Newly unearthed records from the #GuptaLeaks suggest former agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson, then provincial agriculture MEC Mosebenzi Zwane and other government officials repeatedly met with one of the Gupta brothers at key junctures during the roll-out of the infamous Vrede dairy project. Our investigation connects new dots in one of South Africa’s most sordid corruption sagas.
Crucially, Joemat-Pettersson and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta apparently met in Saxonwold before the national department of agriculture made key decisions regarding funding for the Vrede project. What’s more, new details on laptop deals in the Free State involving Sahara Computers link Ace Magashule to Kamal Vasram, the Guptas’ point-man for the failed dairy venture.
Ga-Motlatla, one of the small villages in the Thaba Nchu constituency some 80km to the east of Bloemfontein, was unusually busy on 29 March 2012.
Then Free State premier Ace Magashule and some of his fellow Executive Council (ExCo) members had chosen to deliver their respective departments’ budget vote speeches in the otherwise quiet village. In a large tent erected for the event, Magashule outlined some of the plans for his department’s budget of just over R250-million for the new financial year.
A transcript of Magashule’s speech contained two seemingly minor details that may just represent the earliest documented links between the former premier and some of the Gupta associates involved in state capture schemes. This includes the Vrede dairy scandal and — as Scorpio can now reveal — government deals that benefited Sahara Computers.
Firstly, Magashule announced the names of thirteen people who would form part of a new “Premier’s Advisory Council”. This body would be chaired by Jessie Duarte, and her fellow council members included such luminaries as Brian Molefe, then NUM General Secretary Frans Baleni, soccer boss Irvin Khoza and billionaire retail magnate Whitey Basson, Magashule announced.
Perhaps the most obscure member of this council was one Ashok Narayan. Magashule simply described him as being “from the IT sector”. But Narayan would later be exposed as a key cog in the Guptas’ state capture machinery, most notably in amaBhungane reports that detailed his involvement in the Gupta-linked front company Homix. Narayan would also play a role in the Vrede dairy saga.
Meanwhile, Magashule’s announcement of a new advisory panel took even his ExCo colleagues by surprise.
“When Ace announced the names, we all just looked at each other. There was no ExCo resolution to approve it,” said one former Free State MEC.
Some of the individuals included on the list describe the advisory council as a “wish list”. They say the structure never really got off the ground.
Baleni said he had been invited by one of Magashule’s MECs to join such a panel, but he subsequently received no further information on when the body would meet or how he was supposed to contribute to it.
Another panel member, who asked to remain anonymous, said he attended one gathering at Free State House, the premier’s official residence in Bloemfontein.
“On about two other occasions I was summoned to Bloemfontein for panel meetings, but, after I had travelled there, the meetings would be cancelled at the last minute. I eventually asked to be excused because it was a waste of time,” said this person.
But at least one member of the group, namely Narayan, did perform tasks for Magashule.
A month before Magashule announced the names of his advisory panel, Narayan had embarked on a trip to India along with Peter Thabethe, the then head of department (HOD) for the Free State’s department of agriculture.
The main purpose of the trip was to do to research and meet with possible collaborators for the pending Vrede dairy project. This we know from Thabethe’s sworn affidavit, filed as part of the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA) case against the former HOD and his co-accused in the Vrede matter. The case was provisionally withdrawn in November 2018 pending further investigation.
Back in 2012, after his department had identified opportunities to forge partnerships for the dairy venture, “[Thabethe] made a request to the Premier Honourable ES Magashule on recommendations of the former MEC Mosebenzi Zwane to take a trip to India accompanied by Mr. Ashok Narayana [sic] an Advisor to the office of the premier at that time. On 29th February 2012 and return on the 4th March 2012,” reads the former HODs sworn statement.
Zwane, who later became the national minister of mineral resources in former president Jacob Zuma’s cabinet, now serves as the chairperson of parliament’s portfolio committee on transport.
In his affidavit, Thabethe seemed at pains to put distance between himself, his department and Narayan.
“After [the] India trip Mr. Narayana [sic] went back to the office of the Premier as he was not part of my team,” reads his statement.
