VREDE, South Africa — With loudspeakers blaring, city officials drove across the black township’s dirt roads in a pickup truck, summoning residents to the town hall. The main guest was a local figure who had soared up the ranks of the governing African National Congress and come back with an enticing offer.
Over the next few hours, the visiting political boss, Mosebenzi Joseph Zwane, sold them on his latest deal: a government-backed dairy farm that they, as landless black farmers, would control. They would get an ownership stake in the business, just by signing up. They would go to India for training, all expenses paid. To hear him tell it, the dairy would bring jobs to the impoverished, help build a clinic and fix the roads.
“He said he wanted to change our lives,” said Ephraim Dhlamini, who, despite suspicions that the offer was too good to be true, signed up to become a “beneficiary” of the project. “This thing is coming from the government, free of charge. You can’t say you don’t like this thing. You must take it.”
But, sure enough, his instincts were right.
The dairy farm turned out to be a classic South African fraud, prosecutors say: Millions of dollars from state coffers, meant to uplift the poor, vanished in a web of bank accounts controlled by politically connected companies and individuals.
The money from an array of state contracts like this one helped pay for a lavish wedding that a top executive at KPMG, the international accounting firm, described as “an event of the millennium,” according to leaked emails. And Mr. Zwane, continuing his meteoric rise, soon leaped to the national stage to become South Africa’s minister of mineral resources.
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Almost nothing trickled down to the township or the scores of would-be beneficiaries after that first meeting in 2012. The only local residents to get a free trip to India were members of a church choir headed by Mr. Zwane.