The news on Wednesday morning that the Asset Forfeiture Unit was stripping the Mpisane mansion in La Lucia of its fleet of luxury cars came as a huge relief to a number of investigative journalists, who have regularly featured the infamous couple, Shauwn and S’bu, in blistering exposés over the past decade – to no effect. This time, however, it appears the couple finally have their backs to the wall. By NIKI MOORE.
In fact, the only mystery about the scandal-ridden two is why it has taken so long to bring them to justice, and why ANC-controlled government departments have so diligently protected them from investigation while awarding them massive government tenders at the same time.
It was in May 2008 that the Durban-based Mercury newspaper ran a front-page story about the Metro police officer who managed on his R15,000-a-month salary to drive his Lamborghini to work every day from his R17 million Durban North mansion.
An investigation by eThekwini Municipality and the Metro police not only cleared the Mpisane couple of any dubious dealings, but hailed S’bu Mpisane as a “model policeman” who was good at business and therefore served as a role model to other policemen. The investigative magazine Noseweek reported that the city manager at the time, Michael Sutcliffe, had said that any further questions about S’bu Mpisane would be deemed racist and ignored.
Meanwhile, Wiseman Mchunu, spokesman for the Metro Police Members Forum, also held his wealthy colleague up as a role model for other policemen. “Mpisane is one person showing police the way towards financial independence, which is so important because it steers them away from bribery and corruption,” he told newspapers two years ago. And S’bu Mpisane declared that he held onto his lowly job despite his fabulous business wealth because he enjoyed serving his community.
To its credit, the Mercury kept up its scrutiny of the Mpisane ménage, running regular stories about the multi-million rand tenders awarded to Shauwn, the sole director of Zikhulise Cleaning, Maintenance and Transport. In December 2009 the newspaper revealed that an RDP housing project had been halted in Umlazi, apparently as a result of non-payment by eThekwini Municipality. The newspaper established, however, that the council had paid a total of R219 million to the company during the year, and that the last payment – of R4,785,720 – had been made on 14 December 2009, two weeks before the Mpisanes threw a New Year’s Eve party for their political connections. The party featured golden thrones for the couple, the unveiling of their new Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, valued at R10 million, and unlimited whisky and champagne.
A week before the party, Mercury editor Philani Makhanya laid a complaint of intimidation against S’bu Mpisane, who had allegedly threatened him over his newspaper’s investigations.
Just days after the record-breaking party, though, 1,300 workers at the housing site in Umlazi were told to go home because the company could not pay them. Shauwn Mpisane is reported to have told the concerned local councillor, Sthenjwa Nyawose, that her company had not received payment from the municipality since October. The Mercury subsequently established that eThekwini had, in fact, paid more than R50 million in November and December, and city manager Sutcliffe told the newspaper that the project – to build 4,500 housing units in Umlazi – had been completed. However, Nyawose said thousands of houses were still unfinished.
Despite a price tag of about R70,000 a house, problems of quality surfaced only a few months later. The Mercury visited the development and found houses unplastered and unpainted, without toilets, taps, baths or showers. Roofs were leaking and walls were starting to crumble. The newspaper directed a number of queries to the provincial department of human settlement, but the Mercury’s questions (specifically concerning the criteria used to award the tender to Zikhulise) were ignored.
The newspaper also highlighted the discrepancies between the official version of events – that the payments had only been made once the houses were complete and were inspected by a “professional” – and the reality on the ground.
Shauwn Mpisane promised to talk to the newspaper to clarify the matter, but then announced she was about to embark on a three-day slimming programme and would be unavailable. The editor of the paper was subsequently startled to receive a telephone call from her PR man, Dominic Ntsele, asking to know what the motives of the newspaper were for talking to Shauwn Mpisane. The newspaper reported on 21 January 2010 that Ntsele claimed to be acting on behalf of “concerned loved ones” of the Mpisanes, but refused to reveal names.
In June 2011 Shauwn Mpisane was convicted of fraud in the Durban Regional Court and disqualified from running a business. Further charges followed, including fraud and tax evasion. At the same time, a forensic report compiled by auditors Ngubane and Company recommended that tenders awarded to Zikhulise be investigated as tender procedures had been circumvented and irregular payments had been made.