Thanks to Thabethe’s affidavit, we now know that Magashule had closely worked with a known Gupta associate during the earliest parts of the Vrede saga.
Magashule made another announcement during his March 2012 budget vote speech that is relevant to this story.
“Last year we also announced our Laptops for Bursary holders programme. We will be handing over the first laptops that we have received from various individuals and the private sector immediately after the Easter holiday period when our tertiary institutions re-open,” Magashule told his audience in Ga-Motlatla.
At that point, the Free State provincial government’s bursary scheme for needy students was already up and running. Magashule’s apparent benevolence saw thousands of bursaries being awarded to students in the province.
Magashule now wanted to ensure that each of the bursary holders received a laptop computer.
Events that unfolded not long after his 2012 budget vote speech suggest that his supposed concern for poor students was at least partly informed by an apparent plan to divert millions of rands from his province’s coffers to Sahara Computers, the Gupta family’s main IT business.
We’ll get back to the laptops after unpacking further developments around the Vrede dairy saga.
In June 2010, Zuma embarked on his first state visit to India.
The South African president was accompanied by business people and senior government officials, including then agriculture minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson.
The Guptas had also somehow wormed their way into the delegation.
In fact, it appeared to some delegation members that the Guptas had taken control of Zuma’s entire itinerary. At the time, the Mail & Guardian reported that Ajay Gupta led the business delegation. The State Security Agency (SSA) later launched a probe into the then relatively unknown family, partly because of their conduct during the state visit.
It is tempting to point to the 2010 India trip as the genesis of the disastrous dairy project that would be initiated in Magashule’s home province about two years later.
On 4 June 2010, during a meeting with her Indian counterparts in New Delhi, Joemat-Pettersson signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for “Agricultural Cooperation” between South Africa and India.
The former agriculture minister strongly denies that this MOU paved the way for the Vrede project, but Thabethe’s affidavit indicates that the document was indeed factored into his department’s decision-making.
Explaining why he and Ashok Narayan, the Gupta associate who served on Magashule’s advisory panel, had travelled to India in early 2012, Thabethe stated the following: “In terms of our analysis India was identified as the highest milk producer and there was already an existing bilateral agreement between South Africa and India. See attachment MPT3.”
The attachment referred to is the very MOU Joemat-Pettersson had signed in New Delhi in June 2010.
Joemat-Pettersson remained adamant that the 2010 MOU had nothing to do with the Vrede dairy project. She also said she did not meet with or speak to any of the Guptas or their associates during the India trip.
“Yes, they were on the trip but I did not have any contact with them,” Joemat-Pettersson told Scorpio. However, two years later, she would have more than one engagement with the controversial family.
“Estina” Tina’s Saxonwold visits
The first in a series of meetings between Rajesh “Tony” Gupta and the alleged public sector enablers of the Vrede dairy project took place in May 2012, two months after Thabethe and Narayan had returned from India.
According to meeting reminders for Gupta, retrieved from the #GuptaLeaks, Joemat-Pettersson received the businessman at Agriculture Place, the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ (DAFF) head office in Pretoria.
The #GuptaLeaks material indicates that Gupta had scores of meetings scheduled with the likes of Joemat-Pettersson, Thabethe, Zwane and Magashule throughout the three years during which the Free State government paid Estina the bulk of its Vrede dairy revenues.
Zwane and Thabethe’s alleged visits to Saxonwold briefly featured in a Sunday Times report on the leaked emails, but this is the first time that the frequency of Gupta’s scheduled meetings with the officials is unpacked in detail alongside developments around the dairy project. Joemat-Pettersson’s contact with the youngest Gupta brother has also remained under wraps until now.
Keeping in mind that the Free State could not have proceeded with its dairy plans without the DAFF’s input, and considering the timing of certain developments in the saga, Joemat-Pettersson’s meetings with Gupta warrant suspicion.
For instance, on 15 May 2012, the very next day after the meeting in Pretoria, Estina submitted its commercial proposal for the dairy project to the Free State department of agriculture. This is according to a document filed in the Vrede criminal case.
