Home WorldAfrica In South Africa’s Farmgate scandal, a robbery and then a silence

In South Africa’s Farmgate scandal, a robbery and then a silence

by YAR

WINDHOEK, Namibia — Investigators in Namibia were hot on the trail of the suspected robbers. After receiving a tip about a sensational heist, the theft of cash from a farm belonging to President Cyril Ramaphosa of neighboring South Africa, they traced large transfers of money the suspects made from South African bank accounts to Namibia.

All that was left to make a case against the suspects was to link the money to the robbery.

But when officials from the Namibian Ministry of Justice contacted their South African counterparts for confirmation, they said they received an unusual response that ended their case: silence.

Now, two years later, that silence raises new questions about whether Ramaphosa was trying to hide the theft from public view and mobilizing the government apparatus to help him do it.

The robbery at the president’s farm in South Africa, 650 miles from the Namibian border, occurred in February 2020 but only became known this month. A political foe of the president launched explosive accusations that Ramaphosa had between $4 million and $8 million in U.S. currency stolen from his estate, then covered up the theft to avoid scrutiny for having large sums of cash stashed away.

The money had been hidden in furniture in a house on the president’s Phala Phala hunting farm, according to political foe Arthur Fraser, a former head of state security in South Africa, who made his allegations in a criminal complaint against Ramaphosa. The president never reported the crime to police, Fraser said, but relied on his personal protection unit to conduct an illegal, off-the-record investigation.

The president has since admitted his farm was stolen, but denied any wrongdoing. The money stolen was much less than claimed, he said, adding that the cash came from the legal sale of rare animals raised on the farm. A spokesman for Mr. Ramaphosa declined to comment for this article.

As the president tries to get on with his usual schedule (his farm hosted a game auction on Saturday), he faces a rocky road ahead. The Hawks, one of the nation’s elite investigative units, are investigating him. Even Ramaphosa’s allies worry about possible criminal charges associated with accusations that he hid large sums of foreign currency, from money laundering to breaking foreign exchange or tax laws.

Ramaphosa, in the midst of a battle this year to be re-elected as leader of his party, the African National Congress, has been mostly silent.

Even Phala Phala’s manager, Hendrik von Wielligh, admitted in a brief telephone interview that it was unusual to hide money from game sales in the house. When asked what normally happened to the winnings, he replied curtly, “Usually to the bank.” Mr. von Wielligh refused to speak about the robbery, saying “people who investigated” had warned him not to speak to the press because it would complicate the investigation and possibly scare witnesses.

Fraser, who faces corruption charges during his tenure as state security chief, is a close ally of Ramaphosa’s ousted former president, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s allies have been trying to discredit Ramaphosa in any way possible as they fight his bid for re-election.

The complaint filed by Mr. Fraser resurrected what would otherwise be a seemingly forgotten case. But it was one that the Namibian authorities took a keen interest in two years ago.

In interviews in 2020, a few months after the robbery, two Namibian police officers and two senior government officials said informants had alerted police that the men who had robbed Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm had fled to Namibia. The agents and officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

A confidential investigative report written by a Namibian police officer in June 2020 details allegations that US dollars hidden inside a sofa at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm were stolen by a man in Namibian custody on unrelated charges. That report, which was recently leaked online, also said that South African and Namibian officials had discussed the robbery, though it appears that South African authorities eventually stopped cooperating when Namibian law enforcement requested official assistance. There were also discussions “allegedly ongoing between the two presidents of the countries,” according to the report.

Hage Geingob, the president of Namibia, has denied doing Ramaphosa any favors regarding the robbery. And Namibian law enforcement officials insist they did everything by the book.

“It is not in my culture to hide a crime,” Martha Imalwa, Namibia’s attorney general, who tried to get information about the robbery suspects from South African authorities, said in an interview. “We cannot force another jurisdiction to help.”

Around April 2020, weeks after the thieves were said to have made off with the cash, Namibian police stopped a Ford Ranger van in the Namibian capital Windhoek. Criminal informants in Namibia had told police that the vehicle’s occupants had been involved in a robbery at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm, according to the two policemen and one senior government official.

One of those suspects, Erkki Shikongo, said in an interview that the police held him and his cousin at the police station while they turned the car around. They used tools to disassemble parts of the truck to search it, he said.

