Former Free State agriculture department head Peter Thabethe says they had signed a 99-year free lease agreement with Estina with the intention of later transferring the land to beneficiaries.
“My understanding is that once the project was completed, it would be transferred into the entity of the beneficiaries. You cannot have a project on land you cannot [be in] control of,” Thabethe told the commission of inquiry into state capture on Monday.
The commission is looking into the controversial project which was intended 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 reported.
When asked why the department had entered into a 99-year lease that was free and renewable, Thabethe cited the delegation document.
“The delegation document did not instruct you into entering any lease agreement for any time, I know because I looked at it many times,” evidence leader advocate Leah Gcabashe SC said in response.
“Then there was no need for a delegation, if it was not for a particular purpose,” Thabethe replied.
Gcabashe then pulled out the said agreement, but was quickly interrupted by Thabethe.
“I agree that we signed for a 99-year lease, but the intention was that we all agreed with the State law advisors. We said let’s do it with Estina for now and, once its completed, we transfer the land to the beneficiaries,” he explained.
An official from the national Department of Agriculture, Elder Mtshiza, previously told the Zondo commission that they were never provided with the list of the 80 beneficiaries, or signed contracts for the controversial project.
In a surprising move, Thabethe who previously claimed that he had never interacted with any member of the Gupta family, changed his statement on Monday.
The former HOD recalled a meeting at the Gupta’s Saxonworld residence in 2013 relating to the project.
“I agreed on the meeting and I was given an address. It was not one telephone conversation, because they followed up.
“I was around Johannesburg that time, I went to that address. Upon reflection, I remember that I met people from Paras at this address. The direct interaction was for me to take them to the residence and meet with the people from India (Paras),” he explained.
He could not recall which member of the Gupta family he interacted with on the said day.
“They are very difficult to remember, but it was one person. This person introduced me to the person I was supposed to meet from India. The whole idea of the meeting is that they wanted me to assist them with the work permits,” inquiry chair Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.
Gcabashe referred to the Gupta e-mails which cited that he may have interacted with Tony Gupta.
“I did not make arrangements to see Tony Gupta. The meeting in my affidavit is the meeting I know. The other meetings, I do not know,” he said.
The inquiry continues.