The #GuptaLeaks appointment records also show that Gupta associates Ashu Chawla and Evan Tak were due to attend the first meeting with Joemat-Pettersson along with their boss.
The former minister admits that she received a “delegation” that included Tony Gupta, but she maintains that the Vrede dairy wasn’t discussed whatsoever.
“As far as I can remember it was a delegation arranged by the Indian embassy. The discussion was about cooperation between the two countries,” Joemat-Pettersson told Scorpio.
But it is a meeting that Joemat-Pettersson apparently had with Tony Gupta a few weeks later that should really raise eyebrows.
According to another record from the #GuptaLeaks, Tony Gupta and Joemat-Pettersson hooked up at the family’s estate in Saxonwold on 1 June 2012.
“Mr Tony Meeting Minister Agri / Iqbal / Ashok @ 5pm – 7pm,” reads the meeting reminder.
It is not clear whether the “Iqbal” referred to is Iqbal Sharma, one of the scores of businessmen who has been linked to shady dealings with the Guptas.
“I don’t recall any such meeting. In fact, I have never met Minister [Joemat-] Pettersson,” Sharma said in a WhatsApp message. However, he admitted that he had been at the Gupta residence on numerous occasions.
It seems likely that “Ashok” would have been Ashok Narayan, the Gupta associate Magashule had appointed to his advisory council a few months before.
A source who had also visited Saxonwold during that time says Narayan attended meetings at the Gupta residence and that the Vrede dairy project had been the main talking point during such gatherings.
If Joemat-Pettersson indeed saw Tony Gupta on 1 June, a Friday, the meeting would have been followed by these events: The following Tuesday, 5 June, one Sanjeev Gautam, apparently Estina’s “managing director”, signed the Vrede contract on behalf of the company. Two days later, Thabethe and then Free State agriculture chief financial officer Seipati Dhlamini — another of the accused in the Vrede case — concluded the deal by signing the document.
Incredibly, after Thabethe and Dhlamini had signed the contract, it took only five days for their former department to transfer the first huge tranche of money to Estina. Payment documentation unpacked in the public protector’s Vrede report indicate that the department paid Estina R30-million on 11 June. According to a report by law firm ENS, commissioned by the National Treasury in 2013, the first payment went through on 12 June.
This was the first of several payments that make up the R280-million Estina ended up milking from the department.
According to the contract between Estina and the provincial department of agriculture, the R30-million was for the “kick starting of the project” and had to be paid “as an advance upon [the] signing of [the] Agreement”.
But there had been a major hurdle that stood in the way of Estina receiving the R30-million advance payment. Documents filed in the Vrede case suggest that only Joemat-Pettersson’s national department of agriculture could have cleared this hurdle.
About two weeks after Joemat-Pettersson allegedly met with Tony Gupta in Saxonwold, the Free State department of agriculture submitted a request to the provincial treasury. The department sought approval to shift considerably more money towards the dairy project. The signatures of Zwane, Thabethe and Dhlamini, along with those of a few provincial treasury officials, appear on the document.
The department stated that a “resolution” had been taken to “upscale” the Vrede dairy project. The formal budgeting for the department’s projects in that financial year had already been done, but if treasury would approve the department’s “shift of allocated project budgets”, it would have had access to enough money to cover the R30-million upfront payment to Estina.
In other words, the department wanted to take money away from other budgeted projects in order to pay Estina’s upfront fee. Included in the department’s submission was a schedule that detailed how the intended shifting of funds would affect 75 of the department’s agriculture projects for the 2012/13 financial year.
Thabethe, Dhlamini and the treasury officials signed the latter document on 19 and 20 June respectively, just over a week after the department paid the R30-million to Estina. It may seem strange that the former HOD and his colleagues sought approval for the transfer only after it had been made. But according to the document, the Division of Revenue Act (DORA) allowed the department to seek approval “within 30 days of such changes”.
But the intended alterations to the year’s budget had far-reaching implications for the conditional grant funding that the Free State department of agriculture had received from Joemat-Pettersson’s national DAFF, most notably through the Comprehensive Agricultural Support (CASP) and Ilima-Letsema programs.
