Justice Raymond Zondo who heads the commission of Inquiry into State Capture. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

Johannesburg - Mosebenzi Zwane, now chair of Parliament's portfolio committee on transport, took a gospel choir from his home town Vrede, in the Free State on an all-expenses paid trip to India instead of emerging farmers meant to go receive training on dairy farming, the state capture commission of inquiry heard on Tuesday.

Ephraim Dhlamini, a resident at Thembalihle township in Vrede, testified on how the failed Vrede farming project was initiated by Zwane. He said Zwane called a public meeting back in 2012 in Vrede.

Dhlamini said he owns 52 cattle kept on municipal land and is also a chairperson of a local farmers association at Vrede. 

"Zwane arrived with [local Phumelela municipality] mayor [Tlokotsi] Motaung, [department officials] Thuto and Khulaiza Sibeko. There were almost a hundred people at the hall in the township. Zwane addressed the meeting, telling us about a new dairy farm project. Milk would also be processed into yoghurt and cheese. We then wrote down our names after grouping ourselves into various teams for the work coming up."

Dhlamini said he knew Zwane and his family very well, especially his father who was a local pastor.

He said things happened very quickly after the first meeting. A 4400 hectare of land was put on a 99-year lease and earmarked to start dairy farming. Follow up meetings were held to inform budding emerging farmers on the project. 

Zwane told the group at a second meeting that government would purchase 10 cows for each beneficiary, that they would use to produce milk at the farm.

Furthermore, Dhlamini said ownership would be split between government and emerging farmers and that red meat cattle owners could opt to sell their cows and buy a stake in the project. Zwane told them that surplus profit would be used to benefit the community through the construction of roads and the establishment of a bursary fund. 

The budding farmers would also be taken to India, the world's second-biggest milk producer after the United States of America, where they would be trained in dairy farming and milk processing.

"Although I wasn't interested in dairy farming because I am a red meat cattle farmer, I was pleased. We were impressed and happy, especially when we heard that we were to be taken to India for training for a job of your choice in the project. We were very happy," Dhlamini said.

He said that a committee was formed and led by June Mahlaba to represent beneficiaries at the dairy farm. 

The India trip was not for the emerging farmers, said Dhlamini. Zwane and some of the department officials instead took a local gospel choir members on the trip.

"They [choir members] didn't stay long because they got sick from the spicy Indian food there. His father was a pastor and there was a well-known choir in the township."

Commission chairman Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo asked: "Are you saying that he took his choir for training instead of wannabe farmers?"

Dlhamini replied: "Yes, the youngsters [choir members] told us. They said they were trained on dairy farming for a few days there."

He said that later on, a Miss Meyer from then premier Ace Magashule's office called another meeting, requesting the black emerging farmers to bring along identity documents. Dlhamini said he was sceptical.

"I held a meeting a day before with the farmers, urging them not to hand over their identity documents because I had heard rumours that funds have been paid by the national department of agriculture, and government needed the names of the beneficiaries for the project," he said. 

"I had also heard during a meeting in Bethlehem that there was infighting in the diary project where questions were raised as to who were beneficiaries because funds were paid. Well, they didn't take my advice they made copies and handed them over to Miss Meyer. I followed suit."

The black farmers waited again but nothing came forth. Some sold their cattle for a stake in the dairy project but were still kept waiting, he said.

Dhlamini said he later complained to then minister of agriculture and land reform Senzeni Zokwana at an imbizo in Frankfort. He said he told Zokwana that relatives who work at the dairy farm talked about members of the Gupta family being present at the farm who spoke in a foreign accent and could not speak English properly.

"I told him [Zokwana] that our IDs were taken to start a dairy project but we haven't received anything and that we were promised to go train in India and that didn't happen either, meaning there was criminality there and yet our IDs were used."

Dhlamini said he requested Zokwana to help. Zokwana, he said, objected and said Dhlamini should not use people's names wrongly. 

"It seemed minister Zokwana did not want me to mention the Guptas.  [Departmennt official] Thabethe intervened and said he would sort out diary project issue," he said.

The email trove dubbed GuptaLeaks in 2017 revealed how Zwane took 24 people on the India trip in October 2012.  The now-defunct Gupta-owned newspaper The New Age had sponsored caps and t-shirts for members of the Umsingizane gospel choir and provincial officials. 

African News Agency (ANA)