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

WINDHOEK, Namibia — Namibian investigators were hot on the trail of the suspected burglars. 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 had traced large money transfers that the suspects made from South African to Namibian bank accounts.

All that was left to make a case against the suspects was to link 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 U.S. currency stolen from his property, and then covered up the theft to avoid scrutiny over having large sums of cash tucked away.

The money had been hidden in furniture in a house 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 in 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 has said, adding that the cash came from the legal sale of rare 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 auction 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 he hid large sums of foreign currency — from money laundering to breaking tax or foreign exchange laws.

Mr. Ramaphosa, in the thick of a battle this year to be re-elected as the leader of his 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 himself is facing allegations of corruption during his tenure as head of state security, is a close ally of the former president Mr. Ramaphosa pushed out, Jacob Zuma. Mr. Zuma’s allies have been seeking to discredit Mr. Ramaphosa in any way they can as they fight his re-election bid.

The complaint filed by Mr. Fraser resurrected what otherwise was a seemingly forgotten case. But it was one that 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 police that men who 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 official in June 2020 details allegations that U.S. dollars hidden inside a sofa at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm were 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 seems the South African authorities eventually stopped cooperating when Namibian law enforcement requested official assistance. There also were 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 in my culture to hide a crime,” Martha Imalwa, Namibia’s prosecutor general, who attempted to get information on the 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 said to have made off with the cash, Namibian police stopped a Ford Ranger pickup truck in the Namibian capital, Windhoek. Criminal informants in Namibia had told the police that the occupants of the vehicle had been involved in a theft at Mr. Ramaphosa’s farm, according to the two police officers and one of the senior government officials.

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 vehicle inside out. 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 Mr. Shikongo without charges.

Mr. Shikongo and his cousin, Petrus Muhekeni, were among the five burglary suspects who 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 news reports surfaced and they were inundated with calls from journalists.

While the authorities have flagged his cash transfers, Mr. Shikongo said his money did not come from stealing from the president, but from buying and selling gold throughout 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 the 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 U.S. currency each worth $100 into 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 valued the amount stolen at 65 million Namibian dollars — about $4 million U.S. — the same amount Mr. Fraser mentioned in his complaint against Mr. Ramaphosa this month.

Although the Namibian police released few details publicly at the time, the 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 there was information indicating that he was involved in “a housebreaking and theft” at a farm belonging to Mr. 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 in Mr. Fraser’s complaint two years later — that a woman at 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 burglary.

The confidential report was created by Nelius Becker, the 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 it was supposed to remain confidential. He also said that, to his knowledge, the Namibian police never attempted to quash or cover up any investigation.

But his report does describe a meeting between high-level authorities from Namibia and South Africa in which it appears that the South Africans attempted 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 is 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 to “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 in South Africa delivered the request to the South African 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 Namibian authorities regarding the 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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