If the provincial department wanted to effect such drastic financial changes to programs funded from the national fiscus, it would require approval from the national department, according to the document.
“The proposed shift of funds between projects has already been discussed with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) [sic] in principle,” reads the request signed by Zwane, Thabethe and Dhlamini.
The R30-million upfront payment had therefore been made to Estina only eleven days after Joemat-Pettersson apparently met with Tony Gupta in Saxonwold. What is more, the transaction may have been facilitated through financial manoeuvring that had been approved by her DAFF, at least according to the document from the Vrede case.
However, the DAFF said it could find no evidence that its provincial counterpart requested approval for adjustments to that year’s budgeted programs, or that it approved such alterations.
“The Division of Revenue Act makes provision for funds to be reallocated if under-expenditure is anticipated in one area; but such changes must first be approved by the National Transferring Officer. The Free State department of agriculture would have to provide proof of such approval by the DAFF to their provincial treasury before such changes are made. We cannot confirm that such approval was given as we have no record of such request received by [the] DAFF,” the department stated in a written response.
Daff’s R53m Vrede boost
What cannot be disputed, however, is that the DAFF did approve a submission from the provincial department to use conditional grant money for the dairy venture in the 2013/’14 financial year. This approval was granted in early 2013, about four months after Joemat-Pettersson’s final scheduled meeting with Tony Gupta.
Thabethe’s affidavit tells us the following: “Further consultation was done with the national department of agriculture in order for them to participate in the funding of the project. The submission made to the national [department] was accepted; hence the original budget allocation was from (CASP) Comprehensive Agricultural Support Program. This was done due to the allocated amount by [the] provincial government was not sufficient to carry and complete the project.”
Estina had wanted R114-million from the Free State agriculture department for the 2013/14 financial year. This was in addition to the R30-million upfront payment it had received in June 2012.
According to additional documentation from the Vrede case, the DAFF had agreed to contribute R53-million through CASP funding, while the provincial department of agriculture would cover the rest from its equitable share allocation.
The DAFF had therefore committed to covering almost half of Estina’s 2013/14 Vrede haul.
One of the #GuptaLeaks meeting records suggests that the then agriculture minister saw Gupta at his family’s compound on 1 October 2012, a day before Magashule and then communications minister Dina Pule were expected at the residence.
Four months later, on 30 and 31 January 2013, the Free State department of agriculture presented its business plan for 2013/14 to the DAFF’s National Assessment Panel (NAP), according to a response from the department.
The Vrede dairy project was included in the proposal, which formed the basis for the DAFF’s decision to channel R53-million in CASP funding to the dairy venture.
It is not clear whether Zwane or Thabethe formed part of the Free State delegation, but the #GuptaLeaks suggest there had been a flurry of activity at Saxonwold involving the project’s main role-players at the same time the DAFF’s NAP considered the Free State’s business plan.
On 31 January, Tony Gupta was scheduled to meet “Peter HOD”. The next day, Gupta was due to receive “Peter” at Saxonwold, followed by a meeting with “Zwane + DG”.
Joemat-Pettersson, who now chairs Parliament’s portfolio committee on police, admitted that she went to the Saxonwold estate. She did not provide exact dates.
“Yes, I went there, it was like a [social] function or something,” said Joemat-Pettersson.
But she strongly denied that the dairy venture ever came up.
“There were absolutely no discussions around the Vrede project,” the former minister insisted.
“The first time Estina came to my attention was when I read about it in the Mail & Guardian. I then instructed the DAFF to stop all payments until further investigation.”
In a letter dated 25 July 2013, the DAFF indeed instructed the provincial department to stop making payments to Estina using conditional grant funding.
However, by that time, Estina had already pocketed R114-million of taxpayers’ money, partly funded with the national department’s CASP allocation. And the Free State provincial government would continue to make payments to Estina. By April 2016, after a final payment from the department, Estina had in total squeezed R280-million from the public purse.
