Former Free State agriculture department head Peter Thabethe was unable to fully explain why he allowed R29 million to be removed from an account in the Estina dairy farm project before a full feasibility study could be completed.
In the final session of the commission of inquiry into state capture on Friday, he was grilled by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and evidence leader advocate Leah Gcabashe SC for allowing R29m of R30m to be removed from an account.
Thabethe said the department was told the R29m was being reserved for equipment that was yet to be manufactured for the project.
But Justice Zondo questioned why the money was removed at all if a detailed feasibility study had not yet been completed at that stage in 2012.
He said Thabethe, as a chief financial officer for the department, was responsible for the fact that R29m was removed from public coffers.
“What was the rush? Why not do a final study, finish properly and then start involving more money? You are putting public money at risk now.”
Gcabashe also turned on the heat, saying Thabethe had jumped the gun and allowed public money to be removed for no reason.
“These are departmental funds. You had not even received, let alone approved, the feasibility study at this point when they took the R29m and put it in a different account. Why could you not say to them, ‘bring it back’?”
Responding, Thabete conceded there was no rush, saying he had a contractual obligation to complete the project.
“I was convinced there was no problem. I had a contract and those things were part of my contract. Delaying those would have not been part of my contract. I had to work within the time frames of my contract.”
Justice Zondo, however, lambasted this reasoning, saying his contract also called for proper legal procedures to be followed.
“Your contract didn’t require you not to do things the right way. Doing the feasibility study and finishing it, seeing the outcome before engaging in certain expensive aspects would be the right way.”
The controversial project was meant to see 100 black emerging farmers receive five cows each as part of an empowerment scheme.
Gifted to Estina in 2013 under a free 99-year lease by the provincial Department of Agriculture, the farm was one of the most controversial transactions between the Guptas and a government entity, News24 previously reported.