New light on the murky murder of Estina whistleblower
Four suspects are expected to make their second court appearance in court on Friday
Free State police have made a breakthrough in the murder case of Vrede farmer Philemon Ngwenya, who was killed in 2018.
Ngwenya was a disappointed beneficiary who became a vocal critic of the controversial Gupta-linked Estina dairy farm project. He was found murdered in his shack on a farm he and other farmers were renting for their cattle to graze.
Phuthadithjaba police cluster spokesperson Warrant Officer Mmako Mophiring confirmed to Times Select that four suspects had been arrested. He said the suspects would be making their second court appearance in court on Friday.
“We can confirm that the police have made a breakthrough in the case, and four suspects were arrested in Mpumalanga. They are facing a case of murder, robbery and stock theft. One of the suspects grew up in the area of Vrede and knows the area very well. Also, the cellphone of the deceased was taken by the suspects, and that assisted the police in their investigation,” said Mophiring.
Ngwenya was one of the first Free State people to expose the controversial Estina dairy farm project, which was meant to benefit small-scale farmers.
The Vrede Dairy Project is a dairy project established in 2012 on Krynaauwslust farm near the town of Vrede.
The dairy was established as a public-private partnership with Estina, a Black Economic Empowerment company, as part of the Free State government’s agricultural project, Mohoma-Mobung. The provincial government gave Estina the land to use under a free 99-year lease. Estina had links to the Gupta family.
Altogether, R220m was poured into the project, and only about R2m was spent on the farm. Members of the local community benefited little, and Ngwenya was one of those who scarcely saw the benefits.
Allegations of corruption, flouting of treasury rules and mismanagement in the Estina project started emerging in 2013. It turned out the project had links to the Gupta family.
Newspaper reports alleged R30m in government funds intended for the project was instead laundered through Dubai and used to pay for the 2013 wedding ceremony of Vega Gupta at Sun City in the North West.
The Free State government allegedly paid R334m to the farm over two years, with the project transferring most of the money to its bank accounts in India and only small amounts spent on the farm itself.
Ngwenya became vocal about these and what was happening at the farm, becoming a whistleblower who led to the exposure of the project.
He died in October after he was severely beaten at Knelvlei farm, where he and other livestock owners from Thembalihle in Vrede kept their animals. He had apparently put up a shack on the farm to look after his stock.
After his death, his family suspected this could be linked to the Estina farm and called for police to speedily investigate his murder.
The Vrede community at large suspected his death could have had connections to the Estina expose, but Mophiring denied that.
“The police made the breakthrough late in January, and the rest of the suspects were arrested in February and made their first appearance. This is their second appearance in court, but their arrest is purely on the murder, robbery and theft they’ve committed, and there’s no link with the Estina dairy farm,” said Mophiring.
Local chairperson of the African Farmers Association of SA in Vrede, Ephraim Dlamini, said they would rather not comment on this, as the justice is not trusted. “By commenting on this could make other people’s lives at risk. We know what happened, but it is difficult to talk right now,” he said.