When animal inspectors arrived at a deserted South African farm this past weekend, they found stomach-churning neglect.
Dozens of animals -- including pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and geese -- were dead or dying, abandoned without food or water.
The "farm of horrors," as South African media called it, quickly morphed into a political scandal. The farm's owner, Thandi Modise, is a prominent official in the governing African National Congress and chairwoman of the upper house of parliament, the National Council of Provinces.
"The suffering that the animals endured does not compare to the financial loss that I suffered," Modise said in a statement Monday, stirring further controversy.
Modise does not live on the farm, outside Potchefstroom in South Africa's North West Province, but has owned it for three years.
Farm animal neglect is common in South Africa, but not on this scale, according to animal welfare inspector Andries Venter.
Venter, a senior inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told the Los Angeles Times that he counted 79 dead animals, including 58 pigs. Inspectors had to euthanize 117 others, most of them also pigs.
Venter said it was the worst case of farm animal cruelty he had seen in 20 years with the NSPCA.
He estimated that the animals had been abandoned for at least a week and perhaps two. There was no electricity on the farm and no working pumps.
"All the animals were without access to food or water. Everything was cut off," he said. "I was very emotional. I was taken aback because of just the pure neglect, the suffering and pain these animals had to go through."
Some of the surviving pigs were feeding off others that had perished, he said. The sheep and goats, which were confined in a barn, were in slightly better condition but extremely thin.
Ten sheep had to be put down, Venter said. His organization managed to save 30 sheep and goats, nine geese and 16 chickens. None of the pigs could be saved.
The NSPCA is preparing criminal charges related to animal cruelty. Owners, supervisors and workers can all face charges in such cases, Venter said.
He said inspectors had been told that there were workers on the farm until two weeks ago. "Even though we have made requests, we have not been provided with the names of the individuals. In that case, the owner will be held responsible," he said.
Modise's statement Monday said that the workers and a supervisor had walked off the job without telling her. She said she usually visits the farm every two weeks but learned about the crisis from the NSPCA after a visit by its inspectors.
The scandal hit amid controversy over proposals for a new government policy that would force white farmers to cede half their land to their workers in a bid to speed up the country's slow land reform process and transfer more property to black South Africans.
Last month, the government reopened a land claims process, giving those forcibly removed under white-minority rule five more years to file claims if they missed a 1998 deadline. Tens of thousands of new claims are expected.
An ANC parliamentary official, chief whip Stone Sizani, took aim Tuesday at the opposition Democratic Alliance, which had called for Modise to be prosecuted. He accused the party of racism, saying in a statement, "We are appalled by attempts by formations such as the DA to opportunistically use this incident to discredit the land reform program and to project black farming as inherently a failure."
A small right wing party, the Freedom Front Plus, had urged the government to take note of the accusations against Modise before proceeding with its land reform plans. But Democratic Alliance spokesman Marius Redelinghuys said in a statement Tuesday that what happened on her farm had nothing to do with land reform.
"Modise should face the consequences for breaking the law, just like any other person," he said. "The assertion that the DA is somehow undermining land reform for holding Modise to account for breaking the law is ridiculous.… This is about criminal negligence on the part of Modise and the ANC's willingness to do whatever it takes to cover for her."