Following the protracted Vrede dairy project, key Gupta lieutenant Ashok Narayan served as an “advisor” to former Free State premier and current ANC secretary general Ace Magashule when plans were put in place to establish the controversial Vrede dairy project, court papers show.

According to an affidavit filed by Peter Thabethe, a former head of department in the provincial Department of Agriculture and one of the co-accused in the ongoing Vrede dairy case, Thabethe explained that his department had identified India as a possible partner for the project in early 2012.

“I then made a request to the Premier Honourable ES Magashula (sic) on recommendations of the former MEC Mosebenzi Zwane to take a trip to India accompanied by Mr. Ashok Narayana (sic) an Advisor to the office of the premier at that time,” reads Thabethe’s affidavit.

Thabethe claims Magashule approved the trip “at the state expense”, which took place from February 29 to March 4, 2012.

“It was recommended by the Former MEC Mr. Mosebenzi Zwane that Mr. Narayana (sic) should accompany me to India,” Thabethe’s affidavit reads.

It seems as if the former HOD sought to establish some distance between Narayan – in his capacity as an advisor to Magashule – and the controversial dairy project.

“When the department started the process of initiating a dairy project, Mr. Narayana was not part of the project proposal,” he went on to say.

However, Narayan’s role in the project has been highlighted in several reports and exposés over the years.

Volksblad first reported in 2013 that Linkway Trading, a company in which Narayan was a director, performed consulting services for the Vrede dairy project.

A #GuptaLeaks report by amaBhungane last year, revealed that Linkway Trading formed part of a chain of companies through which at least R84m of Estina’s proceeds from the dairy had been laundered. Of this, R30m was used to settle invoices for the infamous Gupta wedding at Sun City in 2013.

The revelation about Narayan’s role as an advisor to Magashule casts doubt on the latter’s claim that he knew nothing about the Guptas’ involvement in the project.

“It is on our return from India that I then developed an executive council’s report carrying recommendations into the concept of the dairy project identified in India . . . After [the] India trip Mr. Narayana (sic) went back to the office of the premier as he was not part of my team,” Thabethe claims in the affidavit.

The former official says the province’s executive council subsequently approved his report.

The Department of Agriculture signed the agreement with Estina in June 2012.

Thabethe, two other department officials and several Gupta associates, including Varun Gupta, a nephew of the Gupta brothers, face charges ranging from fraud and theft to the contravention of the Prevention of Organised Crime Act.

Magashule’s son Tshepiso was an employee of the Guptas.

Previous #GuptaLeaks reports have revealed that Tshepiso channelled a request to buy airtime for ANC “party agents” in the Free State to Rajesh “Tony” Gupta one day before the national elections in 2014.

In one of his first press conferences as secretary general of the ANC in January this year, Magashule side-stepped questions about the Vrede dairy project.

“Let’s leave that matter with the NPA, with the law authorities. Whatever happens, we need to reiterate that we need to fight corruption,” Magashule told journalists.

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe did not respond to queries sent to him for Magashule’s attention.