Editorial: Milked taxpayers left in the dark

Free State Premier Ace Magashule. (Gallo)

Free State Premier Ace Magashule. (Gallo)

No one would guess from the response of the Free State agriculture department and the office of the provincial premier, Ace Magashule, that they are at the centre of a major scandal surrounding a bizarre dairy scheme in the town of Vrede.

Neither has bothered to answer amaBhungane's questions about the project, indicating that they feel no need to account for R342-million of public funds.

National treasury investigators feel differently, according to a leaked document revealed in today's Mail & Guardian. It graphically highlights the growing disbelief of a forensic investigator who, as part of a treasury probe, interrogated a senior Free State official, Dipatle Dlamini, about the project.

The clearly stunned investigator learned that the provincial government handed a king’s ransom to a private company, Estina, without due diligence, a tender process, budget or market research; before a feasibility study was conducted; and without independent monitoring of how the money was spent.

No attempt was apparently made to verify claims that a large Indian corporation, Paras, was to provide backing, and Dlamini did not appear to know that Paras has publicly disclaimed any involvement.

There is still no clarity about the identity of the "beneficiaries", who are allegedly in line to receive 51% of the shares. Local emerging farmers were made promises in October last year – only after the whistle was blown – but, as we report today, nothing further has transpired.

The obvious question is: Why was Estina favoured in this way, and why the unseemly haste in forcing through such a costly, half-cocked undertaking? Could political pressure from above provide an explanation?

Magashule cannot claim ignorance: his legal adviser drafted the Estina contract and his legislature approved it.

By rights, a scandal of this magnitude should spell the political demise of Magashule, a political deployee who seems to have little idea about his responsibilities as a government leader.

But the treasury, which has received the investigator's report, seems to be paralysed. Is this because of the political sensitivities surrounding the dairy – and Magashule’s role as one of the most vocal Zuma cheerleaders in the ruling party?

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