It Took 10 Years, Vrede Dairy Now In Hands Of Beneficiaries

Voiced by Amazon Polly

The controversial Estina Vrede Dairy Farm Project in the Free State, which remains the subject of a more than R280 million fraud court matter, was finally handed over to 65 verified beneficiaries on Friday. 

Free State Premier Sisi Ntombela handed the project to the beneficiaries 10 years after it was established

The Vrede Dairy Project is a dairy project established in 2012 on Krynaauwslust Farm, near the town of Vrede, Free State. 

It was established as a public-private partnership with Estina, a Black Economic Empowerment company, as part of the Free State provincial government’s agricultural project, Mohoma-Mobung.

Estina was given the land under a free 99-year lease. 

The aim of the dairy project was to empower black farmers, but bank statements show that no payments were made to black beneficiaries – instead, the money was siphoned off to India allegedly by the fugitive Gupta brothers.

Several people have been arrested and brought before the courts in connection with the matter including businessman Iqbal Sharma and three former Free State agriculture department officials Peter Thabethe, Dr. Limakatso Moorosi, and Seipati Dlamini. 

Gupta-owned company Islandsite Investments Pty Ltd co-director Ronica Ragavan is also an accused in the fraud and money laundering case.

Last month the matter was transferred to the high court in Bloemfontein, where it was postponed to 23 February 2022 to resolve pretrial matters.

On Friday Premier Ntombela finally handed over the project to the rightful beneficiaries.

Commenting on the development, Public Protector Adv. Busisiwe Mkhwebane said, “this development concludes the implementation of the public protector’s remedial action”.

Adv. Mkhwebane on Friday said she “welcomes Free State Premier Ms. Sisi Ntombela’s handover today of the Estina Integrated Dairy Farm project to members of the Vrede community who were meant to benefit from the project when it was first launched in 2013”.

Her remedial action directed the provincial MEC for Agriculture and Rural Development to see to it that an audit of all those who were meant to benefit from the project is conducted.

“From the audit, a database of beneficiaries had to be developed, taking into account the heirs of the intended beneficiaries who passed away while waiting for the project to take shape,” explained Adv. Mkhwebane. 

The MEC also had to ensure that the project was revived and that the beneficiaries participate fully as collective holders of a 51% stake in the business.

The remedial action was informed by findings that the provincial Executive Council failed to execute its constitutional oversight responsibilities on the project. 

In addition, Premier Ntombela had to see to it that the Speaker of the Provincial Legislature tables the report in the legislature for discussion and that members of EXCO were inducted and trained on their accountability and oversight responsibilities. 

During the Zondo Commission inquiry into state capture evidence was led about how Free State Social Development MEC Mamiki Qabathe hurled insults at aggrieved Vrede Dairy Farm beneficiaries for speaking to media on the botched project.

“The premier also had to consider the findings in so far as they related to Ms. Qabathe and consider an appropriate sanction against her,” said Adv. Mkhwebane.

“The Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation was directed to consider the report alongside their own investigation into the matter for possible criminal charges.” 

Adv. Mkhwebane said reports received from the respective offices of the premier and the agriculture and rural development MEC indicated that all directives applicable to the two offices have been implemented.

“We are pleased that our investigations continue to be of value to society and, in particular, grassroots communities,” said Adv. Mkhwebane. 

“We commend the provincial government of the Free State for adhering to the directives of independent institutions supporting constitutional democracy such as the Public Protector”.

The public protector congratulated the beneficiaries and urged them to make the most of the opportunity, saying the project would go a long way in helping tackle joblessness, poverty, and hunger in the province.