After Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane's initial report into the Estina dairy project drew widespread criticism, she is giving it another go – this time with her sights on the bigger prize, ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule.
Although questions have been raised (on numerous occasions) about Mkhwebane's credibility as an apolitical watchdog, her commitment to the justice portfolio committee on Tuesday to open a case file to probe the role of politicians in the Estina matter is a step in the right direction.
But in doing so, Mkhwebane will have to go up against ANC heavyweights Ace Magashule (Free State premier and ANC secretary-general) and Mosebenzi Zwane (former minerals and energy minister and Jacob Zuma loyalist, and a Free State MEC when Estina was launched). For this to be accomplished, the "Zuma-blinkers" need to come off.
#PublicProtector Busisiwe Mkhwebane says she will investigate the involvement of former Free State premier Ace Magashule and former MEC Mosebenzi Zwane in the Vrede dairy farm project. GD— EWN Reporter (@ewnreporter) April 17, 2018
The 'whitewashed' report
Released in February and described by the DA as "absolutely disgraceful", Mkhwebane's first report into the Gupta-linked Estina dairy project in Vrede only touched the surface of allegations surrounding the R220-million deal – and implicated provincial department officials, rather than the alleged main conspirators.
Leaked emails from the Gupta business empire revealed that a draft contract for the project, skewed in Estina's favour, was allegedly drawn up by Magashule's legal adviser, who is said to have ties to the Gupta family.
The emails also showed that the dairy project appeared to be conceived during a visit to India, the Guptas' homeland, by Zwane – who was the province's agriculture and rural development MEC at the time – and senior officials employed by the department of agriculture.
Magashule's legislature approved the deal soon after the trip, and after its approval, the Guptas allegedly took Zwane and his gospel choir on an all-expenses-paid tour to India.
#PublicProtector MPs across parties have asked Mkhwebane a series of questions about her competence, leadership and integrity...— Gaye Davis (@Gaye_Davis) April 17, 2018
Instead of tackling these issues, the public protector's report delved only into contractual technicalities and legalities between Estina and the department.
She recommended that Magashule institute disciplinary action against all implicated individuals – but she didn't mention who these people are. She also asked the current agriculture MEC in the province, Oupa Khoabane, in effect to train his staff better and employ corrective measures to ensure this does not happen again.
Immediately after its release, the DA announced it would be taking Mkhwebane's report on review.
Parliament's justice portfolio committee members also took turns to rap the public protector over the knuckles a few weeks after the report was made public.
They wanted to know why Mkhwebane chose to either ignore or deliberately exclude the rightful beneficiaries of the Vrede dairy farm project, and whether she or her team were intimidated in Free State, or had caved in to political pressure.
It was her second perceived blunder within a few months. She was left red-faced after a court ruling laid waste to her report on the Absa-Ciex matter.
DA's Horne asks why there was never any finding on Political Involvement in the Vrede Dairy Investigation. At the time #PublicProtector said she was not asked to investigated political involvement. Horne says that contradicts PP's own operational plan on investigations.— Lester Kiewit (@lesterkk) April 17, 2018
Removing the 'Zuma-blinkers'
Politics expert Theo Venter said Mkhwebane's first report was a "narrow interpretation of her mandate".
"The political blinkers came on. Now she had to eat humble pie from Parliament and the courts. Some would call it political pressure, others would say she may be taking advice from behind the scenes of a new political landscape," Venter said.
"Perhaps her Zuma-blinkers are now off. She will have the muscle to take on Magashule and everything that comes with doing so. Previously her weakness was dealing with political matters and politically affiliated persons, and she appeared to have conceded to one side. To keep her position, we would expect her to now concede to the other side now in power."