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By Kwazi Dlamini

On Friday 9 February the Office of the Public Protector unexpectedly released the much anticipated report on the Vrede dairy farm. The report was anticipated not only because it implicated some senior ANC officials and the controversial Gupta family, but also because citizens have been waiting for the report for three years. An article by AmaBhungane dated as far back as 2015 revealed that the Vrede investigation had been completed by former public protector Thuli Madonsela, but her report was still being written at the time.

The Public Protector’s report linked current Free State premier and newly appointed ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, fellow cadre Mosebenzi Zwane who was then the MEC of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Free State, and Gupta linked company Estina. The public protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, made numerous observations but did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by Magashule, Zwane and the Guptas – in fact, the names of Zwane and Gupta did not appear even once. She then recommended Magashule should conduct a disciplinary hearing for those involved in the project.

Her recommendations outraged the opposition parties, who claimed that Mkhwebane was protecting Magashule and the Guptas. Cope said that the ANC secretary-general cannot begin a disciplinary process where he’s also implicated in the matter. “The persons ultimately responsible for the Estina dairy scandal and the brazen theft and laundering of money are the persons who held executive political office, then MEC Mosebenzi Zwane and now secretary-general Ace Magashule,” Cope’s Deidre Carter said.

Procurement irregularities

In the report, Mkhwebane observed that the Head of Department did not follow the normal procurement process as prescribed by the Constitution, Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and national treasury regulations when signing off payments to Estina. The public protector also declared that the payments between the department and Estina were invalid because of non-compliance with the procurement process.

The investigation found that the department’s accounting officer proceeded to pay R143  950-million to Estina even after the accountant-general had investigated, found and made recommendations against financial misconduct on the part of the HoD and chief financial officer. Mkhwebane also found that no documents or records were provided by the department that prove that proper risk management and financial control of the project were in place. She states in the report that the department could not produce actual receipts or invoices to substantiate the expenditure claimed in the financial statements submitted, except receipts for the procurement of cattle.

The report outlined gross negligence and maladministration by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The Public Protector also wanted to investigate the allegations that the prices for procured goods and services were purposefully inflated; however, Mkhwebane said due to financial restraints and lack of resources her team was unable to conduct a comprehensive probe to determine the fair price of goods and services procured by Estina.

The report left many in shock as it did not live up to expectations. The public protector in her defence said they failed to investigate the implicated key role players because her office did not have resources to do so – but the investigation to allegations of maladministration commenced in 2012 under Mkhwebane’s predecessor Thuli Madonsela.

The claim of lack of resources outraged opposition parties, and Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services has summoned Mkhwebane after reports that she ignored and suppressed evidence implicating Zwane and the Guptas.

“After four years the public protector simply cannot blame lack of capacity for her embarrassing report,” DA leader Mmusi Maimane said. Maimane’s statement echoed a Business Day editorial, which stated that the Public Protector has an annual budget of R626-million and a staff of 300.

The DA announced almost immediately that they will apply to the court for a review of the report.