The state capture inquiry may be granted another three-month extension to complete its work. Free State farmers are clear, however, that the controversy surrounding the Estina dairy farm has done nothing but tarnish the “good image” of agriculture in the province.
This, after three former Free State agriculture department heads and a Gupta family associate were granted bail after they were charged with the failed R288 million project.
The Zondo Commission earlier heard that the Guptas allegedly laundered the money meant to empower up-and-coming farmers in the province. Bank statements show that no payments were made to black beneficiaries and, instead, the Estina dairy farm was just a shell through which money was sent to India.
A tainted province
Farmers are hopeful that deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo will be able to complete his work soon. They say the scandal has been a major blow to farmer development in the province.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi, secretary-general of Afasa, Nakana Masoka, describes the Estina saga as a “good project gone wrong”.
“This whole thing has affected the image of agriculture negatively. Even us, as farmers, when we appear in other provinces, the first comment that is made is about Estina.
“It’s as if all farmers and the whole department was involved in some wrongdoing when, in actual fact, there are good people in the department who are in a position to redirect Estina and make it successful.”
Masoka believes the Estina debacle has tainted the Free State agriculture department in such a way that the entire province is now viewed as being involved in “fraud, corruption, wrongdoing and maladministration”.
Meanwhile, Free State Agriculture president Francois Wilken is discouraged by government’s response to whistleblowing when departmental officials were implicated in corruption.
“The department constantly denies things that we inform them of. We want to help and be a hand of support to them, but they always deny these things,” he says.
This has a direct impact on agricultural growth and hinders land reform.
“We see these things happening and the people who are being accused, but the commercial farmers are constantly being accused of being the cause of land reform not taking place. We need the honesty and integrity of the government to make this [land reform] work.”
There is still hope
Like Masoka, Wilken believes corruption in the Free State agriculture department can be turned around. He is also hopeful that up-and-coming farmers will get the “tools” meant for them.
“We’ll have to see what’s going to happen to the people caught at Estina. It’s a lot of money that is gone and we hope the courts will make a difference and the people [government officials] who come in now will understand and help stop the corruption,” he says.
Afasa’s Nakana adds that they are willing to assist the department in efforts to repair the damage caused by the Estina debacle.
“The reality of the situation is that a farm was bought, the equipment is there, and cattle are still being milked. So, we can still resuscitate the project to ensure that it still benefits many farmers, however, only if we hold hands with the department.”
Masoka furthermore challenges the department to give the Estina project to Afasa to turn it around.
“Among us, we have the capacity to help Estina become profitable and ensure proper management processes, as well as proper government structures that will ensure farmers and farmworkers benefit and become owners of Estina.”
Masoka says with other projects in the province also collapsing, Afasa is ready to help ensure those projects were also resuscitated and sustained for the benefit of the agricultural sector.