Vrede farmers lost trust in Mkhwebane, Zondo commission hears

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane released her report on the multimillion-rand Vrede Dairy Project — initiated by the Free State government in 2012 as part of its efforts to boost the province’s agricultural economy — in February last year. (Gallo)

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane released her report on the multimillion-rand Vrede Dairy Project — initiated by the Free State government in 2012 as part of its efforts to boost the province’s agricultural economy — in February last year. (Gallo)

Local farmers who were supposed to benefit from the failed Gupta-linked dairy project at Vrede in the Free State lost trust in Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Wednesday.

During his appearance before the commission, chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, Ephraim Dhlamini, a small-scale farmer in Vrede and the chair of the African Farmers Association, revealed that the intended beneficiaries of the Vrede Dairy Project confronted Mkhwebane because they felt they had been excluded from her investigation into the matter.

Mkhwebane released her report on the multimillion-rand Vrede Dairy Project — initiated by the Free State government in 2012 as part of its efforts to boost the province’s agricultural economy — in February last year.

The report sparked public criticism after it failed to make findings against Ace Magashule, who was the Free State premier during the establishment of the farm, and Mosebenzi Zwane, the MEC for agriculture at that time.

The Pretoria high court ruled to set aside Mkhwebane’s report on the Vrede Dairy Project, ruling that the report was unconstitutional.

The court found that the public protector “failed to investigate the impact of the project on the so-called ‘farm empowerment’ partner promoted by Mr Zwane, or the impact on the approximately eighty beneficiaries, who were supposed to have benefited as stakeholders in the project”.

On Wednesday, Dhlamini said the group of beneficiaries felt excluded from the public protector’s investigation.

“We heard that she came and visited the Vrede dairy project ... but she never came to see us ...
That really surprised us,” Dhlamini said.

Dhlamini said Mkhwebane did not consult the beneficiaries when she compiled the report. He explained that before the report was released last year, 15 beneficiaries visited the public protector’s office in Pretoria to ask her to consult them.

In April 2018, Mkhwebane resolved to re-open her investigation into the dairy project to allow her to focus on the “roles of the politicians”.

Dhlamini recounted a 2019 meeting in Vrede between Mkhwebane and the beneficiaries.

He said that after the meeting, he thanked the public protector but informed her that he did not trust her to get back to them on the matter.

“Even now I do not trust her,” he said.

On Tuesday, Dhlamini detailed Zwane’s involvement in the project, which is located in his hometown.

He recounted a 2012 meeting at a community hall in Thembalihle Township in Vrede during which Zwane told farmers that the dairy project “would bring jobs to the impoverished, help build a clinic and fix the roads”.

Dhlamini said he knows Zwane personally. “I even know the father,” he said.

“He [Zwane] had a sense of humour and he was there cracking jokes and saying that he knows us personally and where we grew up and where we are coming from and that he wants to do good things for all of us,” Dhlamini added.

At another meeting Zwane told the farmers that they would each be allocated 10 dairy cows through the project and that the farmers would go to India to undergo training in large-scale dairy farming, Dhlamini said.

“Zwane, instead of taking the farmers to India for training, took his church choir to India,” he said.

The details of Zwane’s all-expenses-paid trip to India with his gospel choir in October 2012 emerged in the so-called Gupta leaks emails. The trip was allegedly paid for by the Guptas.

On Tuesday Dhlamini said they were told by people working on the dairy project that the Guptas were involved in the project.

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law. Read more from Sarah Smit

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