A controversial Free State dairy farm faces tough questions from the Blue Scorpions over the dumping of dead cows in a ditch near a river on the property.
The Blue Scorpions are the unit within the department of water affairs responsible for tackling water-related crimes.
Last week, the Mail & Guardian revealed that the R570-million project was set up with provincial government money, which was channelled to a private company, Estina, without following any supply-chain procedures.
The exposé was accompanied by gory pictures of a heap of cow carcasses in a gully a few metres away from a river that provides water to the residents of the town of Vrede.
The national department of water affairs says the Blue Scorpions started to investigate the dairy farm last week after a tip-off from a member of the public. Spokesperson Themba Khumalo said the investigation would focus on several issues, although the main one would be water pollution.
“That … violated the National Water Act. You cannot dump waste just anywhere, let alone near the river … By doing so, you are putting the downstream users at risk of contracting diseases, because some people don’t know that water is toxic as they use the water from the river for drinking, cooking and washing,” Khumalo said.
“They [whoever dumped the dead cattle] are in big trouble and serious steps will be taken against them.”
AmaBhungane visited the dairy farm last week and saw the smelly ditch infested with flies hovering over the carcasses.
But it is unlikely that the mystery surrounding the death of the cows will be solved soon. Residents nearby reported that, after the article was published, the carcasses were burnt and the ditch was covered up.
AmaBhungane has no proof that the cows belonged to or were dumped by Estina but the company failed to respond to allegations that it was responsible.
The regional state veterinarian, Mukelebai Mundia, said he was not told about the dead cows and had only read about it in the M&G.
He said that, according to the law, the farmer was not obliged to report the deaths to him if the cows died of a non-notifiable disease. But, in the interests of disease control, he would visit the site to see what was going on.
Khumalo said the department of water affairs was also investigating whether Estina had the necessary water-use licence.
But an official who checked the department of water affairs’s database told amaBhungane he could not find a water-user registration or licence for Estina or the farm.
An employee of the Vrede department of agriculture who did not want to be named said there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the project, and even top local officials did not know what was going on.
“No one even goes near the farm, even just to check how things are progressing,” the employee said. “We were told this is a provincial project and they will handle everything.”
The employee said this was strange as local officials inspected other projects and submitted progress reports to the province.
Estina does not appear to have been involved in agriculture before. Its sole director and shareholder is a computer sales manager, Kamal Vasram. The Vrede project itself is being managed by an Indian citizen, Chandrama Prasad Yadav.
Yadav is the former secretary to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, the brother of the current public works minister for Uttar Pradesh, Shivpal Singh Yadav, who was a guest at the infamous Gupta family wedding at Sun City.
The provincial government, the Gupta family and Vasram have all denied Gupta involvement in the project, save for a short consulting contract performed by Linkway Trading, a Gupta company.
Why the Free State is committed to pouring hundreds of millions rands into an untested company remains a mystery as the agriculture department and the office of Premier Ace Magashule have never responded to amaBhungane’s questions.
Vasram and Prasad have also ducked questions put to them by amaBhungane, including:
- Allegations are that your cattle have been dying for the past few months and the dumping of carcasses has been happening since last year … Is this true?
- Why did you burn the carcasses … Was it our article that encouraged you to do so?
Magashule's office responds
Free State premier Ace Magashule's spokesperson, Mondli Mvambi, sent the following response after the Mail & Guardian had gone to print:
“We wish to draw your attention to the fact that we have complained to the Department of National Treasury about the fact that the transcription of an interview was allegedly given to Mail & Guardian.
“ENS has denied that they ever provided Mail & Guardian with a transcript and this has become a subject of their investigation.
“Before we can respond on all the allegations that the Mail & Guardian has made in an article published on February 7 to 13 2014 and subsequent follow up enquiry, we would like Mail & Guardian to tell us where and how they got the alleged transcript as its authenticity is in serious doubt.
“Furthermore, the allegations made against the Vrede Dairy Project are not true as the project is progressing very well.”
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.