Unbelievably, eThekwini Municipality continued to award tenders to Zikhulise and allegedly influenced the awarding of a tender for a R170-million low-cost housing project in Stanger during July 2012. And the Mpisanes continued to throw lavish parties for their friends, including formerly-disgraced police chief, and now the ANC NEC member, Bheki Cele and Khulubuse Zuma. The municipality refused to release the Ngubane report, and also kept under wraps the subsequent Manase report, which controversially alleges that members of the city’s senior management team were complicit in multiple scams.
By October 2012 the noise from the press could no longer be ignored. The Mpisanes had been castigated by the National Home Builders Registration Council for building “shoddy homes”. And Shauwn Mpisane was now a convicted fraudster; all of her tenders were under investigation and the houses her company had built were being demolished as “unsafe”. Yet the municipality continued to defend her, and she defended herself by claiming that all accusations were motivated by professional jealousy because she consistently delivered better quality houses at lower cost and refused to become part of construction cartels.
The whole house of cards collapsed, though, last Wednesday morning, when the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) swooped on the house in La Lucia, attaching cars and assets to offset a debt of R140 million. They alleged that S’bu Mpisane misrepresented his construction company to the Construction Industry Development Board by submitting fraudulent gradings in order to secure larger government contracts. The case itself is not related to Shauwn Mpisane’s tax evasion and fraud charges.
But the question has to be asked: Why were the Mpisanes protected for so long? Why did eThekwini Municipality, along with the provincial housing department, ignore questions and obfuscate issues? The answer, perhaps, provides the real story.
Flora Mabongi “Shauwn” Mpisane is the daughter of eThekwini ANC councillor Dumazile Flora Mkhize, who started the Zikhulise Cleaning, Maintenance and Transport company while still a councillor in 1997. Her other relative is not so salubrious: she was the sister of S’bu Mkhize, an allegedly infamous violent armed robber and pioneer cash-in-transit heist operative who died in a shootout with police in the 1990s.
Zikhulise received its first R10 million tender to build 277 houses in Lamontville in 2004. Some of the houses were later demolished as unsafe. By 2008 the company had been awarded housing contracts worth R100 million. Shauwn Mpisane became the sole director after her mother’s death, and by 2012 the company had been awarded housing contracts worth R500 million. Many of these were declared illegal as they had been irregularly awarded.
S’bu Mpisane, on the other hand, has an even more interesting history. A report in The Times detailed how, in 1998, he became a material witness in a murder investigation and then mysteriously disappeared.
At the time Mpisane was a constable with the eThekwini Metro Police Dog Unit. A murder charge had been brought against a notorious taxi boss, Mandla Gcaba and his brother. During the case, it is alleged that a hit squad was ordered to assassinate the judge, the prosecutor and several witnesses. According to a confidential police source, the gang parked outside the Durban Regional Court and crossed the road carrying AK47 assault rifles. An alert police officer, Sergeant Craig van Zyl, tried to intervene and was shot dead. Two other people died and three were wounded in the subsequent shootout. It is alleged that S’bu Mpisane used his own BMW M5 as the getaway car for the team of hit men. When his car was indentified from footage recorded by police surveillance cameras, it is alleged he offered to turn state witness, but just before the trial he mysteriously disappeared. As he had been the only material witness left alive, the case collapsed and the Gcaba brothers were acquitted.
It was at the time believed that S’bu Mpisane had been murdered to prevent his testimony, but a year later he re-appeared, claiming he had been kidnapped and held prisoner for a year on a mysterious island off the coast of Africa. No further questions were asked: he was welcomed back to his former job, promoted to sergeant, and began his life of wealth.
There are still questions to be asked about whether the Mpisanes have links to organised crime: an alleged cash-in-transit bandit relative; providing the wheels in an organised hit; the incredibly lame story of a mysterious kidnapping in order to put the kibosh on a trial. For a decade the Mpisanes have been the Teflon Couple: no-one could make anything stick.
It is believed that the Manase investigation into eThekwini Municipality, which is currently a closely-guarded secret, might shed some light on this specific mystery, but until it is revealed we can only speculate. However, it appears that the changing of the guard at eThekwini Municipality may have stripped the Mpisanes of their political protection, or perhaps their transgressions just became just too hard to ignore. DM
Photo: Shauwn and S’bu Mpisane (Natal Witness)