The battle against State Capture suffered a major setback when charges against eight accused were provisionally withdrawn in the Bloemfontein Regional Court. They were arrested in February for their alleged involvement in the multi-million rand corruption of the Estina dairy project in Vrede in the Free State.

It started with twin raids at the Free State Premier’s Office and Headquarters of the provincial Agriculture Department. The Hawks seized several documents. This was followed by the arrests of eight people, including government officials and politically-connected Gupta business associates.

They were accused of siphoning funds from the multimillion rand Estina dairy project in Vrede. The project was meant to empower disadvantaged Free State farmers:

“We don’t have work, we don’t have firms. We were happy that we were only going to have one firm,” says a farmer.

“We were promised that we would be beneficiaries of the farm…they told us even our children will be part of the project and we were promised to get money,” adds another farmer.

“We ask government to give us portion of land that is not used…we want our cows to be able to eat. if government decides otherwise it’s fine, but our cows shouldn’t die when there’s land available,” says another farmer.

The court battle was not without challenges for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). The State was dealt fatal blows in the two previous cases involving the politically-connected Gupta family.

In March, the High Court ordered the State to return R10 million to Atul Gupta after his account was frozen by the Asset Forfeiture Unit and that the alleged crime proceeds be reduced from R220 million to R40 million.

The court also ordered the return of assets worth more than RR250 million which were seized in April.

Free State NPA Spokesperson Phaladi Shuping says that some of the money was transferred into foreign companies’ bank accounts.

“Some of the amounts of monies went into the bank accounts of foreign companies and we have to get a mutual legal agreement with those foreign companies for us to get statements that we can use in the case.”

In August, the NPA asked the Bloemfontein Regional Court to postpone the more than R220 million corruption case to gather more evidence. The prosecuting authority argued that it had been perusing more than 300 bank statements and that they were awaiting more information from India and the United Arab Emirates.

By early December, the NPA had not received information regarding the Mutual Legal Assistance requests made to India and the United Arab Emirates. As a result, they were left with no option but to provisionally withdraw charges against the accused.

Legal Expert Lebogang Mokhele says that the case can still be reinstated if the state gathers enough evidence.

ANC Free State spokesperson Thabo Meeko insists that the Estina dairy project be preserved.

“Even today after all these things have happened the PEC says the project must be retained, the project must be kept, the project must be maintained.”

However, opposition parties demand answers.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Free State Spokesperson Mandisa Makesini says that the scandal has robbed people of their wealth.

“We are going to meet with the NPA in the province and we are going to challenge, but we are very concerned about the fate of the people of Phumelela municipality because they’ve been robbed of their wealth.”

Democratic Alliance (DA) Legislator Lehlogonolo Letuka says that party principals were not investigated.

“Officials in the department are essentially implementers of what has been decided upon by politicians who are their principals, but those principals were never investigated.”

Freeedom Front Plus Legislator Tammy Wessels says that there is political interference.

“It is greatly worrying and it would seem there’s political interference into this case.”

The arrests were largely seen as a bold step in the State Capture combat.

Meanwhile, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane exonerated politicians and implicated senior government officials in her report on the project. The DA has taken the report on review.

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