How the Vrede dairy farm killed a town’s dreams
Would-be beneficiaries say they were promised cows, a training course in India and a 52% stake in the farm. The most they got was 1% of the R200m
Hope for a better life was shattered for more than 80 intended beneficiaries of the corrupt Estina dairy project in the Vrede area, who were made promises by the provincial government as far back as 2012.
Some of these intended beneficiaries spoke to public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane on Thursday during a public hearing hosted by her office in Vrede. It forms part of an investigation into suspected political interference and prejudice suffered by the intended beneficiaries of the project.
The dairy farm that operates just outside the small Free State town now stands as a stark reminder for the poor farmers of how they were duped into believing their lives would change for the better.
Instead, the project was used allegedly as a cash cow for the Gupta family, with more than R200m from the Free State’s coffers being siphoned off to their Estina company – only 1% of the funds for communities actually used for its intended purpose.
It also comes a year after Mkhwebane’s initial report into the dairy farm, which opposition party members described as “absolutely disgraceful”.
The report only touched on the surface of allegations surrounding the R220m deal, and implicated provincial department officials rather than the alleged main conspirators, such as then Free State agriculture MEC Mosebenzi Zwane and Ace Magashule, the ANC’s secretary-general who served as the province’s premier at the time.
From those who gave their testimonies on Thursday, it appears farmers were invited to a community meeting in 2012, where various ward councillors alongside Zwane were present. There, they were told about the project and were promised, among others, a number of cows, a training course in India and a 52% stake in the farm, members in the audience claimed.
In a second meeting, which some farmers said took place about a month later, they were asked to hand over their identity documents and personal information. This, they were told, would be taken to Pretoria to have them registered into the scheme.
But a short while later, in 2013, the intended beneficiaries realised the farm was up and running without their knowledge or input. In the several meetings that followed, they “never received any answers” as to why.
“We came to these meetings but ... we couldn’t even understand what was happening,” Ephraim Dlamini, one of the intended beneficiaries, said.
“We are the so-called beneficiaries, but we are not benefiting. We don’t even have contracts to show we are beneficiaries.”
Another farmer, Jim Twana, claimed Zwane promised them a better life.
“I had two cows. One died and I sold the other because I wanted to go work at the farm,” he said.
“They promised they would let us know when the other cows have arrived and that they would be distributed equally among the beneficiaries.
“I still have details of the person I sold the cow to, I don’t remember his surname, but I can try to find the paperwork at home.”
David Khumalo, a cattle farmer, hoped he would receive much-needed skills training.
“We were told each beneficiary will get four dairy cows. We were told we will hire people to work for us, we will be trained,” he said.
“We went to the town hall to register because of the promises I heard. I had hope that the community will benefit.
“Our area is small, there are no jobs, and half of our community would be employed in the project. We thought this dairy would help develop our town.
“I only heard that the dairy is being officially open, but I was shocked because we as beneficiaries were not told.”