I still have hope for Vrede dairy project - former Free State finance MEC

The chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Gallo)
The chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Gallo)

Former Free State finance MEC Elzabe Rockman says she sympathises with the intended beneficiaries of the Vrede dairy project after they were left stranded when it failed, adding she believes the project is still viable.

Testifying at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, Rockman said: "I have a lot of appreciation and empathy for the feelings and sentiment of the intended beneficiaries who have gained nothing from this project.

"I don't think it's too late. I think the project, to some extent, is viable with the correct skills and knowledgeable people - maybe not at the level that it was envisaged. 

"Certainly, there is an inherent benefit to involve beneficiaries in a project of this nature. I don't think it should simply be closed down completely.

"I think there is still something that can be salvaged from the project and slowly built to be expanded into better income opportunities for knowledgeable people who have an interest in agriculture, not random people who do not have agriculture at heart," Rockman said.

This after evidence leader for the commission, advocate Leah Gcabashe SC, went through the failures and irregularities of the Free State government.

In the 2014/2015 financial year, Gcabashe noted that non-compliance with supply chain management policies reached more than R17m, in 2013/2014 it was more than R21m and in 2012/2013 it had climbed to over R23m.

ALSO READ: Why funding for the Vrede dairy farm project couldn't just be halted

"These are significant amounts especially if you look at them over the years and the comments you [Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo] make about consequence management and people taking responsibility about decisions that they take, really feeds into these figures, and how to implement what people in authority tell us to do certain fits again into this paradigm," she said.

From Rockman's affidavit, Gcabashe noted comments from the Auditor-General and agriculture department about what was paid to the Free State Development Corporation (FDC), which took over the farm's management from Estina.

The FDC took over after the department cut ties with Estina.

In 2017/2018, R20m had been paid to the FDC by the department, in prior years this totalled R51.2m, Gcabashe said.

However, a letter from the lawyers of a service provider, which was appointed by the FDC to render services to the dairy project, said it had not been paid properly.

The letter said: "Although there is no obligation to provide reasons for the cancellation [of the contract with the FDC], our instructions are to record that the main reasons for terminating the agreement is due to your lack of co-operation; failure to provide our client with instructions [including but not limited to your failure to provide instruction with respect to the turnaround strategy submitted to yourselves and despite several reminders over the past year and above all, failure to make payment of amounts due to our clients]…" 

ALSO READ: Agriculture department never saw beneficiary list, signed contracts, Zondo commission hears

Gcabashe asked whether the FDC was best suited to take over the running of the project, saying: "We have already led evidence that they themselves were in trouble and were being restructured, and at the tail end of 2018 there were real difficulties that they seem not to be able to resolve.

"Previous testimony shows that Estina was not in the agriculture business, its skills were in IT while this particular service provider's experts were in construction."

Rockman responded, saying the service provider suffered as a result of this dispute.

"In the process, no one paid [the service provider] so it ended up almost carrying the costs of the Vrede dairy farm on its own in the hope that the government would one day sort out whatever bureaucracy problems stood in the way of making payments," she added.

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