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Vrede dairy case not dead: ID

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Investigations into the massive looting of state funds that grounded the Vrede Dairy Project in the Free State nearly 10 years ago have been taken over by the Investigating Directorate (ID) after the matter was provisionally withdrawn from the court roll in 2018.

ID spokesperson Sindisiwe Seboka told The Free Stater in an interview this week that the matter is not dead and that a more pointed investigation is underway.

“Essentially, that’s hopefully the next case that we will be bringing before court,” she said on Tuesday, after Gupta ‘associate’ and businessman Iqbal Sharma was denied bail by the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court for fraud and money laundering charges.

Sharma is jointly charged with several other people including former senior officials of the Free State Department of Agriculture and Rural Development who also face corruption charges.

The officials include the department’s former head Mbana Peter Thabethe, Limakatso Moorosi, also a former head of the same department, and Seipati Sylvia Dhlamini, the department’s former chief financial officer.

The matter relates to a R25 million feasibility study for the Mohoma-Mobung agricultural project which was irregularly granted to Nulane Investments 204 (Pty) Ltd, a company owned and controlled by Sharma, in 2011.

The company had to provide a report to the department within seven months.

Nulane, however, subcontracted the work to Deloitte Consulting Pty Ltd for R1.5 million.

It went on to charge the provincial agriculture department nearly R25 million without making any further input to the study.

The case of Sharma and his co-accused – who number 16 in total, including four Gupta family members – was picked during investigations into the Vrede dairy project as well as information that came up from the State Capture Commission.

Seboka said the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) – within which the ID resides – handed over the investigation to them but there were many shortcomings and they had to start some of the work afresh.

“However, we cannot get into the details about our investigations because we know that it relies on a number of other things and cooperation with a number of other jurisdictions,” said the ID spokesperson without elaborating on the nature of investigations currently underway.

The ID was created through a proclamation by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April 2019 as an instrument in the fight against corruption, particularly serious, high-profile and complex cases.

It investigates corrupt activities in instances such as common law offences including fraud, forgery, uttering, theft and any offence involving dishonesty.

The unit also focuses on a wide range of statutory offences outlined under the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act, the Prevention of Organised Crime Act, the Public Finance Management Act, the Municipal Management Act, the Financial Intelligence Centre Act as well as any other statutory offence involving dishonesty.

The Vrede Dairy Project was established in 2012 on Krynaauwslust Farm, near the small town of Vrede, in the northern Free State.

It was set up as a public-private partnership with Estina, a Black Economic Empowerment company, as part of the provincial government’s Mohoma-Mobung agricultural project.

Estina was given the land under a free 99-year lease.

The aim of the over R250 million dairy project was to empower black farmers and assist them enter the lucrative dairy industry but investigations have shown that no payments were made to the black beneficiaries.

The dairy farm, according to initial investigations, was just a shell through which money was sent to India and other offshore accounts allegedly for the benefit of the Guptas.

A total of eight people were arrested and appeared in the Bloemfontein Magistrates Court in February 2018 facing numerous charges relating to the alleged misappropriation of funds at the Vrede Dairy Project.

Apart from Thabethe and Dhlamini, the accused also included another senior agriculture department official, former general manager for district services and current head of department Dr Takisi Janki Masiteng; former Oakbay chief executive officer Ashu Chawla; former Estina (Pty) Ltd director Kamal Vasram; two former Oakbay directors Nazeem Howa and Varun Gupta; as well as Tegeta Resources director Ronica Ragavan.

Estina (Pty) Ltd, Oakbay (Pty) Ltd and Aerohaven (Pty) Ltd were cited as accused four, six and 11, respectively.

The accused faced charges of corruption, theft, fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud and contravening the Public Finance Management Act.

The case however crumbled like a deck of cards after the state failed to substantiate its allegations with solid evidence before the court, forcing the NPA to provisionally withdraw the matter in order to get more information from overseas authorities.

At that time, the NPA said investigators had faced several challenges in getting critical information from authorities in India and the United Arab Emirates where Gupta-linked companies are believed to have moved government money meant for the Vrede project.

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Masks no longer mandatory when outdoors

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South Africans will no longer be required to wear masks while outdoors, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Tuesday night when he gave an update on national efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

The wearing of masks indoors however remains mandatory.

“As before, it is mandatory to wear a cloth mask or similar covering over the nose and mouth when in public indoor spaces,” said Ramaphosa in a televised address.

“However, a mask is not required when outdoors,” he added.

“This means that we still need to wear masks when in shops, malls, offices, factories, taxes, buses, trains or any other indoor public space.

“But we do not need to wear masks when walking on the street or in an open space, when exercising outdoors or when attending an outdoor gathering.”

