Appropriate procurement procedures were not always observed at the Free State department of agriculture.
Before being appointed head of department, Peter Thabethe met then premier Ace Magashule – whose prerogative it was to appoint heads of department – on numerous occasions before his eventual appointment.
It was later Thabethe’s research that steered the department to go with an Indian company in the establishment of the controversial Vrede dairy farm project.
Notwithstanding how such details may be perceived, the state capture-implicated former Free State agriculture head gave testimony before the commission on Thursday saying he wished to reiterate that his department ran a tight ship and no wrongdoing occurred under his watch.
He explained that the agricultural department headed by him at the time chose an Indian company, Paras, as a partner in the project following desktop research conducted by him into countries with an exceptional record at milk production and processing.
“I had done research to look at countries that were doing very well in milk production ... the countries that came out were Switzerland, Germany and India. We then compared the systems and models that they use for dairy production and processing. The model we felt came very close to what we were doing was the model in India which was done by Paras,” said Thabethe.
He added that his research revealed that the type of model that Paras was using was what the dairy projected need because they specialised in collecting milk from small producers, bringing it to processors.
Following his recommendation, Paras partnered with Gupta-linked entity Estina to run the project, which subsequently cost the Free State government more than R220 million in taxpayers’ money siphoned out of the country.
This led to Thabethe’s arrest with seven others for fraud and contravening the Public Finance Management Act after a charge sheet alleging that Thabethe had allowed his department to sign a contract with Estina and Paras despite red flags being raised at the inception of the project.
The charges were later withdrawn by the National Prosecuting Authority.
During his testimony on Thursday, Thabethe also revealed that appropriate procurement procedures were not always observed at the Free State department of agriculture.
He justified this saying it was never in an attempt at wrongdoing but merely to ensure that there was effective service delivery.
He made this comment following questions by evidence leader Leah Gcabashe on document signed off by Thabethe revealing his approval of a R500 000 worth of procurement without following a competitive bids process.
Thabethe said there were “special instances where such provisions could be deviated from”.
Gcabashe, however, questioned whether such deviations applied in an instance where the person deviating was “both the player and the referee” in the sense that as head of department, Thabethe had raised the existence of a compelling situation and then signed off on it as well as the head.
“Does such action not open up the provisions of the procurement processes to being manipulated,” said Gcabashe.
Thabethe was adamant that in that instance, because of compelling circumstances, it did not make sense to follow processes.
He also revealed that before being appointed head of department he met then premier Magashule on numerous occasions.
Thabethe justified these meetings as having been unavoidable due to the two men’s membership with the ANC in the province.