Cow graze in a field on the Vrede dairy farm project in the Free State. Picture: ALON SKUY
Cow graze in a field on the Vrede dairy farm project in the Free State. Picture: ALON SKUY

Two armed security guards man a 3m-high steel gate at the entrance to a dairy farm in the Free State, which is at the heart of a graft scandal embroiling some of President Jacob Zuma’s closest allies.

The state-owned farm near Vrede was leased to little-known company Estina under a free 99-year contract in 2012, and the regional government agreed to help develop it, ostensibly to create 200 jobs. Now prosecutors say most of the R220m in public funds transferred to the company ended up in the hands of the Gupta brothers, who are in business with one of Zuma’s sons.

"Hearing about the corruption has been extremely disappointing," said Jabulile Mthombeni, a mother of two who lives in a township on the outskirts of Vrede. "This project was something that I and some of the people in the surrounding communities saw as the hope we need to have jobs and benefits, to help us survive and maybe even overcome the poverty we live in. We are still not benefiting."

Asset freeze

On January 19, the high court gave the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA’s) Asset Forfeiture Unit permission to freeze the project’s assets, and bank accounts belonging to Atul Gupta, who allegedly received a direct payment of R10m. A week later the police’s Hawks investigative unit raided the office of Ace Magashule, the newly elected ANC secretary-general and outgoing Free State premier, and the provincial agriculture department.

The crackdown, which came just weeks after Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as head of the ANC, is the authorities’ most decisive action yet to deal with allegations of state capture — the looting of billions of rand from the government by politically connected businessmen. While probes by Parliament and a judicial commission are also under way, they are likely to last months and will need prosecutors to follow up on their findings.

"We suddenly see a new lease on life in the NPA," said Wayne Duvenage, CEO of civil rights group the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse. "Improved governance is not going to happen overnight — it’s going to take a number of years. But we believe a lot of very wealthy people who got rich out of state capture are going to be held accountable and face the music."

Lavish wedding

At the centre of most of the graft allegations are the Gupta brothers — Atul, Ajay and Rajesh — who immigrated to SA from India and built up a business empire with interests ranging from mining to IT.

E-mails leaked to the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and Scorpio, the Daily Maverick’s investigative unit, show that money flowed from the provincial government to Estina, to bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates and back again to the Gupta’s business accounts.

Some of it was used to pay for a four-day family wedding at Sun City in the North West in 2013, when guests landed at the high-security Waterkloof air force base, breaching the law.

In 2017, the DA filed criminal charges against the Gupta brothers, their associates, and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who championed the project in Vrede, his home town, when he served as the Free State’s agriculture minister.

The Guptas, Zwane, Magashule, Zuma and his son all deny wrongdoing. NPA spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku said investigations were ongoing and no decision had been taken on whether to charge anyone. Zuma is facing mounting pressure from within the ANC to step down before his current term ends in 2019, with some of the party’s top leaders likely to discuss plans for his exit at a meeting on Monday.

At the farm, the security guards denied Bloomberg access, and more than a dozen workers who were leaving the property at the end of their shift declined to be interviewed. Four metal cowsheds were visible through the gate, and a truck and tractor were seen driving along its dirt roads that traversed fields planted with maize. No cows were visible from the perimeter.

ANN7, a broadcaster formerly owned by the Guptas, reported on January 30 that the 4,439ha farm employed 45 people and was milking about 200 cows.

Most Vrede residents remain in the dark about what will happen to the farm or why the project was so poorly handled.

"This whole process has been frustrating," said Eric Kubeka, a father who was on a list of people identified to profit from the operation. "I really believed I would benefit through training or at least a job. I think a lot of people who were in charge of this project knew exactly what they were doing in their corrupt acts or the misuse of money. The law must take its course."

Bloomberg

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