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The Estina/Vrede dairy scandal: A Gupta project from beginning to end

Daily Maverick logo Daily Maverick 2019-12-02 Paul Holden for Shadow World Investigations
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The Gupta fingerprints were all over various aspects of the day-to-day running of the Vrede Project. Shadow World Investigations, a successor organisation to Corruption Watch UK — have made this information available to the Zondo commission of inquiry in a detailed submission made last week.

You can read the entire submission here.

As far as the Gupta family’s involvement in the [dairy] project is concerned, I wish to categorically state that they are not involved in any manner in this project.”

So said Kamal Vasram, the sole director of Estina, when he was asked about the Vrede Dairy Project back in 2013. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A deep dive into the #GuptaLeaks has provided detailed and damning evidence showing that the Guptas, their companies and their associates, which we call the “Gupta enterprise”, was involved at all stages of this benighted project.

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The Captured project

Our submission has revealed the fingerprints of the Gupta enterprise all over the conceptualisation, initiation and management of the Vrede Dairy Project.

Take Sanjeev Gautam. Gautam, an Indian national, signed as Estina’s “Managing Director” in a whole series of vital contracts that initiated the dairy project, including the two contracts between Estina and the Free State Department of Agriculture that formalised the project.

Gautam, however, had already shared a historical business relationship with the Gupta enterprise. Documents and spreadsheets from the #GuptaLeaks show that Gautam was a director and shareholder in an Indian company called Gateway Infrastructure for years prior to Estina. The other directors and shareholders of Gateway were Anil Gupta and Kamal Singhala, a Gupta relative.

Gautam also shows up in the #GuptaLeaks in relation to another key player in the Estina scandal: Paras Dairy. Paras Dairy, a major dairy concern in India, was supposed to be Estina’s partner in the Vrede dairy farm, providing the actual on-the-ground expertise to run the project. According to Peter Thabethe, the Head of Department for the Free State Department of Agriculture, it was Paras’s supposed partnership with Estina that led the Free State government to give the contracts to Estina.

We now know that there was no such “partnership”. Indeed, all that existed between Estina and Paras was a vaguely worded Memorandum of Understanding that created no formal partnership between Estina and Paras. But returning to Gautam: the #GuptaLeaks show that Gautam was central to arranging for Gupta companies to secure visas to South Africa for various Paras Dairy employees. One of those visas was organised during the very time Estina and Paras signed their MoU.

When the project finally got off the ground, the day-to-day management of the project was given over to Chandrama Prasad, a former Indian civil servant. During testimony before the Zondo commission, the Vrede businessman Willie Basson claimed that Prasad clearly had no agricultural expertise, leading to the death of a large number of cattle from malnutrition.

If Prasad had no agricultural expertise to speak of, why was he appointed? Being a Gupta lackey, it seems. The #GuptaLeaks show that Prasad had business and other dealings with the Guptas long before Estina ever took off. Internal accounting records show that a Gupta-controlled company registered in India — LCR Investments — had lent Prasad money prior to the Vrede Dairy Project’s existence. Other emails from the leaks show that Gupta companies in South Africa were assisting Prasad secure business visas to visit South Africa. If that wasn’t enough, it turns out that, in 2013, a year after the Vrede Project was started, Prasad’s son, Anubhav Yadav, was employed by Tegeta, the Gupta mining company.

The Gupta fingerprints were all over other aspects of the day-to-day running of the Vrede Project. In 2014, Estina imported dairy processing equipment from India. Basson recalled that, when the equipment was unloaded, it was old and decrepit, with rust falling off like “fish scales”.

Suggested: News in pictures 

Why would Estina buy such ropey equipment? The #GuptaLeaks gives a clue: in February 2013, Deepak Bansal, the manager of Star Engineers, the company that had manufactured the equipment, wrote to Tony Gupta to thank him for visiting Star Engineer’s facilities in India. Bansal gushed that “it was very nice of you to assure to extend all possible guidance, help and support in establishing our dairy equipments business in South Africa and further more in other countries wherever it may be possible as we envisage a great scope for the same there.”

Organising the importation of the equipment into South Africa turned out to be too great a logistical challenge for Estina, leading Bansal to write a series of panicked emails to all and sundry. In stepped employees of the Gupta-owned Sahara Computers, who went about negotiating and finalising the arrangements to have the equipment imported into South Africa.

So the only time that Estina was involved in actually buying and setting up dairy equipment, they bought the equipment from a connection of Tony Gupta’s, and had to get Sahara employees to manage the whole process.

