WINDHOEK, Namibia – Namibian investigators were on the trail of the suspected burglars. After receiving a tip of a sensational robbery – the theft of cash from a farm belonging to President Cyril Ramaphosa of neighboring South Africa – they had traced large money transfers the suspects had made from bank accounts South Africans to Namibian bank accounts.
All that remained was to build a case against the suspects to establish a link between the money and the burglary.
But when Justice Ministry officials in Namibia contacted their counterparts in South Africa for confirmation, they said they got an unusual response that killed their case: silence.
Now, two years later, that silence raises new questions about whether Mr Ramaphosa was trying to hide the burglary from public view and mobilize the machinery of government to help him do so.
The burglary of the president’s farm in South Africa, 650 miles from the border with Namibia, happened in February 2020 but was not widely publicized until this month. A political enemy of the president has launched explosive allegations that Mr Ramaphosa had between $4 million and $8 million in US currency stolen from his property, then covered up the theft to avoid scrutiny for hiding large sums of money.
The money had been hidden in furniture in a house on President Phala Phala’s hunting farm, according to political enemy 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 carry out an illegal and unofficial investigation.
The president has since admitted that his farm had been broken into, but has denied any wrongdoing. The money stolen was far less than claimed, he said, adding that the money came from the legal sale of farm-raised rare game. A spokesperson for Mr. Ramaphosa declined to comment for this article.
As the president tries to push ahead with his usual agenda — his farm held a game auction on Saturday — he faces a tough road. The Hawks, one of the country’s elite investigative units, are investigating him. Even Mr Ramaphosa’s allies are worried about potential criminal charges associated with allegations that he hid large sums of foreign currency – from money laundering to breaching tax or foreign exchange laws.
Mr Ramaphosa, in the midst of a battle this year to be re-elected as leader of his party, the African National Congress, has remained largely silent.
Even Phala Phala director Hendrik von Wielligh conceded in a brief phone interview that it was unusual to hide game sales money at home. When asked what usually happens with the product, he snapped, “Normally in the bank.” Mr von Wielligh declined to discuss the theft, saying ‘those who investigated’ had warned him not to speak to the press as it would complicate the investigation and possibly scare witnesses.
Mr Fraser, who himself faces corruption allegations during his tenure as head of state security, is a close ally of the former president whom Mr Ramaphosa ousted, Jacob Zuma. Mr. Zuma’s allies have sought to discredit Mr. Ramaphosa in every possible way as they fight his re-election bid.
The complaint filed by Mr Fraser resurrected what was otherwise a seemingly forgotten case. But it was a case in which the Namibian authorities took a great interest two years ago.
In interviews conducted in 2020, months after the robbery, two Namibian police officers and two senior government officials said informants alerted police that the men who robbed 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 US dollars hidden in a sofa at Mr Ramaphosa’s farmhouse were stolen by a man detained in Namibia on unrelated charges . The report, which recently leaked online, also said South African and Namibian officials discussed the burglary, although it appears South African authorities eventually stopped cooperating when Namibian law enforcement requested official assistance. There were also discussions “allegedly ongoing between the two countries’ presidents”, the report said.
Hage Geingob, President of Namibia, denied doing any favors to Mr Ramaphosa regarding the burglary. And Namibian law enforcement officials insist they did everything right.
“It’s not in my culture to hide a crime,” Martha Imalwa, Namibia’s attorney general, who has been trying to get information about burglary suspects from South African authorities, said in an interview. “We cannot force another jurisdiction to help.”
Around April 2020, weeks after the burglars allegedly 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 occupants of the vehicle had been involved in a robbery at Mr Ramaphosa’s farm, according to the two officers and one of the senior government officials.
One such suspect, Erkki Shikongo, said in an interview that police detained him and his cousin at the police station while they turned the vehicle upside down. They used tools to dismantle parts of the truck in order to search it, he said.
“They just said, ‘We’re looking for something,'” recalls Mr. Shikongo. 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 five burglary suspects named by Mr. Fraser in his complaint. But both Mr. Shikongo and Mr. Muhekeni have denied any involvement in the burglary. They said in separate interviews that they only learned about what had happened after reports appeared and were inundated with calls from reporters.
While authorities flagged his cash transfers, Mr Shikongo said his money did not come from the president’s theft, but from buying and selling gold across 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 gets cleared.”
The first public whiff of the burglary at Mr Ramaphosa’s farm started with a mundane crime: Imanuwela David, a Namibian-born man holding a South African passport, snuck into Namibia in June 2020 taking a canoeing on the Orange River.
Mr David’s arrest for illegal entry into the country quickly became a sensational media story. Details have emerged that he was aided by a police officer and the managing director of the Namibian state-owned fishing company, embroiled in a corruption scandal known as ‘Fishrot’. Speculation has circulated that Mr. David may have been involved in Fishrot.
Police said he brought 11 US banknotes worth $100 each to Namibia. He had a TAG Heuer watch and a Rolex, 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 burglary there. They gave few details about the case, but a report by the Namibian Sun put the amount stolen at N$65 million – around US$4 million – the same amount Mr Fraser mentioned in his complaint against Mr Ramaphosa this month.
Although Namibian police released few details publicly at the time, the confidential investigation 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 had been involved in “a burglary and robbery” at a farm owned by Mr Ramaphosa . (The report, however, names a different farm owned by the president, not the one that was stolen.)
The memo gave other details that would also surface in Mr Fraser’s complaint two years later – that a woman at the property had discovered the money and told others about it; that the money was hidden in furniture; that Mr. David was a central actor in the burglary.
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 shared it with two other senior officers and was meant to be kept confidential. He also said that, to his knowledge, the Namibian police had never attempted to quash or cover up an investigation.
But his report describes a meeting between high-level Namibian and South African officials in which it appears the South Africans tried to pressure 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 that no complaints had been filed, according to the memo. The official said Mr David was the mastermind behind the burglary.
“Due to the sensitivity of the case and the envisaged fallout it will create in South Africa, they have requested that the matter be handled with discretion,” Mr Becker wrote in the report.
In a recent press release, Lt. Gen. Sebastian Ndeitunga, the Namibian police chief, sought to temper any suggestion of impropriety. The meeting, on June 19, 2020, was simply to “share operational information” on Mr David and others suspected of stealing money from South Africa and fleeing to Namibia, the general said. Ndeitunga.
Yet what unfolded over the following 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 followed the banking activity of Mr. David, Mr. Shikongo and a third man, Petrus Afrikaner, for 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. They therefore drafted a request for assistance in establishing the sources of the suspects’ funds and whether they came from illegal activities, Yvonne Dausab, Namibia’s justice minister, said in a text message. On August 14, 2020, the Namibian High Commission in South Africa handed the request 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, spokesman for the South African Department of Justice, 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 this information, the Namibian authorities would no longer be able to freeze suspects’ assets or prosecute them.
Lynsey Chutel contributed report.