Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: GCIS
Public Protector Advocate Busisiwe Mkhwebane. Picture: GCIS

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane has confirmed that she will probe the role of politicians in the Gupta-linked Vrede dairy farm project.

"The file will be opened and the matter [of the role of politicians] will be investigated," Mkhwebane told MPs on Tuesday.

She appeared before the justice portfolio committee to brief members on her offices’ annual performance plan and budget. MPs grilled her on a number of issues, including her fitness to hold office, the handling of the Absa-Bankorp case, and the Vrede dairy farm project.

In February, Mkhwebane quietly released the report on the Vrede dairy project in the Free State. The report, labelled by opposition parties as a whitewash, found that there were procurement irregularities, "gross negligence" and maladministration related to the project.

As part of the remedial action, Mkhwebane recommended that then Free State premier Ace Magashule "initiate and institute disciplinary action against all implicated officials involved in the Vrede dairy project".

In February, the DA said it would take the report on review, saying there had been no effort to investigate the true extent of corruption or to hold those responsible accountable.

"Magashule and [former agriculture MEC] Mosebenzi Zwane get off unscathed in what was a scheme they conceived, planned and executed — along with the Guptas — to defraud the public of hundreds of millions of rands. After four years, Advocate Mkhwebane simply cannot blame lack of capacity for this embarrassment of a report," DA leader Mmusi Maimane said at the time.

Leaked e-mails, which showed that the Gupta family had significant control over the Vrede Dairy Farm contract between Estina, a company linked to the family, and the Free State Department of Agriculture, did not form part of the Public Protector’s investigation of the project.

The leaked e-mails indicated that at least R30m paid to the Guptas via the farm ended up paying for the family’s extravagant Sun City wedding in 2013.

The Public Protector states in the report that she noted the news reports on the e-mails, but that they did not form part of the scope of the investigation. It was one of the aspects that were not investigated due to "capacity and financial constraint".

Mkhwebane also defended her decision to approach the Supreme Court of Appeal to overturn the R1m personal costs order related to the Absa-Bankorp case.

"As MPs, I need your support to perform my functions without fear or favour, and prejudice. Such a judgment on personal costs [will have an impact] on the independence of the Public Protector and instils fear, stifling her from doing her work," said Mkhwebane.

She reiterated that her office lacked capacity and needed more funding.

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