Vrede’s ‘sacrificial lamb’
During the time in which the Vrede dairy project was being put together, Tony Gupta apparently also regularly hosted Zwane and Thabethe, the provincial department of agriculture’s head honchos at the time.
The #GuptaLeaks reflect no less than twelve meetings between Gupta and either Zwane or his former HOD, Thabethe, between September 2012 and January 2014. On at least two of those occasions, “Zwane and Peter” were apparently due to meet Tony Gupta together.
Three of the seven meetings involving Zwane were scheduled to take place before Magashule moved him from the department of agriculture to the department of economic development in a March 2013 ExCo reshuffle.
The youngest Gupta brother also had a meeting scheduled for 20 March 2013 with someone labelled as “CFO Agri”. Not long after that date, the Free State department of agriculture paid Estina a whopping R114-million in three further tranches.
Scorpio asked Dhlamini, the department’s then chief financial officer, if she had visited Saxonwold on that date.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” she responded.
Thabethe did not answer his phone or respond to messages.
Zwane, on the other hand, invited Scorpio to discuss the matter in person.
Speaking in his new office at Parliament, the former MEC first took a swipe at the media. He bemoaned the fact that the Vrede matter is still drawing attention.
“Look at things like Bosasa, those scandals disappear in two weeks. Seven years after Vrede you are still writing about it,” said Zwane.
He claimed that the media is “hell-bent” on portraying him in a negative light and that he had become the “sacrificial lamb” for the Vrede debacle.
“As long as I’m here [in Parliament], you guys are going to come after me.”
But did he meet Tony Gupta at Saxonwold in 2012 and 2013, while his department was overseeing the dairy venture?
Zwane claimed he only held meetings with the family “maybe two, three times”, and only after he had become minister of mineral resources in 2015. He added that he did attend a Diwali celebration at the Guptas’ house at an earlier point in time, but he couldn’t remember when.
“I do not remember the frequency you are talking about,” Zwane said after he had been presented with some of the meeting records from the #GuptaLeaks.
“Me and Peter Thabethe have never met with Tony Gupta under one roof, I can’t remember that. To do what?” he wanted to know.
“I have not discussed Estina with the Guptas,” insisted Zwane.
He also suggested that the #GuptaLeaks might be fake.
The ink on the Vrede dairy contract was probably still wet when a new plan was allegedly put in motion to extract even more money from the Free State’s coffers.
Kamal Vasram, Estina’s director, would again play a central role. So too would Ace Magashule, according to sources familiar with the dealings.
This time, the suspected scheming involved laptop deals between Magashule’s provincial government, including his own department of the premier, and an apparent front company for the Guptas’ Sahara Computers.
Starting in August 2012, the then Free State premier began to make good on his promise of gifting free laptops to students, as announced in his budget vote speech five months before. His official diary, obtained through a PAIA request, confirms that Magashule presided over “handover of laptops” ceremonies at tertiary institutions in Bloemfontein and elsewhere in the province.
The government newspaper Vuk’uzenzele carried an article on one of the August ceremonies. It included a photo of excited students collecting their new computers from a smiling Magashule. The picture also held a small clue — the red-and-white boxes Magashule was handing out contained the very same Toshiba laptops that Sahara Computers had been selling at the time thanks to a distribution deal with the Japanese electronics giant.
Was Magashule’s admirable vision of gifting computers to young people merely another get-rich-quick scheme involving the very people who were already looting his province’s coffers through the dairy venture? New material from the #GuptaLeaks, additional documents and source accounts certainly suggest so.
In June 2011, about three years after he had registered Estina, Vasram established a company called Sunbay Trading. In that same month, he also became a director in Siyabuselela Trading and Enterprise 282, which links him to Ashok Narayan, the man who would later become Magashule’s adviser for the Vrede dairy. Vasram replaced Narayan as a director in Siyabuselela soon after it was registered. It is not clear what Siyabuselela traded in, but Sunbay Trading would quickly become a very active company.