“They just said, ‘We’re looking for something,’” Mr. Shikongo recalled. When he asked what they were looking for, they didn’t tell him, he said.

The police found nothing and released Mr. Shikongo without charge.

Mr. Shikongo and his cousin, Petrus Muhekeni, were among the five robbery suspects that Mr. Fraser named in his complaint. But both Mr. Shikongo and Mr. Muhekeni denied any involvement in the robbery. They said in separate interviews that they only found out what had happened after news reports surfaced and they were inundated with calls from journalists.

While authorities have flagged his cash transfers, Shikongo said his money did not come from stealing from the president, but from buying and selling gold throughout southern Africa. Mr. Shikongo said that he would have no problem going to court to prove his innocence.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” he said. “I want to make sure my name is cleared.”

The first public hint of the robbery at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm began with a mundane crime: Imanuwela David, a Namibian-born man holding a South African passport, snuck into Namibia in June 2020 by canoeing across the Orange River.

Mr. David’s arrest for entering the country illegally quickly became a tabloid story in the media. Details emerged that he was aided by a police officer and the CEO of Namibia’s state-owned fishing company, which was embroiled in a corruption scandal known as “Fishrot”. There was speculation that Mr. David may have been involved in Fishrot.

Police said he had brought into Namibia 11 US currency bills worth $100 each. He had a TAG Heuer and a Rolex watch, a gold chain and four cell phones. Police also said at the time that Mr David was a fugitive in South Africa, linked to a robbery there. They gave few details about the case, but a report in The Namibian Sun valued the amount stolen at 65 million Namibian dollars, about $4 million, the same amount Fraser mentioned in his complaint against Ramaphosa this month.

Although the Namibian police released few details publicly at the time, the confidential investigative report suggests they may have known more than they shared.

Produced on June 21, 2020, eight days after Mr David’s arrest, the report said there was information indicating he was involved in “a home invasion and robbery” at a farm belonging to Mr Ramaphosa. (However, the report names a different farm owned by the president, not the one that was robbed.)

The memorandum provided other details that would also surface in Mr. Fraser’s complaint two years later: that a woman on the property discovered the money and told others about it; that the money was hidden in furniture; that Mr. David was a central player in the robbery.

The confidential report was created by Nelius Becker, the head of criminal investigations for the Namibian National Police at the time. Mr. Becker said in a recent interview that he had shared it with two other senior officers and that he was supposed to remain confidential. He also said that, to his knowledge, the Namibian police never attempted to nullify or cover up any investigation.

But his report describes a meeting between high-level Namibian and South African officials in which the South Africans appear to have tried to put pressure on their neighbours. During the meeting, which took place in a border area known as “no man’s land,” a South African official confirmed that something had happened at the farm but no cases were reported, according to the memo. The official said that Mr. David was the intellectual author of the robbery.

“Due to the sensitivity of the matter and the anticipated fallout it will create in South Africa, they requested that the matter be handled with discretion,” Becker wrote in the report.

In a recent press release, Lieutenant General Sebastian Ndeitunga, the Namibian police chief, tried to temper any suggestion of impropriety. The meeting, on June 19, 2020, was simply to “share operational information” about Mr. David and others suspected of stealing money in South Africa and fleeing to Namibia, General Ndeitunga said.

Still, what unfolded in the weeks that followed seems to suggest that Namibia was much more zealous in its pursuit of Mr. David and the other suspects than the South African authorities.

Namibian investigators traced the banking activity of Mr David, Mr Shikongo and a third man, Petrus Afrikaner, over the course of several months. They recorded transactions worth 6.7 million Namibian dollars ($416,000), according to one of the senior government officials.

Namibian prosecutors were trying to build a money laundering case against the men. So they drafted a request for help to establish the sources of the suspects’ funds and whether they were derived from illegal activities, Yvonne Dausab, Namibia’s justice minister, said in a text message. On August 14, 2020, the Namibian High Commissioner in South Africa handed over the application to the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation, to be forwarded to the Department of Justice, Ms. Dausab said. South African officials never responded, she said.

Chrispin Phiri, a spokesman for the South African Ministry of Justice, said in a statement Tuesday that the agency had no official record of a request from Namibian authorities regarding the suspects in the farm robbery.

Without that information, the Namibian authorities would no longer be able to freeze the suspects’ assets or prosecute them.

lynsey chutel contributed report.

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