Taxpayers’ money was wasted on an unnecessary trip to India in pursuit of the Estina dairy farm project, the commission of inquiry into state capture heard on Thursday.
A 2012 trip to India, taken by former Free State department of agriculture head Peter Thabethe and Ashok Nayaran, the adviser to former premier Ace Magashule, had commission head Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo questioning its merits.
The trip, Thabethe confirmed, was undertaken by his department.
Zondo questioned why Nayaran had to accompany Thabethe on the trip.
“Surely, you must ask yourself the questions: Is there a need for my department to spend money on this person to travel to India and back? What is the value that this person is going to add to what I’m going to India for? Surely, you have to ask that question as the accounting officer of the department, do you not agree?”
Thabethe replied it was not easy to ask questions.
Zondo replied: “Some of the things in our country have gone wrong and people have kept quiet because they say it’s not easy. What is it that makes it not easy to ask questions?”
Thabethe, after deliberation, conceded he should have questioned this.
The commission further traversed the merits of the trip, interrogating why it was necessary and what it had accomplished.
In the motivation for the trip – addressed to Magashule instead of the Free State agriculture and rural development MEC at the time, Mosebenzi Zwane – the two were to visit a dairy farm in India.
However, advocate Leah Gcabashe, the commission’s evidence leader, was sceptical as to why the trip was necessary or why Nayaran went on it.
“That is exactly why we have a high commission in New Delhi … they are there to support not only organs of state like provincial governments, but even ordinary business people who travel to those countries. Why did you have to get on a plane and physically go to India?”
Thabethe said this was because they had to physically verify “certain aspects”, saying the trip was not supposed to be a long one because of this.
Unsatisfied, Gcabashe turned to why Nayaran had to go along.
“He was not an official, he was not a public functionary, he was not an employee of your department, he was not an employee of the premier’s office and yet you spent government money on a private individual who I’m sure could have jolly-well paid for himself if he wanted to go to India.”
Gcabashe said Nayaran did not have expertise in dairy farming, nor was he an agriculturalist, and he was not yet part of Magashule’s advisory office.
However, Thabethe said he could not answer this because that decision was in the hands of the MEC. He added this was not the first time the department had paid for a private individual’s travels.
“I should have questioned as the chair was indicating to me, but I didn’t question,” Thabethe said.
The commission further detailed how public funds were carelessly spent, including R17 million that was spent on “three dairy plans”, which included feasibility studies, business plans and environmental impact studies.
Gcabashe questioned this, saying a “bright idea” does not warrant taxpayer money being “thrown into finding out whether it is practical or not”.
Thabethe will continue his testimony on Friday.