/ 30 August 2023

Estina trial date set for August next year

Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane was Free State MEC for agriculture when the Estina dairy farm and Gupta wedding deal went down.
Former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane is one of the accused in the Estina fraud and corruption trial.

The Bloemfontein high court on Tuesday set down the R280 million Estina fraud and corruption trial for hearing in August next year.

The trial of the accused, among them former mineral resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane, is scheduled to run from 5 August to 13 September 2024. The 16 accused face charges of fraud, corruption, money laundering and contravening the Public Finance Management Act. 

The charges stem from the failed Vrede Dairy Farm project in the Free State, which was meant to empower emerging farmers but allegedly instead saw state funding flow to the Gupta family.

A slew of companies in the family’s business empire are listed as accused, among them Islandsite Investments and Oakbay Investments, as is Ronica Ragavan, who describes herself as the treasurer of several of the entities.

Ragavan, these financial entities and former Free State officials were among the main accused in the Nulane case, the first state capture trial, which ended in bitter defeat for the National Prosecuting Authority in April.

The high court granted the discharge of the accused for lack of evidence and has denied the authority leave to appeal. It has, however, been mulling directly approaching the supreme court of appeal.

The Nulane and Estina cases are closely linked, as the alleged fraud committed in the first enabled that in the second. 

Officials in the Free State awarded a contract for a feasibility study to Nulane Investments, founded by former Transnet board member Iqbal Sharma, which allowed it to pinpoint Paras, an Indian firm linked to the Gupta family, as the preferred entity to lead a dairy farm project in the province.

Shortly afterwards, Paras appointed Estina (Pty) Ltd — accused number 5 in the matter — as its agent for dairy ventures in South Africa. And, in May 2012, Paras and Estina submitted a proposal to the department for what would become the R570 million Vrede project. 

The department would contribute R342 million, with R30 million due upfront, and Estina R228 million.

It is described in the charge sheet as “a front company used by the Gupta family members and their associates to extract public funds from the department” of agriculture and rural development in the Free State.

The company laundered money that the provincial department contributed to the dairy farm through various bank accounts, before it was “ultimately distributed to companies owned by members of the Gupta family and to their associates in the United Arab Emirates”, the prosecution alleges.

Zwane, who served as the member of the executive council for agriculture and rural development at the time, is implicated in corruption in the conclusion of the deal with Estina and in approving payments and providing rent-free land to the company.

The charges in the Nulane and Estina cases underpinned the state’s failed application for the extradition of Atul and Rajesh Gupta from the United Arab Emirates. 

The South African government learnt at Easter that it had been dismissed by a Dubai court but has said it will continue to seek the surrender of the fugitive brothers.

The charge sheet in the Estina case describes them as having been “personally involved, in many ways” in the business of the company and having acted in concert with many of the accused to ensure the money flowed to them.

The Guptas fled South Africa in 2016. Estina was liquidated the following year.