But perhaps the most telling set of links between the Guptas and the day-to-day management of the Estina project were the long and abiding business links between Kamal Vasram and the Gupta enterprise. Vasram was, as we noted above, the sole director of Estina for the life of the Vrede Dairy Project. The #GuptaLeaks show that Vasram shared a long history with Gupta-linked companies. As far back as 2008, Vasram, then an employee of Intel, was emailing Sahara employees to discuss the sale of Intel products.

The relationship between Vasram and the Guptas appears to have gotten more intimate in 2010. In November of that year, Vasram was invited to attend a Diwali celebration hosted by Sahara and the Guptas. Calendar entries show that five months later, in April 2011, Tony Gupta was due to meet “Kamal Intel” at the Gupta’s compound in Saxonwold. Further entries show that Vasram was scheduled to meet with Tony Gupta and others at least four times between July 2011 and July 2012, the last meeting taking place only weeks after Estina signed its final contracts with the Free State Department of Agriculture.

The relationship between Vasram and the Guptas took on a financial dimension a month prior to the first meeting at the Saxonwold compound. From March 2011 until at least September 2012, Vasram submitted monthly invoices to Linkway Trading, the Gupta company that was used to pay for the infamous Sun City nuptials of Vega Gupta and Aakash Jahajgarhia using Estina cash. Vasram, who was still working full-time as an IT salesman for Intel, and later Lenovo and then Toshiba, charged Linkway R11,000 a month for opaque “services rendered.”

One of those invoices, sent by Vasram to the key Gupta lieutenant Ashu Chawla, in June 2011, was sent by Kamal Vasram from an Estina email address — vasram@estina.co.za. Thus, a full year before Estina ever signed its contract with the Free State Department of Agriculture, Vasram was using Estina as a vehicle with which to do business with the Guptas.

The Captured officials

The names of two Free State officials loom large over the entire Vrede debacle: Peter Thabethe and Mosebenzi Zwane.

Thabethe, as we noted above, was the Head of Department at the Free State Department of Agriculture, and a major player driving the project forward. His role, and his inability to cogently explain a raft of odd decisions, formed the basis of a number of days of excruciating testimony before the Zondo commission.

During Thabethe’s increasingly fractious grilling by the evidence leader Advocate Leah Gcabashe, he wove a beguiling story of how he had identified India’s Paras Dairy as the exact partner he wanted to work with in South Africa (through Estina, of course). Central to this story was a now-notorious trip that Thabethe took to India in March 2012, three months prior to the project being awarded to Estina.

There were two particularly contentious elements of Thabethe’s India trip. The first was how Thabethe had managed to get on the plane to India with such speed: his trip was only approved by Ace Magashule, the Free State Premier, on 28 February 2012. A day later, Thabethe flew to India. While advocate Gcabashe focused on how he was able to get a ticket so quickly, an equally important question was: how did Thabethe get a visa to India in the course of a day?

The answer, of course, is simple, and two-parted: “he didn’t”, and, “the Guptas”. Our submission shows that, on 24 February 2012, Ashu Chawla drafted a letter on the letterhead of a Gupta company based in India, SES Technologies, to the “Visa Counsellor” at the Indian High Commission in Johannesburg. The body of the email asked that Thabethe be given a visa to visit India between 29 February and 3 March 2012 — the exact dates Thabethe eventually flew. Thabethe, according to the letter, wanted to “visit India for business opportunities”. The letter further recorded, after repeating Thabethe’s passport number, that “SES Technologies Ltd will assist with all their requirements while stay [sic] in India”.

The other contentious issue revolved around the fact that Thabethe was accompanied on his trip by Ashok Narayan, both of whom had their tickets paid for by the Free State government. Narayan, as other reporting has shown, was an absolutely central player in the entire Gupta enterprise, including exercising day-to-day control over aspects of Estina’s business and finances. On the day the trip was approved by Magashule, Narayan, who was then still an employee of the Gupta enterprise, was appointed to a bizarre Premier “advisory council” by Ace Magashule. Narayan’s appointment only became official on the 1 March, when Thabethe and Narayan were already in India.

When pressed by advocate Gcabashe as to why Narayan accompanied him, Thabethe was muddled. Thabethe eventually confirmed that it was Mosebenzi Zwane who told him to include Narayan, and conceded that he should have asked why Narayan was accompanying him, which he failed to do — a particularly strange failing as Thabethe claimed not to have known who Narayan was before the trip.