The first sign that Magashule’s department was gearing up to do business with Sunbay came at the start of July 2012. Email exchanges between staffers at the department of the premier and the State Information Technology Agency reflect the prior’s interest in buying laptops from the company. Vasram’s Estina had signed the Vrede dairy contract only one month before.
The department of the premier last week refused to divulge details on its dealings with Sunbay, but two sources familiar with the matter say the company was contracted to supply laptops to the provincial government in the latter half of 2012.
Asked how Magashule’s administration had stumbled upon Sunbay, one of the sources — a top-level official — said: “It could only have been Ace.”
Magashule’s initiative was a win-win for all the parties involved. The then premier’s free laptops bolstered his support base and ensured positive media coverage. And yes, scores of needy students received much-needed assistance. But, by all appearances, it was also good business for Sunbay and ultimately for the Guptas.
Financial records from the #GuptaLeaks confirm that Sunbay was sourcing large quantities of laptops from Sahara Computers. In fact, between 7 and 22 September 2012, shortly after Magashule started dishing out free computers, Sunbay transferred R28-million to Sahara in four payments.
Scorpio couldn’t obtain documentary evidence to confirm that any of these payments related to the laptops Magashule handed out in 2012, but #GuptaLeaks documentation regarding a 2014 laptops transaction show exactly how Sunbay Trading seemingly acted as a front for Sahara Computers in a deal with Magashule’s department.
In April 2014, Sunbay Trading received a commitment letter from the acting head of supply chain management at the department of the premier. The letter instructed Sunbay to “continue with the procurement of Computer Equipment” in accordance with a quote that the company had sent the department a few weeks before. The quote, for R4.5-million, was for 277 Toshiba laptops, the same brand the premier had handed out in 2012.
A series of e-mail exchanges from May 2014 underpin the close proximity between Sunbay Trading and Sahara Computers.
When in early May an official from the department of the premier sent Vasram the order for the 277 laptops, Vasram forwarded it to Narayan, Magashule’s adviser on the Vrede dairy. Narayan in turn sent it to Sahara Computers’ Ashu Chawla.
And on 23 May 2014, the department’s acting supply chain management boss sent the proof of payment for the R4.5-million transaction directly to Narayan, who then forwarded it to Chawla and Evan Tak, another Sahara Computers employee. “Waiting for it [the payment] to reflect in Sunbay account. Kamal will release as soon as it reflects,” Narayan added in the email he forwarded to the Sahara Computers employees.
Kamal Vasram stayed true to his word. On 28 May, Sunbay deposited R4.2-million into Sahara Computers’ ABSA account. For his efforts, Vasram apparently got to keep about R300,000 from the Free State deal after paying Sahara.
Meanwhile, Magashule apparently had several meetings at Saxonwold after his department’s first laptop deals with Sunbay and while the Vrede dairy saga was playing out.
The #GuptaLeaks suggest Tony Gupta first met someone referred to as “Gift Father” at 4pm on 2 October 2012. He then apparently saw “Diana Pule Ace” at 6pm. Tshepiso Gift Magashule, the then premier’s eldest son, had been working for the Guptas at the time.
According to Magashule’s official diary, he also attended two meetings in Saxonwold on different dates in January 2013.
Scorpio asked the Free State department of the premier for a breakdown of its laptop deals with Sunbay Trading and for proof that the relevant procurement laws and regulations had been followed.
Instead of providing the requested details, the department responded with the same broad, vague answers that it gave this reporter in relation to an unrelated contract.
“The Free State provincial government has always abided by the principles of good governance and sound financial management. [It] supports the principles and prescripts governing supply chain management and confirms that due processes are always followed when procurement decisions are made,” said spokesperson Tiisetso Makhele.
In light of the new details on Magashule’s apparent ties to the Guptas and Vasram’s dual involvement in Estina and the Free State laptop deals, Makhele’s blanket response rings a little hollow.
The Guptas did not respond to queries sent to their lawyer. ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe confirmed receipt of queries for Magashule’s attention, but there was no response from the ANC secretary-general. Vasram confirmed that he had received Scorpio’s queries and indicated that he would respond, but he had not done so by the time this story was published.
Narayan could not be reached for comment.