South Africa to Investigate 2 A.N.C. Officials in Farm Corruption Case
JOHANNESBURG — A top corruption inspector in South Africa has announced that she will investigate two high-ranking African National Congress politicians in a case related to the abuse of public funds for a dairy farm — a rare sign that powerful members of the governing party could be held to account for endemic corruption under former President Jacob Zuma.
The inspector, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, said on Tuesday that the inquiry would focus on Ace Magashule, secretary general of the A.N.C, and Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane, the former minister of mineral resources — the two officials behind the dairy farm project in Vrede, in the province of Free State. Prosecutors describe the project, which was meant to help struggling black farmers, as a fraud that funneled $21 million to the A.N.C.’s business allies.
Ms. Mkhwebane announced her decision after facing harsh criticism from the Parliament’s justice committee, whose lawmakers — both from the governing party and the opposition — criticized a report about the dairy farm she had released in February. The report failed to look at the involvement of A.N.C. officials in the case, and it ordered the premier of the province, Mr. Magashule, to take disciplinary action against people involved in the project without addressing what role he himself may have played.
“We will have to investigate the public officials — what role did they play in this particular matter, and whether they are implicated or not,” Ms. Mkhwebane told the local news media on Tuesday.
Since Mr. Zuma was ousted from power in February and replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, the authorities have turned their attention to the dairy farm case, which has come to symbolize widespread corruption under the A.N.C. and its betrayal of poor black South Africans. The police have apprehended some low- and midlevel government officials, as well as foreign businessmen involved in the dairy farm, the first arrests related to a high-profile case of public corruption during the Zuma years.
But until now, the authorities have not focused on A.N.C. officials who were central to the corruption that has thrived in recent years. Mr. Ramaphosa, who became party leader by a narrow margin in December and is dealing with deep divisions inside his party, has so far shown little appetite for going after A.N.C. figures. In fact, he named to his cabinet several people accused of corruption in the past.
The public protector’s office was established after the end of apartheid to act as a government ombudsman and to help South Africa’s young and fragile democracy.
Thulisile Madonsela, who held the office from 2009 to 2016, was considered particularly effective in checking abuses by the scandal-plagued Mr. Zuma. He replaced her with Ms. Mkhwebane, who has acted timidly in comparison.
Ms. Mkhwebane quietly released her 65-page report on the dairy farm just days before Mr. Zuma was forced to step down. It immediately drew criticism from both the opposition and governing-party officials.
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Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, castigated her for what he called the “manifold omissions in the report, and failures to investigate even that which is in the public domain.” Specifically, he accused her of failing to hold Mr. Magashule and Mr. Zwane to account.
Her report was severely limited in scope. It did not investigate how Estina, the company contracted for the dairy project, spent the public funds it received for the project, or whether it had inflated its project costs. Nor did it look into how would-be beneficiaries were sidelined, citing “a lack of information.”
But the report did find that the Free State’s agreement with Estina was invalid because the province had not followed procurement rules. The province failed to manage or monitor the project and instead paid Estina without demanding invoices and receipts, according to the report. The Free State continued to pay Estina over $11 million after the National Treasury ordered it to halt such payments, her office found.
In an interview before Ms. Mkhwebane’s decision to investigate the two A.N.C. officials, Mathole Motshekga, the chairman of Parliament’s justice committee, said that justice could be carried out only by investigating the roles that Mr. Magashule and Mr. Zwane played in the case.
“What has gone wrong has gone wrong under their watch,” he said. “We expect, and the public expects, that they should take responsibility for what has happened. We are waiting to hear what they have to say, because we don’t expect people in such positions to be absentee landlords.”
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Johannesburg, and Selam Gebrekidan from London.