Chair, I should have questioned… But I didn’t question,” Thabethe told Judge Zondo.

Thabethe’s explanation and mea culpawere, on their face, hardly convincing. But it is fairly shredded by one email from deep in the #GuptaLeaks archive that we have included in our submission to the Zondo commission. On 5 January 2011, over a year prior to the India trip, Ashok Narayan wrote to Peter Thabethe’s private Hotmail account. Narayan sent Thabethe an invite to attend The New AgeFriendship Celebration in Durban to honour 150 years of friendship between South Africa and India. The email made it clear that Narayan and Thabethe had already talked, and that they planned to meet during the event — 13 months before they took their trip to India together.

Zwane’s role in the Vrede project was also vital and extended beyond telling Thabethe who to invite to what. According to multiple testimonies before Judge Zondo, Zwane attended a number of meetings with Vrede locals to sell the potential project. He was also part of the Free State Provincial Exco that approved the Estina project. And as MEC, he delegated authority that had been given to him by Ace Magashule to allow Peter Thabethe to sign an outrageous 99-year lease agreement between Estina and the Free State Department of Agriculture.

Our submission shows, in embarrassing detail, just how Zwane was apparently rewarded for his consistent support for Estina. In the month following the signing of the 99-year lease agreement, Sahara Computers and Linkway Trading sent Zwane and his over 20-strong gospel choir on a weeklong jaunt to India, where they had dinner at Tony Gupta’s house and toured the Taj Mahal.

Zwane and his choir were joined on the trip by Ashok Narayan and one Innocentia Tshegofatso. Tshegofatso — who also went by Tshegofatso Inno Motaung — was an employee of the Free State Department of Agriculture at the time. Fundudzi investigators, who were probing why she was later appointed to the Department of Public Enterprises during their investigation into Transnet and Trillian, drily noted that “Motaung confirmed that she and Zwane have a child together.”

Although certain key information is still missing, our calculations, drawing from the #GuptaLeaks, show that Gupta companies spent over R500,000 paying for the flights and accommodation of Zwane and his choral entourage. Zwane failed to declare any of these benefits, as was required.

The Captured province

Sadly, the Estina/Vrede Dairy Project was only one of a number of Gupta projects that flowed from their almost total capture of the Free State. Indeed, we argue that the Estina project was similar in conception and execution to at least three other major projects that were to be paid for by the Free State government.

Two of the most notable projects were the purchase of laptops by the Free State Office of the Premier, which were to be given to university students in the province. Pieter-Louis Myburgh has shown, in detail, how those contracts were awarded by Sunbay Trading, which acted as a front for Sahara Computers, and was controlled by none other than Kamal Vasram.

Our calculations, however, provide some added detail to an already sordid story, showing that the Free State government was massively overcharged for some run-of-the-mill laptops. In one contract awarded in 2014, Sunbay charged the Free State government R3.8-million for laptops that cost Sahara only R1.7-million to buy from Toshiba (where, not incidentally, Vasram was then working full-time as a salesperson, and whose major customer was Sahara). That’s a profit of R2-million, or 114%.

Another project that has received considerable media attention is the Cureva/Mediosa mobile medical unit debacle, in which Cureva/Mediosa were contracted to provide a medical testing facility on buses that would travel the Free State to prod and poke local residents. Again, our submission adds some additional depressing detail on to the bones of the scandal, and, again, it has to deal with overcharging.

The contract awarded to Cureva/Mediosa, through which the Free State government paid at least R20-million, was awarded on the basis that Cureva/Mediosa would be paid R954 per patient tested. Emails we have found in the #GuptaLeaks show that a key Cureva/Mediosa employee had done their own cost calculations, which they had shared with Tony Gupta. They showed that the total all-in cost incurred by Cureva/Mediosa was a mere R352 per patient. For every patient tested, Cureva/Mediosa would thus earn a ridiculous R602 profit — 171%.

The Captured lucre

But the real proof of how the Estina/Vrede Project was conceived and run to the benefit of the Guptas can be found in the convoluted banking records of Estina and the Gupta’s offshore network in Dubai. These show that the vast majority of the money that was paid to Estina by the Free State government was almost immediately laundered into accounts controlled by the Gupta enterprise, leaving only a tiny fraction of money to run a down-at-heel dairy farm.

The precise routes that the money took, and how the Guptas set up their laundering networks to foil South African investigators, is the subject of our second, and forthcoming, submission to the Zondo commission.

Watch this space. DM

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