The former head of the Free State agriculture department, Peter Thabethe, claims a media report about the infamous 2013 Waterkloof landing halted the potential of the Vrede dairy farm project.
“[Former Free State agriculture MEC] Mosebenzi Zwane was of the view that it was a great project and that it would have put the province on the map if it was executed properly,” evidence leader advocate Leah Gcabashe SC put it to the witness on Thursday.
The controversial project was intended to see 100 black emerging farmers receive five cows each as part of the empowerment scheme.
Gifted to Estina in 2013 under a free 99-year lease by the provincial Department of Agriculture, the farm had been one of the most controversial transactions between the Guptas and a government entity.
“I agree with him [Zwane], if it was given an opportunity to be executed. When the project was being implemented, problems kicked in from the initiation – it never had the opportunity to kick off.
“The first witness who came here referred to Waterkloof, from that time there was never an opportunity to implement it because it was investigation after investigation,” Thabethe explained in response.
He qualified this statement by pointing out a media report that brought the issue of the Waterkloof landing to the fore.
The chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, however, could not accept the submission that a media report could halt a government official from doing his or her job.
“Why do you say the fact that someone wrote an article about the farm or Waterkloof, that it takes away the opportunity for you to do your job?” Zondo asked.
“That’s correct chair, but that triggered a lot of problems when we come to it. I will explain one of the issues. The investigation that was done by National Treasury was based on the article,” Thabethe explained.
Zondo responded: “Yes and so what, they can investigate but you can carry on with your job.”
Thabethe agreed, adding the funds for the project were halted and this was documented in letters from the national Department of Agriculture as well as Treasury.
“Until that time, everything was happening well. Now, after the landing we were then beginning to enter the second year of the project and that is when the problems happened. August 2013 was the final withdrawal, but the letter from National Treasury instructing us not to proceed had already been written,” he explained.
Gcabashe further clarified to the witness this view was not correct as the letter – which will be dealt with by the commission in future – had instructed the Free State department to allocate the remainder of the R53 million to other projects as R24 million had already been spent on Vrede.
“It had nothing to do with the article,” she said.
The inquiry continues.