South Africa’s agricultural community wants heads to roll over the Estina Vrede Dairy Farm project. While waiting for law enforcement authorities to act on the recommendations of the Zondo commission report, some farmers remain concerned about the people whose lives were supposed to be improved by the project.
Speaking to Food For Mzansi following the damning reports on state capture, Agri SA’s executive director Christo van der Rheede said the agriculture organisation is highly perturbed about the findings on the project.
According to the report the project collapsed because former provincial department head Peter Thabethe failed to do his job. He also failed to protect the interests and assets of the department and taxpayers’ money, the Zondo Commission found.
Former Free State MEC of agriculture Mosebenzi Zwane and former premier Ace Magashule have also been implicated in the corruption which beset the diary project.
“We trust that those guilty of mismanaging the project will be brought to book. It is unacceptable that land reform projects and taxpayers’ money are abused in this way,” Van der Rheede said. “Agri SA is calling on the Presidency to investigate all land reform projects to ensure that the beneficiaries of such projects do really benefit.”
He said whilst the country is facing a high rate of unemployment and local food insecurity, any land reform projects should be taken seriously to overcome the legacies of the past. Agri SA is calling on consequence management to be applied without fear or favour.
“South Africa can no longer afford poorly executed and badly implemented or ill-supported land reform projects,” Van der Rheede stated.
Diary in Vrede not feasible
However, according to Wessel Wessels, a farmer whose farm is adjacent to the Estina dairy farm, the diary project was doomed from the start. Dairy farming, he explains, is not profitable in the area of Vrede.
Wessels says that proper research and feasibility studies were not conducted, and that officials opted not to listen to local farmers’ advice on what kind of farming could benefit the farmers most.
“The project of farming diary in Vrede was not going to make money. Nestlé dairy factories [In Vrede] closed many years ago because of the business not being profitable. We advised leaders who were here to rather consider beef farming,” Wessels said.
The only dairy processing facility in the Free State is based in Harrismith, over 100 kilometres from Vrede, and it is owned by Nestlé.
Furthermore, poor infrastructure such as lack of water, roads and suppliers in the area made dairy farming unsustainable, Wessels said. Potential suppliers were far away and therefore it made little economic sense to continue with dairy production.
Wessels said efforts were made to engage the provincial department of agriculture and local government to re-think the idea of a dairy farming project.
“Our reasons were that Vrede is cold and not conducive to such farming. Who were they going to sell to if they start such projects? Our inputs were not about who must be given the projects, but what type of projects will benefit the community.”
Access to water was another issue, Wessels said.
“They failed to utilise an opportunity of coming up with a more profitable business plan, but opted for something that is not economically and financially feasible,” he said.
‘There are many others’
Meanwhile, Saamtrek Saamwerk coordinator Sehularo Sehularo has called on heads to roll over the Estina project.
“We cannot have over R200 million of taxpayer’s money being misused and it is business as usual. Resources were used and nothing came out of it.
“This could have been avoided or picked up if we had strong oversight committees in the legislature, unfortunately money was wasted, and black farmers have still not progressed,” he said.
National African Farmers Union president Motsepe Matlala said the collapse of the project was not unique.
“There are many other projects that failed in provinces like Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga that were running into billions. The only difference here is that it had high profile politicians.”
“Government needs to stop with the middleman type of system and trust us as farmers to do our own businesses. We want action to be taken against those responsible,” he said.
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