The people responsible for the so-called Estina dairy scandal should be brought to book. And the abuse of what could have been an admirable project, should never be repeated. Industry leaders say lessons like these must be drawn from the infamous Vrede Dairy Integrated Farm Project as 65 rightful beneficiaries are finally getting to work.
According to Ephraim Dhlamini, chairperson of the Vrede Integrated Farming Trust, they are overjoyed that the project has been handed over to them after a decade of waiting.
The dairy farm, which took a government investment of R342 million and had been enveloped by the state capture scandal, was handed over to its rightful owners on Friday, 14 January 2022.
The ceremony was attended by several dignitaries, including Free State premier Sisi Ntombela and the province’s MEC for agriculture and rural development, Thembeni Nxangisa.
“This means we will start working and producing,” Dhlamini tells Food For Mzansi. “We fought a very long battle to reach this point. We just pray that everything will go well from now and that government will continue to support us.”
The beneficiaries are now taking over the management and implementation of the project, which consists of 2 094 hectares of land, 583 dairy animals, nine horses, ten tractors and milking equipment.
“We just pray that those who are entrusted to assist us will only do [that] and not come with the intentions of assisting us while all they want is to enrich themselves and take us back to where we started,” Dhlamini says.
“We also hope we will work well together as beneficiaries so that we may reach a common goal. This project is not only for us but for the community and generations to come.”
‘History will not repeat itself’
Dr Lennox Mtshagi, president of the Black Farmers Association of South Africa (BFASA), welcomes the handover but cautions that a mere handover will not be enough in the long run. He says government must ensure that the farmers also receive funding for the sake of the project’s sustainability. Plus, the authorities must see to it that nothing of this nature ever plays out again.
He reckons one of the lessons to learn from the past is not to exclude organised agriculture and other stakeholders when taking on projects of this scale.
“We hope that government will, this time, ensure transparency and include all relevant stakeholders in this project so that we can hold accountable whoever might be running the project.
Addressing the media after the handover ceremony, MEC Nxangisa ensured the public that what transpired with the Estina dairy project before, will not be repeated. “It will never happen again. We’ve set in motion tight processes.”
He further said, “All 65 beneficiaries were elated and welcomed the handover [of the] project. They are committed to work closely with the government to make the project a success and to create wealth for themselves and their children and grandchildren.”
Accountability must be ensured
Meanwhile, political analyst professor Ralph Mathekga tells Food For Mzansi that the lesson here is for government to prioritise the needs of beneficiaries of such projects – always.
However, he is concerned about trust. “Many public funds were lost in [the] Estina project, and one wonders if the project will actually benefit people. That stands to be seen.
“I wonder if the project, that went through such trouble and has been conceived under such controversial circumstances, will ever get to benefit the people.”
For the project to achieve its mandate, accountability must be ensured right from the start, he adds, while public interest must always be placed ahead of special interests.
BFASA’s Mtshagi shares the sentiments, adding that those implicated in the Estina dairy scandal must face the law. “Everyone must account… We can’t continue as if nothing happened. We still need to know what happened to the millions lost in this project. The law must leave no stone unturned.”
He furthermore asks that government continues to extend a hand of support to the beneficiaries as there is no point in handing beneficiaries a farming project without operation capital.
“These people still need to be trained and given resources so they are able to create much-needed jobs and feed their families,” Mtshagi says.
Government has reportedly appointed an accountant and a lawyer to assist the farmers, as well as a senior manager who will facilitate and monitor productivity.
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