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Zondo wants Magashule, Zwane charged over failed Vrede Dairy Project

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CALLING FOR ACTION . . . Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wants law enforcement agencies to pursue Free State government officials involved in the failed Vrede Dairy Project

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has marked the trio of former Free State premier Ace Magashule, former MEC Mosebenzi Zwane and former head of the provincial agriculture department Peter Thabethe as possibly liable for the infamous Vrede Dairy Project and wants them charged for their roles in the failed enterprise.

In the latest report of the State Capture Commission of Inquiry released on Wednesday evening, Zondo found that the Free State provincial government unlawfully paid a Gupta family-linked company, Estina, over R280-million for a project that ironically sidelined small-scale black farmers – the intended beneficiaries of the project – and got nothing in return.

“The whole Vrede Dairy Project (debacle) happened because Mr Thabethe dismally failed to do his job and failed to protect the interests of the [department of agriculture and rural development] and to protect taxpayers’ money,” read part of the report.

Thabethe is already facing criminal charges – together with other people and companies – in connection with the failed dairy project but the matter has been provisionally removed from the court roll.

Zwane and Magashule have however not been charged in the matter.

“It also happened because Mr Mosebenzi Zwane as MEC was pursuing the agenda of the Guptas and did not do his job to perform oversight over Mr Thabethe,” added the report.

“It also happened because the premier of the province, Mr Ace Magashule, would have also been pursuing the agenda of the Guptas.”

The main idea behind the Vrede Dairy Project was to introduce black farmers in the Memel and Vrede areas to farming with dairy cows, process their milk and sell milk products on the provincial and national dairy products market.

The farmers were told about the project by Zwane.

However, the promises made to these community members were never realised.

At best, according to the report, a few members of the community were employed at the dairy project as manual workers.

None of the local black dairy farmers were invited to bring their milk for processing at the dairy farm.

The investigation found that the consultancy work on the dairy project appears to have been undertaken by companies from outside South Africa which had some association with the Gupta family enterprises.

It said Estina had R16 in its bank account before the Free State Department of Agriculture and Rural Development gave it a R30-million prepayment for the Vrede project in June 2012.

The prepayment was arranged by Zwane.

At the time, Estina had just one director, Kamal Vasram, a sales manager at the controversial Gupta family’s Sahara Computers.

“The company had no experience whatsoever in farming, never mind milk farming, or the crucial milk processing prior to its appointment. The core business of the company on the date of its appointment was still slated as ‘business consultant’,” said Zondo in the report.

Thabethe did not subject the project to competitive bidding and signed the contract with Estina without doing any due diligence, thereby violating the Public Finance Management Act.

“The Vrede Dairy Project failed in its first two years of operation . . . because of Mr Thabethe’s incompetence or because he was carrying out the agenda of the Guptas and cared less about the taxpayers’ money and the black farmers.

“Apart from anything else, Mr Thabethe must be held both criminally and civilly liable for his role in causing the department to lose so many millions of rands in taxpayers’ money,” Zondo suggested.

He said the Provincial Executive Council (EXCO) should have required Zwane and Thabethe to place before it full documentation which showed that all the legal and relevant prescripts had been complied with and that the implementation of the project and the appointment of Estina would be appropriate and reasonable.

Zondo dismissed the evidence of former treasury MEC Elzabe Rockman that a resolution of the executive council that the provincial agriculture department should implement the dairy project did not imply any breach of the law.

“This is so because the resolution said nothing about complying with the legal prescripts,” he said.

“But also, the EXCO should have preserved giving approval for implementation until satisfied themselves that implementation could still be lawful which they did not do.”

Zondo recommended that law enforcement agencies conduct further investigations to establish if Zwane and Magashule contravened any law in the roles they played in regard to the Vrede Dairy Project.

“The premier should have performed his oversight function over the MEC, Mr Zwane and the head of department Mr Thabethe, but failed dismally,” he said.

“It is necessary that there be consequences for people who fail to do their job . . . otherwise, this corruption and these acts of state capture are going to continue forever to the detriment of the country and all people.

“Neither the Provincial Legislature nor the ANC called the premier to account for the asbestos project and the R1-billion Housing Project debacle.

“Premiers must know they must supervise the MECs and their departments.”

Zondo also suggested that legal proceedings should be put in place in order to recover from Zwane and Magashule some of the monies lost by the provincial agriculture department in the Vrede Dairy Project as a result of their failure to perform their legal obligations.

He also wants members of the Gupta family and their associates involved in the dairy project to be criminally charged. – Staff Reporter

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Ngwathe pays Eskom to fix damaged line

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BLACKOUT . . . The Ngwathe electrical network tripped on Friday and damaged Eskom’s equipment due to overloading

Ngwathe Local Municipality in the northern Free State has paid R1.1-million to Eskom so it can repair damages to the power line in the area caused by overloading.

Eskom provincial spokesperson Stefanie Jansen van Rensburg said in a statement the payment was made on Monday morning and work to restore supplies to Parys and Vredefort has started.

“Repairs to the Eskom equipment will now commence,” said Van Rensburg.

“Based on the assessments of the damage, supply to Ngwathe should be restored by midnight tonight,” she added.

The spokesperson however said the initial repairs were focusing on the hot connections and will only be temporary to assist communities.

Another outage will be scheduled to repair the transformer bushings that were also damaged during the overloading incident.

