A dairy farm turned out to be a classic South African fraud, prosecutors say: Millions of dollars from state coffers, meant to uplift the poor, vanished in a web of bank accounts controlled by politically connected companies and individuals. Credit Joao Silva/The New York Times
Bloemfontein - Former Free State Premier Ace Magashule and the two MECs for agriculture who were in office when the failed Vrede Integrated Dairy Project was initiated will not be called to account before the provincial legislature, a joint portfolio committee meeting ruled on Wednesday.

This means Magashule and the MEC who started the project, Mosebenzi Zwane, as well as Mamiki Qabathe who was responsible for part of the implementation will not be called to answer questions relating to the project in which the provincial government spent about R230 million but there is nothing to show for it.

The decision was arrived at after the ANC used its majority vote following a marathon meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and Finance as well as that of Economic Development.

The DA leader in the Free State Provincial Legislature Roy Jankielsohn described the move as a ploy to protect the politicians who were in office at the time and are directly linked the controversial project.

One ANC MPL (Member of the Provincial Legislature) said that summoning these individuals to account would be a waste of time, he told the media soon after the vote.

The meeting was called by the provincial legislature to get reports from different departments and organisations on the work done as well as the money spent of the project which involves the controversial Gupta family and their associates.

The main presentations were given by the Free State Development Corporation (FDC) and the provincial treasury which gave a breakdown of the funds it released towards the project.

The FDC was given to run the Vrede Dairy Project by the provincial agriculture department when it severed relations with Estina (Pty) Ltd in September 2014. The FDC in turn, contracted E’tsho to run the project.

The ANC used its majority in a vote to protect the political architects of the controversial Vrede Dairy Project from being held accountable, said Jankielsohn in a statement soon after the vote in which the media was not allowed.

He said the DA was actually not surprised that the ANC would close ranks around fellow comrades implicated in the controversial project, adding that all talk of a “New Dawn” under President Cyril Ramaphosa was nothing but an election gimmick giving people false hope.

He said it was just like the false hope given to the intended beneficiaries of the project, who have to date not received any benefit at all despite a massive R230 million spent on this project.

It is a great disappointment that the committee, empowered by the Constitution to hold the e xecutive to account, now deliberately shies away from doing its work – thanks to the ANC majority.

The 80 beneficiaries who have been sidelined by the Free State provincial government from the beginning, are continuously being denied justice, and the Free State Provincial Legislature, which had an opportunity to bring to them some recourse, have failed them terribly, said an angry Jankielsohn.

He said the DA would not give up the fight as it had championed the plight of the beneficiaries from the beginning.

"We will continue to push for political accountability. Magashule, current Speaker Mamiki Qabathe and Zwane cannot run away from their complicity in this delinquent scheme that has only ever benefited the Guptas, Estina, E’tsho, and connected ANC cadres," he said.

According to the presentation by the provincial treasury, the Vrede Dairy Project was supposed to cost a total of R570 million when it was initiated in 2012.

The provincial agricultural department was expected to contribute about R342 million payable in three equal instalments of R114 million.

Estina was to come up with funding of about R228 million towards the project but it never paid anything and it wasn’t penalised for that.

Estina, which was initially given a 99 year lease on the project, was kicked out in 2014.

The new agriculture MEC Benny Malakoane did not give a report and said he was still studying the situation in order to compile his own report.

Phumelela Local Municipality, was expected to present a report on a piece of land with a guesthouse bought by Estina (Pty) Ltd in 2012 and was sold to Prasad Chadrama about four years later in 2016.

The municipality only sent a letter explaining the transaction but the committee wanted to know who Chadrama is as he is believed to been working for Estina when he bought the guesthouse, which could be a conflict of interest.

Records at the Deeds Office indicate that Estina bought the place for about R1.2 million and sold it for R1.35 million.

The joint committee meeting agreed that the matter should be handed over the Hawks for further investigations.