EDITORIAL: Vrede report is a disgrace
The public protector’s report on grand fraud at the Vrede dairy project sidesteps crucial evidence and targets underlings
The public protector’s report on the Vrede Integrated Dairy Project is a disgrace. The report starts with a long list of things Busisiwe Mkhwebane claims she could not investigate due to the "capacity and financial constraints". This is an organisation with a budget of R626m a year and a staff of 300.
After investigating the issue for five years, the public protector’s office concludes that the Free State agriculture department did not follow proper procedure in establishing the project, and once it was established the department did not monitor it properly. The remedy proposed is that the department should take disciplinary action against officials involved in the project and they should follow proper procedure.
Great. If ever there was a report that stated the obvious, this is it. It’s almost as though someone decided to just dump the thing with a set of pro-forma recommendations in a deliberate attempt to make sure only underlings would be criticised.
To achieve this end, the investigation hobbled itself by deciding not to investigate, almost without exclusion, everything the public would naturally want investigated.
The report is based on three separate complaints made in 2013, 2014 and 2016 as the extent of this grand fraud gradually became clearer.
Fortunately, the Hawks did and discovered, among other things, that R10m went into Atul Gupta’s account the day after it was handed over by the provincial agriculture department
Mkhwebane sweeps away the 2016 complaint because "issues pertaining to the investigation had already been identified and the investigation was at an advanced stage".
This is nonsense. In 2013, the complaint was essentially one of maladministration. The 2016 allegation was essentially one of explicit criminality.
But Mkhwebane insisted on treating the issue as though the complaint was purely procedural, as per the 2013 complaint. In order to ensure that the issue of explicit illegality was not investigated, Mkhwebane ignored the evidence that might have taken her in that direction.
In her report, she refers to "recent newspaper articles on the e-mails relating to the Gupta family that surfaced around June 2017 (these were noted but did not form part of the scope of this investigation)". The impression this leaves is that these e-mails were only vaguely interesting.
Once again, this is nonsense. The e-mails create a convincing inference that any number of people took taxpayers’ money and put it in their pockets at a furious rate. Finding out what happened to the money, it turns out, was not that difficult to discover.
The preservation application brought by the Hawks before the Free State High Court in January includes a set of affidavits that testify explicitly about what happened to the money. They largely confirm the contents of the e-mails and take them further.
One of the affidavits by a Hawks staff member says Estina (the name of the company running the project) was given R220m between 2012 and 2016. "However only an amount of R2,425,461.28 was paid in respect of dairy and or farming-related activities."
So what happened to the rest? It would have been nice if the public protector had taken an interest in that topic, but she didn’t. Fortunately, the Hawks did and discovered, among other things, that R10m went into Atul Gupta’s account the day after it was handed over by the provincial agriculture department.
Mkhwebane excluded this from the investigation because, "the directorate for priority crime investigation is dealing with the issue". The problem is that the public protector’s mandate is not to guess or surmise what the Hawks might or might not be investigating. The mandate is to complete the investigation itself.
It’s very hard to get away from the impression that Mkhwebane is deliberately trying to treat the issue as if someone forgot to stamp the right document because a proper investigation would have led to the inescapable conclusion that senior members of her party needed to be investigated for corruption.
The DA has decided to take the public protector’s report on judicial review. It is right to do so.