Almost ten years after its launch in 2012, government’s controversial Vrede Dairy Integrated Farm Project in the Free State will finally be handed back to its rightful beneficiaries.
This follows an announcement by the province’s government that it would return the project to 65 black farmers this morning (Friday, 14 January 2022).
The R288 million project, better known as the Estina dairy project, was initially established by the provincial department of agriculture and rural development (DARD) to empower black farmers with the knowledge and skills needed to operate a successful dairy farm.
It was said that the project would contribute immensely to the local economy and improve the livelihoods of its communities.
But it quickly became tainted with corruption allegations after it was established that the project had been mismanaged and used as a cash cow for the infamous Gupta family.
The corruption bomb threw the dairy project off course in 2013, resulting in a decade-long delay in fulfilling its intended purpose.
The Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture heard in December 2020 that, during this time, the project was allegedly used to launder money. It was revealed that the Guptas used it as a shell to send money to India. Bank statements showed that no payments were ever made to black beneficiaries.
Three former Free State agriculture department heads – Peter Thabethe, Dr Limakatso Moorosi and Seipati Dlamini – and a Gupta family associate, Iqbal Sharma, were also arrested.
Now the real work begins…
News of the official handover of the farm has been met with some optimism and some concern from organised agriculture.
The secretary-general of the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa (AFASA), Nakana Masoka, says they welcome the decision by the Free State government to hand over the project.
“We are encouraged by the step taken by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development.
“The handover of the Estina project to the original beneficiaries will ensure that these farmers ultimately play a role in building their own lives and improving their economic standing,” Masoka tells Food For Mzansi.
In a previous interview with the publication, Masoka described the Estina saga as a “good project gone wrong”.
Masoka believed that the Estina debacle had tainted the Free State agriculture department in such a way that the entire province was viewed as being involved in “fraud, corruption, wrongdoing and maladministration”.
In light of the handover, the AFASA leader hopes that the department will now provide hands-on support to the farmers. This, he says, will ensure proper management, training and team building.
“This project has the potential to become a flagship project in the transformation of the dairy sector. We also pledge our support, oversight and capacity building to the beneficiaries.”
‘But justice has not prevailed’
However, Free State Agriculture (FSA) president Francois Wilken says the handover does not mean justice has been served. “How many millions have been ‘milked’ through the Vrede dairy scheme before justice finally has been done for the intended beneficiaries?”
That there has been no indication of the stolen funds being paid back is another great concern to him, as well as the prevalence of similar activities elsewhere. “How many other… cash cows are still being milked? Who has taken the blame and is sitting behind bars?”
According to the FSA president, one needs to look at all other departments and consulting companies whom government contracted to do massive jobs on paper without anything being done on the ground.
“Roads especially, but also hospitals, housing, schools, mines, etc. Vrede Dairy is just the tip of the udder sticking out of the shallow grave dug to try to conceal the bigger cash cows of the Free State cabal,” Wilken says.
Part of the problem, according to Wilken, is that government makes a habit of denying corruption allegations brought to them by whistle blowers.
Yet he believes that corruption in the province can be turned around, and is hopeful that the new farmers would get the tools intended for them.
The handover will take place on Krynaauwslust farm today, near Vrede, in accordance with a court order by the Free State High Court. The order was given on 17 January 2019 to be concluded exactly two years later, on 17 January 2022.
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