming project in the province.
Peter Thabethe, who is now a pensioner, appeared at the commission on Thursday.
He was the head of the department of agriculture when the decision to start the Vrede dairy farm project, in 2012, was conceptualised.
Thabethe was so central to the project that he told the commission that he did lots of research on the best dairy-producing countries which can be used as test cases and possible partnerships for the small scale project that his department wanted to create.
The Vrede Dairy Farm project was established by the Free State government to help uplift underprivileged farmers in the area.
The project was allocated R220 million and only R2 million was spent on the farm. None of the people who were destined to benefit received anything from the project.
The tender for the project was awarded to a company called Estina, which had links to the controversial Gupta family. The company was awarded the tender even though it had no history of running similar projects.
Thabethe was asked about the creation of the project which at first involved a partnership with a company called Paras Dairy, which is based in India.
He said he did a “desktop research” on the best dairy producing companies around the world. He said they settled with Paras because the company was run in a similar environment like South Africa.
He insisted that the decision to choose Paras Dairy was the best.
Commission chair deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo did not seem convinced by Thabethe’s reasoning why Paras was chosen.
“I remain concerned about the quality of the desktop research that you conducted. Particularly because when the office of Treasury asked you for the information you had relied on, you were not able to produce them,” Evidence leader Advocate Leah Gcabashe said.
Thabethe said: “I do not dispute the report, the commercial ventures that they (high-ranked dairy-producing countries) is different from what we wanted to do. There they are doing big turnovers, our situation was that we would not get to that level of production. We wanted to assist smallholders".
“We were comparing a country (India) which was similar to us. That’s what we looked at and said they would be similar to us.
Thabethe said after he did the “desktop” research he decided to travel to India and meet with officials from the company. His trip was approved by the then premier Ace Magashule’s office.
It was also approved by MEC Mosebenzi Zwane, who was his boss at the time. Zwane informed Thabethe that he would travel with a Mr Narayan, who was introduced as an adviser to the premier.
Thabethe faced tough questions from Zondo on why Narayan was chosen to come along for the trip. Thabethe said it was part of the protocol that officials should always travel with persons from the premier’s office.
“You are going to private business, not a government department, what’ the relevance of someone who must come for protocol purposes? Even if the person adds no value? Zondo asked.
“ I don’t know chair, Mr Zwane indicated to me that I should include Mr Narayan and he should come with me on the trip,” Thabethe said.
Thabethe also told the commission that Narayan’s trip was funded by the department of agriculture and not the office of the premier.
Gcabashe also revealed that Narayan was appointed as advisor to the premier after he the approval of his travel to India with Thabethe.
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.
Thabethe will continue with evidence on Friday.