The president said after four waves of infection, fewer people are becoming severely ill and requiring hospitalisation.

He said there are far fewer deaths than before.

“Our scientists tell us that this is mainly because some 60 to 80 percent of the population has some form of immunity to the virus, either from previous infection or vaccination . . . we are now ready to enter a new phase in our management of the pandemic,” said Ramaphosa.

About 48 percent of all adults are believed to have received at least one vaccine dose.

Further to that, both indoor and outdoor venues can now take up to 50 percent of their capacity provided that the criteria for entrance are proof of vaccination or a COVID-19 test not older than 72 hours.

“But where there is no provision for proof of vaccination or a COVID test, then the current upper limit will remain – of 1 000 people indoors and 2 000 people outdoors,” he explained.

This change to the restrictions on gatherings, according the president, will be of great benefit to the sporting, cultural, entertainment and events industries, among others.

The maximum number of people permitted at a funeral will increase from 100 to 200.

However, night vigils as well as after-funeral and ‘after-tears’ gatherings are still not allowed.

The regulations on social distancing are also being changed, requiring that a space of one metre is maintained between persons in all settings except schools.

There are also changes to the regulations on international travel.

Travellers entering South Africa will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test not older than 72 hours.

All unvaccinated travellers entering the country who want to be vaccinated will be offered a vaccination.

All measures are taking effect from this Wednesday.

Ramaphosa said in deciding which restrictions to ease and which to keep in place, they  also looked to the experiences of other countries, including those where the complete lifting of restrictions has been followed by a surge in infections and deaths.

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Man gets six life terms for raping own daughter

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A 36-year-old man from Clocolan has been sentenced to six life terms by the Free State High Court after he was found guilty of raping his 14-year-old daughter.

In a statement, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) said Judge Pina Mathebula sentenced the father, who cannot be named to protect the identity of his daughter, for raping her six times between May and July 2021.

“The victim was staying with the accused, his wife, who is her stepmother, and two other siblings,” read part of the statement issued by NPA regional spokesperson Phaladi Shuping on Thursday.

“In May 2021, the accused told his wife that his late brother told him in a dream ‘to get rid of a tokoloshe that was inside the victim’. The very same night of the alleged dream, the accused raped the victim. The last rape incident took place on 25 July 2021,” added the statement.

The court, sitting in Ladybrand, heard that the wife tried to reprimand him but he assaulted her.

As if not enough, he overpowered and raped the victim, despite her cries and his wife’s reprimands.

He threatened to kill both of them if they were to tell anyone of what he did.

A day later, the accused’s sister visited the family and the wife told her what the husband had done to the child.

The sister reported his brother to the police and he was arrested.

In aggravation, state prosecutor Advocate Moipone Moroka submitted a victim impact report facilitated by Bulelani Mothabeng in which the victim said that she thanks her aunt for coming to her rescue because if it was not for her, she would still be her father’s sex slave.

Moroka further argued that the scourge of violence against women and children has reached an alarming proportion and can be described as a pandemic.

“What aggravates the matter is that the father raped his own daughter multiple times over a period of three months and this means he had ample opportunity to reflect on his actions, but he continued betraying the trust his daughter had in him,” said Moroka.

The father was sentenced to six life sentences for rape and two years for assault and the sentences were ordered to run concurrently.

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Premier mourns journalist

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Premier Sisi Ntombela has described the late SABC journalist Thabo Katsande as a disciplined, dedicated and hardworking man.

She said this in her special tribute to Katsande, who was based in Bloemfontein, during a memorial service held at the Rose Hall at the Mangaung Metropolitan offices on Thursday.

The journalist passed away at a Pretoria hospital last Saturday following a short illness.

“The Thabo I knew was focused on his work,” said an emotional Ntombela.

“The Thabo I knew was passionate about his trade and wanted to see journalism, particularly in the Free State, grow in leaps and bounds,” she added.

The premier took the opportunity to urge people to value their work and strive to improve their communities as the province is faced with a high unemployment rate.

“We live in an era where some people do not value their jobs . . . and a sense of entitlement has consumed them. Thabo’s work ethic was admirable,” she pointed out.

Ntombela described Katsande as a fearless and fair journalist who showed both the good and the bad through his work.

“Through his work, Thabo helped us to tell . . . the Free State story,” she said.

“He captured the minds of the people with the way he told our stories, the good and the bad.

“The beautiful and the not so beautiful – Thabo told it all, without fear or favour.

“The media fraternity has lost a giant and . . . it will be poorer without him.

“No longer shall we see that charismatic man running around with a camera looking for that perfect shot.”

Katsande will be laid to rest in Bluemgumbosch, eastern Free State, this Saturday.

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