Alleged Gupta lieutenants Ace Magashule and Mosebenzi Zwane were aware of irregularities taking place in the Vrede dairy project but curiously allowed for substantial payments to be made towards the programme, the state capture commission heard on Monday.

DA Free State leader and agriculture & rural development committee member in the provincial legislature Roy Jankielsohn told the commission that Magashule, a former premier of the province and Zwane, a former agriculture MEC, opted to use “personal insults” against him and his party colleagues rather than attend to questions raised over the controversial project in the legislature.

Magashule and Zwane could not be immediately reached for comment.

Legislature speaker Mamiki Qabathe shielded Zwane from accounting for the scandal, Jankielsohn added.

The Vrede dairy project scandal saw at least R200m of taxpayers’ money meant for emerging black farmers in the Free State small town of Vrede flowing to a Gupta-linked company, Estina. Some of the loot  was allegedly used to settle the bills for the Guptas’ lavish family wedding at Sun City in 2013.

In 2018, public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s report on the matter vindicated Magashule and Zwane for their role in the matter. Both are former president Jacob Zuma’s trusted aides and stand accused of corruption and wide-ranging state capture.

In May 2019 the high court in Pretoria declared the report invalid and unconstitutional and set it aside after the DA took it on review.

On Monday, Jankielsohn maintained that Magashule, who is now ANC secretary-general, and Zwane, who now serves as the chair of parliament’s transport portfolio committee, were aware of issues and problems related to Estina.

“They were aware that there were no beneficiaries in this project. A project of this nature cannot exist without beneficiaries,” he said.

He told the commission how when questions were raised about beneficiaries in the legislature, officials drove around the community with a loud hailer, calling residents to a community hall where “they took the names of people who are interested in farming and submitted that as a beneficiary list”.

Jankielsohn said when Qabathe was agriculture MEC she had refused to answer questions relating to the project, and when she became speaker and Zwane took over from her, Zwane had also refused to answer certain questions about Estina.

“I wrote to Qabathe to ask if she will use her position [as legislature speaker] to force Zwane to reply, I never received a reply to that letter.”

He said “senior people in government” knew what was happening in Vrede. “They cannot deny it. But in spite of that they continue to appropriate government funding to that project and they still continue to do so [today].”

A defiant Zuma caused a public outcry in November 2016 when he revealed he knew those who were stealing from the public purse but chose to do nothing about that, saying he was merely “watching them”.

Jankielsohn, a DA MP from 2000 to 2006, said there was a culture of fear in the Free State among public officials. “There is a culture of fear that if you speak out against any malfeasance you could lose your job, be intimidated, or you could die if you speak out.”

Deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, who chairs the state capture commission, took issue that some politicians were allegedly protected from accounting for the Vrede dairy project.

“If I find at the end of the investigation that there was state capture in this country, [I would be interested in knowing] what made state capture possible, what facilitated state capture, what environment made it possible, what structures, what bodies provided for in our constitutional dispensation, in our legal system, failed to do their job, which if they had done, maybe state capture would not have happened at all, or could have been arrested if it went too far,” he said.

Zondo said he was interested in knowing how the National Assembly and provincial legislatures performed their oversight obligations during “relevant times and when they become aware of wrongdoing, of corruption, within the executive, within government. What do they do? Do they do their job the way they are to do it?”

Jankielsohn chipped in, saying: “This is a classic example of how the legislature and committees failed the people of Free State by not allowing this issue to be interrogated when the alleged irregularities took place.”

He said public representatives took an oath that they would protect the constitution and hold the executive to account. “If we fail to do that we are, in fact, in breach of our oath of office.”

He explained that committee members were beholden to their political bosses who served as MECs and premiers in executing their duties, adding: “The problem lies with the electoral system. People are accountable to a political party and not the people that elected them.”