In South Africa’s Farmgate Scandal, a Theft and then a Silence

WINDHOEK, Namibia – Namibian investigators were hot on the trail of suspected burglars. After receiving a tip about a sensational heist – a farm belonging to President Cyril Ramaphosa in neighboring South Africa – they traced large money transfers that made suspects from South African to Namibian bank accounts.

All that was left to do was make a case against the suspects was linked to the money to the burglary.

But when justice ministry officials in Namibia reached out to their counterparts in South Africa for confirmation, they say they got an unusual response that killed their case: silence.

Now, two years later, that silence is raising new questions about whether Mr. Ramaphosa was attempting to hide the burglary from public view and mobilizing the government apparatus to help him do so.

The burglary of the president’s farm in South Africa, 650 miles from the border with Namibia, occurred in February 2020 but only became widely known this month. A political foe of the president leveled bombshell allegations that Mr. Ramaphosa had between $ 4 million and $ 8 million in US currency stolen from his property, and then covered up theft to avoid scrutiny over large sums of cash tucked away.

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

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

As the president attempts to forge ahead with his regular agenda – his farm hosted a game on Saturday – he faces a difficult road ahead. The Hawks, one of the nation’s elite investigative units, are investigating him. Even Mr. Ramaphosa’s allies worry about potential criminal charges associated with allegations that it hid large sums of foreign currency – money laundering from breaking tax or foreign exchange laws.

Mr. Ramaphosa, in the thick of a battle this year to be re-elected as its leader of the party, the African National Congress, has remained largely silent.

Even the manager of Phala Phala, Hendrik von Wielligh, conceded in a brief telephone interview that it was unusual to stash money from game sales at the house. Asked what usually happened with the proceeds, he said curtly, “Normally to the bank.” Mr. von Wielligh declined to discuss the robbery, saying that “the people that investigated” had warned him not to talk to the press because it would complicate the investigation, and possibly scare off witnesses.

Mr. Fraser, who is facing allegations of corruption during his tenure as head of state security, is a close ally of the former president Ramaphosa pushed out, Jacob Zuma. Mr. Zuma’s allies have been seeking to discredit Mr. Any way they can fight his re-election bid in Ramaphosa.

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

In interviews conducted in 2020, a few months after the burglary, two Namibian police officers and two senior government officials said that informants had alerted the policemen who had burgled Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm had fled to Namibia. The officers 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 are hidden inside a sofa at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm was stolen by a man in Namibian custody on unrelated charges. That report, which recently leaked online, also said that officials from South Africa and Namibia had discussed the burglary, 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 countries’ two presidents,” the report said.

Hage Geingob, Namibia’s president, has denied doing any favors for Mr. Ramaphosa regarding the burglary. And Namibian law enforcement officials insist that they did everything by the book.

“It is not a crime to hide in my culture,” Martha Imalwa, Namibia’s prosecutor general, who suspected burglary suspects from South African authorities, said in an interview. “We can’t force another jurisdiction to assist.”

Around April 2020, weeks after the burglars were told to make off with cash, Namibian police stopped a Ford Ranger pickup truck in the Namibian capital, Windhoek. Criminal informants in Namibia told police that the occupants of the vehicle had been involved in a raft at Mr. According to Ramaphosa’s farm, two police officers 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 out the vehicle. They used tools to disassemble parts of the truck to search it, he said.

“They just said, ‘We are searching for something,'” Mr. Shikongo recalled. When he asked what they were searching for, they would not tell him, he said.

The police found nothing and released Shikongo without charges.

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

While the authorities have flagged his cash transfers, Mr Shikongo said his money didn’t come from stealing from the president, but buying and selling gold from southern Africa. Mr. Shikongo said 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 must be cleared.”

The first public whiff of the burglary at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm started with a mundane crime: Imanuwela David, a Namibian-born man who holds a South African passport, sneaked into Namibia in June 2020 by taking a canoe across the Orange River.

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

The police said he had brought 11 notes of US currency worth every $ 100 in Namibia. He had a TAG Heuer and a Rolex watch, a gold chain and four cellphones. The police also said at the time that Mr. David was a fugitive in South Africa, linked to a burglary there. They gave few details about the case, but one report in The Namibian Sun stolen the amount at 65 million Namibian dollars – about $ 4 million US – the same amount as Mr. Fraser mentioned in his complaint against Mr. Ramaphosa this month.

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

Produced on June 21, 2020, eight days after Mr. David’s arrest, the report said, was indicative of information indicating he was involved in a “housebreaking and theft” belonging to a farm Ramaphosa. (The report, however, names a different farm owned by the president, not the one that was robbed.)

The memo gave other details that would also surface Fraser’s complaint two years later – that a woman discovered the property and told others about it; that the money was hidden in furniture; that Mr. David was a central player in the burglary.

The confidential report was created by Nelius Becker, Head of Criminal Investigations for Namibia’s 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 tried to quash or cover up any investigation.

But his report does describe a meeting between high-level authorities in Namibia and South Africa in which it appears that South Africans are trying to pressure their neighbors. During the meeting, which took place at a border area known as “no man’s land,” a South African official confirmed that something had happened on the farm but that no case was filed, according to the memo. The official said that Mr. David was the mastermind behind the burglary.

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

In a recent news release, Lt. Gen. Sebastian Ndeitunga, the head of the Namibian police, sought to temper any suggestion of impropriety. The meeting, on June 19, 2020, was simply “share operational information” about Mr. David and other people suspected of stealing money in South Africa and fleeing to Namibia, General Ndeitunga said.

Still, what unfolded in the subsequent weeks 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 Tracked The Banking Activity Of Mr. David, Mr. Shikongo and a third man, Petrus Afrikaner, over the course of several months. They recorded 6.7 million Namibian dollars’ ($ 416,000) worth of transactions, according to one of the senior government officials.

Namibian prosecutors were attempting to build a money-laundering case against the men. So they drafted a request for help establishing the sources of the suspects’ funds and whether they were derived from unlawful activities, said Yvonne Dausab, the Namibian justice minister, in a text message. On Aug. 14, 2020, The Namibia High Commission delivers request to South Africa Department of International Relations and Cooperation, to be forwarded to the Justice Department, Ms. Dausab said. South African officials never responded, she said.

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

Without that information, the Namibian authorities could no longer freeze the assets of the suspects or pursue a case against them.

Lynsey Chutel contributed reporting.

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