The Ngwathe electrical network tripped on Friday and damaged Eskom’s equipment due to overloading.

“Since 2018, Eskom has warned Ngwathe that their continued exceedance of their Notified Maximum Demand (NMD) – the contracted amount of electricity supplied by Eskom to the Municipality – will eventually result in damage to the Eskom network and that the municipality needs to apply for an upgrade in their NMD.

“In August 2021 and in April 2022, Eskom informed the municipality that any damage to the Eskom network that is caused by the municipality’s negligence, will be at the municipality’s cost.

“The municipality agreed to this condition and, although they were well informed and aware of the risks, they did not take the necessary precautions or made sufficient efforts to upgrade their NMD,” Van Rensburg explained.

Following the incident, Eskom insisted on the municipality making an upfront payment as it is one of the municipalities in the province sitting with a huge debt to the national power utility.

As at end June, Ngwathe’s overdue debt to Eskom totalled R1.89 billion.

Eskom says this debt continues to grow as current accounts are not paid in full.

“Ngwathe’s non-adherence to payment conditions and negligence in protecting the power system, jeopardises Eskom’s financial sustainability as well as the security of supply to the residents of towns such as Parys and Vredefort.

“Supply to Ngwathe will be restored to the capacity as per the contracted NMD.

“Risks of overloading and consequent damage remain, and it is imperative that the municipality invests in upgrading its supply,” according to the power company. – Staff Reporter

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Mangaung electricity tariffs up

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POWER TARIFFS UP . . . Local power distributor Centlec has hiked electricity charges

Electricity tariffs in Mangaung have gone up by 7.47 percent.

In a statement released on Thursday night, local power distributor Centlec said the increase was due to come into effect at midnight on July 1 following approval by the National Electricity Regulator of South Africa.

The increase will cover the period July 1, 2022 to June 30, 2023.

“A guideline increase of 7.47 percent on electricity tariffs for Centlec was therefore approved with effect from the 1st of July 2022 for the 2022/23 financial year,” read part of the brief statement.

It said a more detailed outline of the increases will be announced soon. – Staff Reporter

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CUT students arrested for protesting against exams

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DISTURBANCE AT CAMPUS . . . Five students protesting against exams at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein have been arrested

Police have arrested five students from the Central University of Technology (CUT) for public violence after they embarked on an unsanctioned protest against the institution’s decision to have the mid-year exams conducted in person at its two campuses in Bloemfontein and Welkom starting this Thursday.

The exams are set to run until July 20.

The fracas follows an announcement by CUT acting vice-chancellor and principal Professor Alfred Ngowi on Wednesday in which he stated the exams would take place physically at the two campuses as scheduled.

Ngowi said a detailed discussion about online exams at the Welkom campus concluded that it would not be feasible to conduct online exams because circumstances have changed regarding the COVID-19 restrictions and that it was also against the policy of the university.

“CUT is a full-contact institution and not a distance learning institution and therefore does not have the authority to accredit examinations that are not done under CUT’s status as a full-contact institution,” said Ngowin in a recorded video.

Ngowi told the students that academic assessment is one of the important building blocks of their qualifications.

He warned the students against disrupting the exams saying they would face disciplinary action as such action will be illegal.

“The unreliability of the power supply may have unintended disruptive effects,” he said.

“The COVID-19 restrictions which necessitated virtual classes and virtual assessments have all been suspended and the various accrediting bodies to which CUT is affiliated may not accredit online assessments.

“Therefore, we will proceed with physical assessments.

“Management has made all necessary preparations for the smooth running of the mid-year assessments, which have been communicated to all students.

“Therefore, any student who plans to disrupt the physical examinations on our campuses must be aware of the legal and disciplinary consequences.

“In addition, the CUT management has put several measures in place to protect the constitutional rights of all our students who are prepared for and prefer to sit for physical assessments.

“Students must be aware that any disruptions of the planned and scheduled assessments are illegal and unlawful, and students who act outside the law will have to face the consequences of their actions.

“Students further need to note that failing the upcoming academic assessments will directly impact their NSFAS funding status.

“No further funding will be available to NSFAS-funded students who fail the assessments or fail to take the upcoming assessments.”

But, in a statement, members of the South African Student Congress (SASCO) at the university argued that since all assessments had taken place online due to the COVID-19 restrictions, “it is only normal that the exams take place online as well”.

SASCO also argued that some students had not received their allowances from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and it would therefore be impossible for them to write their exams in a physical setting.

But Ngowi addressed the matter earlier in the same video: “As previously communicated through the Student Representative Council, NSFAS-funded students who still have unresolved challenges with their accommodation are encouraged to make written submissions to the relevant faculty deans in that regard.”

Park Road police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Thabo Covane said members of Public Order Police Unit arrested five male students for public violence at the CUT’s Bloemfontein campus on Thursday morning.

He said the group of protesting students was warned by the operational commander to disperse within a given time as they were contravening the conditions stipulated in an issued court order but refused to do so.

“The protesting students became violent and started throwing stones and bottles at the police and the security officers,” said Covane.

“The police used stun grenades to disperse the crowd. The other group ran into King Edward Street and blocked traffic by placing stones on the road.

“Police then arrested the five students with ages ranging from 18 to 22 years.”

The arrested students are expected to appear in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court on Monday facing charges of public violence and contravening a court order. – Staff Reporter

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