The management of the controversial R570-million state-funded dairy farm in Vrede, Free State, appears to have limited experience, because the cows on the farm are dying an unknown condition that could be caused by malnutrition, two independent veterinary sources said this week.
The sources, both familiar with the project, asked not to be named. They said postmortem examinations could have determined the causes of death, but none were conducted.
On a visit to the farm two weeks ago, amaBhungane saw the carcasses of about 30 cows that had been dumped in a ditch.
Water affairs department spokesperson Themba Khumalo confirmed the figure.
It is understood that there are about 350 cows on the farm, into which the Free State government has ploughed at least R114-million. The Mail & Guardian has revealed that investigators appointed by the treasury are probing the scheme.
On Wednesday, in an apparent response to the M&G’s coverage, a cavalcade of top Free State government officials arrived at the farm in a convoy of luxury vehicles to hold talks with Chandrama Prasad, who describes himself as the project co-ordinator but concedes that he knows nothing about farming.
Led by the provincial agriculture minister Mamiki Qabathe, the delegation also included the agriculture department head Peter Thabethe, chief financial officer Dipatlhe Dlamini, Vrede mayor John Motaung, regional agriculture director Alta Meyer and provincial state vet Mukelebai Mundia.
They would not allow amaBhungane to attend their meeting and refused to be interviewed.
On February 15 the Blue Scorpions, the water affairs unit responsible for investigating water-related crimes, also visited the farm, following a complaint that the animal carcasses might have polluted the Atlas River, which supplies Vrede with water.
Khumalo said the company overseeing the farm, Estina, was instructed to “exhume an estimated 30 dead cattle they buried on the banks of a local river and incinerate them”.
In an interview Prasad, an Indian citizen, said no postmortems were conducted on the dead cows “because one cow will die this time and another later; they didn’t die all at once”. He said the remaining cows were fine but refused to elaborate and said amaBhungane should speak to Kamal Vasram, the sole director of Estina, which has a 49% stake in the farm. But Prasad said he did not have Vasram’s contact numbers or know the address of Estina’s office, except that it is located in Bedfordview, Johannesburg.
Vasram is a computer sales manager who earlier told amaBhungane he has no farming experience.
When amaBhungane visited the farm on Wednesday, Prasad was speaking, apparently in Hindi, to two men he confirmed were Indian nationals. He refused to give their names, but said they would be trained to do various jobs relating to the farm, including work on computers.
One of the veterinary sources said it was clear that the farm, which was labour-intensive and needed expertise, was being run by people with “no clue about what they are doing”.
In an apparent reference to the project’s favoured status in provincial government circles, the source said: “Any other farmer would have been in trouble with the state vet. After maybe two or three cows died a vet should have been called. I think because people running this dairy don’t have farming experience, they didn’t know this.”
Both veterinary sources and some farmworkers interviewed by amaBhungane said the cows were thin and some were suffering from diarrhoea. Said one: “For months there was a food mixer for cattle that was not used. It was brand-new and those machines don’t come cheap. I think no one knew how to operate it.”
Prasad denied the allegations, saying the farm was in regular contact with a local private vet, Pieter Myburg, who visited several times a month to check on the animals’ welfare. But Myburg denied that he had made regular trips to the farm: “I’ve been called to the dairy three times: in May and September last year and then two weeks ago after the article about the farm [appeared in the M&G].”
He refused to comment further about his last visit and findings.
A farmworker who did not want to be named described the situation as “really bad” and claimed that cows are still dying. There were communication difficulties with Prasad, the worker said, but “it doesn’t matter because he is clueless; he only shouts at the building contractors”.
Asked who is providing the farming expertise for the project, Prasad pointed to Bertus Geyser, a local dairy farmer employed by Estina as an adviser in January this year.
The visits by Free State agriculture department officials and the Blue Scorpions followed amaBhungane revelations that millions of rands in provincial government money had been channelled to Estina in the absence of market research, proper budgetary provision, monitoring how the money was used and without following supply chain procedures.
Qabathe was whisked away as soon as she arrived, and Thabethe said the department would not comment to the media as the project is under forensic investigation by the treasury.
Asked whether he was concerned about dead cows being buried beside a river, Vrede mayor Motaung denied any cows had died. “After we saw the article [in the M&G] and the picture, we went to the site and there was nothing,” he insisted.
Water affairs, however, said in a statement that on February 15 Prasad showed the Blue Scorpions the area where the cows had been dumped. Prasad had told them Estina had recently buried cows that had fallen ill and died, the statement said.
Local Democratic Alliance councillor Doctor Radebe, a vocal critic of the dairy project, said he had lodged a complaint with the Blue Scorpions after seeing that the mass grave was close to the river. “I was concerned that the water is contaminated and panicked, because no one seemed to know the cause of death.”
Radebe also complained about the secrecy surrounding the project, saying he had put questions to the ANC-led council but was ignored.
“They don’t even put the dairy project on the agenda. The last time it was discussed was in 2012 when Thabethe and Estina people came to present the project to us,” he said.