The Zondo commission of inquiry probing allegations of state capture on Tuesday grilled a former top Free State government official over his failure to provide proper oversight on the multi-million rand Gupta-linked Estina dairy project.
Peter Thabethe, who was the head of the Free State agriculture and rural development department when the Estina deal was signed in July 2012, tried to distance himself from the mismanagement of the project. He told the commission chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo that after the department terminated its agreement with Estina it requested the Free State Development Corporation (FDC) to manage the project and made the recommendation to then-premier Ace Magashule’s provincial executive council for the FDC to manage it.
Thabethe defended the department’s decision to give the FDC R20 million to assist in managing the project. He said the FDC’s appointment did not go through any competitive bidding process because it is a state-owned entity.
But evidence leader Leah Gcabashe appeared unhappy with Thabethe’s responses.
”You can’t pass the buck all the time when you are the head of department,” said Gcabashe, adding that she found it difficult to accept an answer that the department’s lawyers took care of entering into the FDC deal. But Thabethe insisted that the department’s contract with the FDC was very clear. We wouldn’t enter into contract and not allocate a budget,” he insisted.
Gcabashe said cattle and feed were being stolen while milk was sold in Vrede but it is unclear whether this was done legitimately. The department did not monitor the project when Estina was still on site,” Gcabashe said.
Thabethe responded: “The fact that things were happening does not mean we were not monitoring”. He said the missing cattle did not mean the department did not verify their numbers.
”We knew what was happening on the ground,” Thabethe maintained. Gcabashe said she had doubts that the department knew what was happening at Estina.
Thabethe said he believed that the R900m project in the Free State town of Vrede could still be turned around for implementation. Despite having last visited the project in 2015/16, Thabethe said he still believe that the project can still be made viable and revitalised for the benefit of the 100 beneficiaries who are small scale farmers around the Phumelela Local Municipality, which includes Vrede, Warden and Memel.
The commission has previously heard from former DA Phumelela councillor Doctor Radebe that Thabethe told a council meeting in 2012 that the provincial agriculture department had budgeted R400m for the project and that Indian dairy company Paras would inject another R500m.
However, Gcabashe said the company only had R16 in its bank account the day before the provincial government deposited R30m after an agreement was signed in July 2012 and due diligence had not been done on Estina. Thabethe is scheduled to conclude his testimony next month.
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