South Africa

DAYS OF ZONDO

‘I like my holy waters,’ boasts Edwin Sodi, winner of R255-million Free State asbestos contract

Director of Blackhead Consulting Edwin Sodi testifies in Johannesburg at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture on 19 August 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

Politically connected CEO Edwin Sodi announced, ‘I’m an avid collector of whiskies.’ Sodi paid a R600,000 deposit for a Range Rover to a Ballito car dealership in December 2015. He testified he was settling about six months’ debt for luxury alcohol he obtained from then director-general of the national Department of Human Settlements, Thabane Zulu. By then, Sodi and a partner had won a handsome R255m asbestos project with Zulu’s department in the Free State. The project was a sham.

On Wednesday 19 August 2020, the CEO of Blackhead Consulting Pty (Ltd) testified on his predilection for “pricey” liquor, but was at pains to appear humble. “I don’t want to say this in a manner that’s gonna sound, you know, arrogant, but there are certain types of alcohol which are pricey,” testified Edwin Sodi.

The politically connected CEO and tenderpreneur returned to the State Capture Inquiry to field further questions on his role in lucrative — and bloated — asbestos projects in Gauteng and the Free State. On Wednesday morning Sodi arrived in his Sunday best and even made references to the divine in his testimony. 

His outfit was shades of blue, from a navy suit to pinstripe shirt and polka dot tie, neatly clipped with a polished bar. Several years ago, tabloid newspapers referred to the apparently rakish Sodi as a “tender tycoon” who amassed a “sea of wealth” from government contracts. 

Cup runneth over

Chairperson Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wanted answers from Sodi on how the CEO apparently accrued a liquor bill of more than R600,000 in “plus-minus” six months in 2015. “I guess you never took anything less than R100,000?” asked Zondo of each visit Sodi made to a lounge.

“Chair, I know I like my holy waters,” he began with a laugh. Sodi could not recall the precise amount of each purchase, but “it could have been around” R100,000 at a time. Sodi said the bills were “substantial” and he transported the alcohol from the lounge to his home in his car.

Here, evidence leader advocate Paul Pretorius SC asserted Sodi contradicted his earlier version of events, in which Sodi asserted the luxury liquor was delivered from a Pietermaritzburg lounge in a township to Sodi’s plush Zimbali residence. 

Several times, Sodi emphasised events under scrutiny occurred five years before and “memories fade” with time. According to his evidence, the acquisition of alcohol (staggered over about six months in 2015) resulted in a debt of more than R600,000. The debt was a matter of concern for both Zondo and Pretorius.

Drinks under the table

Since Sodi met inquiry investigators in 2019, they have dug up critical bank records. These show he paid R600,000 directly into the account of a Ballito car dealership in December 2015. The deposit formed a down payment for someone else’s Range Rover. The reference for the payment was “TZ” and it is common cause that was a reference to Thabane Zulu.

Asbestos Chronicles: Range Rover, Range Rover! Send money on over!

Zulu previously testified about his sports lounge and entertainment venue in a township just outside Pietermaritzburg. Sodi sought to explain why he bought more than R600,000 in luxury alcohol from Zulu’s venue for transport to his home more than 100km away.

“It was for me as being seen to be supportive of someone I knew,” said Sodi. “Call it an acquaintance or friend. I went on a number of occasions after having done whatever business I was doing at my son’s school.” 

Zulu was then director-general of the national Department of Human Settlements. Sodi and a partner won a lucrative asbestos project in the province, in Zulu’s department. Sodi and then business partner Ignatius “Igo” Mpambani formed a joint venture (JV) which scored the R255-million asbestos project in the Free State in 2014, running into 2015. 

Previously, Sodi’s business, Blackhead Consulting, was among several companies involved in a similar asbestos project in Gauteng. He testified this project formed the effective blueprint for that in the Free State. Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane found “serious irregularities” in the Free State project. 

Public Protector provisionally finds ‘serious irregularities’ in R255m Free State asbestos audit

Sodi testified there was nothing untoward in the R600,000 deposit, which was — in his version — merely settling his debt with Zulu for luxury alcohol obtained from one of Zulu’s private businesses. However, Sodi did not of his own accord disclose the payment to investigators when questioned in late 2019. He insisted, “I co-operated fully and I gave them as much information as I could, based on the questions that they asked.” 

Beyond the veil

Sodi later lay blame for any illegality involved in the JV at the grave of his late partner, Mpambani. While the surviving JV partner did not wish to speak ill of the dead, and said of Mpambani, “may his soul rest in peace”, Sodi raised ongoing litigation over a final transfer Mpambani made out of the JV account before his death.

“Mr Mpambani, as I’ve indicated on a number of occasions, did not conduct himself in accordance with the spirit of the JV,” said Sodi. Welkom-born Mpambani was murdered in a hail of bullets in Johannesburg in 2017. 

Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State detailed the murder: Mpambani was en route to Bloemfontein with R1-million in his Bentley when bullets hit the car. Myburgh’s investigation detailed the asbestos project and graft in the Free State under former premier Ace Magashule. 

New book lays bare Ace Magashule’s Free State fiefdom

Pretorius referred Sodi to a controversial spreadsheet. It featured several initials beside payment figures. Sodi testified he had not seen the document prior to meeting with investigators in 2019. Even though the spreadsheet was generated on Sodi’s computer, he says Mpambani was its only author. “I had no role in drafting,” he said.

“I can’t with absolute conviction confirm or make a speculation and reduce that into a fact to say that this initial refers to so-and-so, especially because I was not the author of the spreadsheet,” said Sodi. He testified Mpambani authored the spreadsheet without his knowledge or input.

When Pretorius asked Sodi why he had told investigators he had no idea to whom “TZ” in the spreadsheet might refer, Sodi explained he did not want to speculate and in doing so mislead the commission. “I can’t, you know, put my head on the block,” he announced.

AM stories

Pretorius referred to another entry in the spreadsheet, entitled “cost of business” and suspected of — at the very least — indicating intended payments to various individuals. The initials AM appear beside a figure of R10-million. “AM, could you have guessed who that was?” Pretorius asked. Sodi replied sternly, “Absolutely not, sir.”

“You knew who the premier was at the time,” Pretorius continued. Sodi interrupted, “Chair, was not going to start speculating that AM refers to the premier.” Pretorius noted, “We don’t have any evidence that he was directly involved in the project although there is other evidence that he gave instructions that all procurement issues were to be sent to his office.”

Two years ago, Magashule told an assembly of students, “I want to go to the commission, if I am so implicated. I want to go because if one goes there, one can relay many other stories.” Now the ruling party’s secretary-general, Magashule was the target of carping from former Free State MEC for Economic Development, Mxolisi Dukwana.

Heat rises for Magashule, the ANC’s top liability, and master survivor (so far)

In his August 2019 testimony at the inquiry, Dukwana called Magashule a “blesser” akin to Father Christmas. Dukwana claimed the “asbestos heist” in the Free State was executed at Magashule’s behest. Dukwana failed to offer hard evidence proving his allegation. 

Dukwana testimony could once and for all lift information sluices on Magashule’s captured Free State

Zondo said to Sodi with reference to the spreadsheet, “On your version you are saying your partner knew of about x number of people who had to be paid more than R25-million from the business and you knew nothing about those people. Is that what you’re saying?” Sodi agreed.

A humble brag

Whatever Sodi did or did not know about the spreadsheet, on his own version he was a networker who frequently entertained guests at his home in Zimbali. This, testified Sodi, was relevant context regarding his alcohol purchases. He went so far as to disclose tens of thousands spent on lavish liquor during level three of the national lockdown in August 2020.

“You know, I’ve recently — and as recent as, I think, two weeks ago — bought six bottles of champagne which I don’t consume all the time but I put them for special occasions, especially birthdays and stuff like that. And I paid, it was between R4,000 and R5,000 per bottle.”

Sodi soon added, “I paid over R50,000 just for six bottles. So, the point I’m trying to illustrate and as I’m saying Chair I don’t want it to come out in a boastful or arrogant manner, is to say there are certain types of alcohol that you’d pay exorbitant prices and also I’m an avid collector of whiskies.”

Zondo wanted particulars on what products Sodi purchased from Zulu’s lounge over six months in 2015, resulting in a total debt of more than R600,000. Sodi began stuttering at first, “So, Chair, there would have been uh, substantial, uh, amount of champagne, uh, there would have, uh, Chair there would have been, um, whiskies such as your Johnnie Walker for instance, um, from your red up to your blue, um…”

It’s all relative

Zondo pressed Sodi on the balance of his liquor debt with Zulu, which Sodi and Zulu testified was paid in cash.

“When it comes to the payment of the R4,000 it is also not paid into his account, it is paid to him in cash,” remarked the Chairperson. Sodi reported there was no working card machine at Zulu’s lounge and it was convenient to pay the difference in cash. 

“It was a small amount and I am saying it with the greatest of humility that, you know, we, we’re in a country where there is a lot of poverty and so forth. So, someone sitting at home listening to me say that R4,000 is a small amount might take offence to that, but I’m saying in relation to carrying the cash with me it was not that substantial.”

Ramaphosa signs off on SIU probe into Ace-linked asbestos deal

It is estimated tens of thousands of Free State residents in apartheid-era housing remain exposed to hazardous asbestos. Fieldworkers conducted the audit in less than two months five years ago. In July 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed a proclamation empowering the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to probe claims of “unlawful or improper conduct” regarding the R255-million contract. That was more than one year ago. The inquiry resumes on Thursday 20 August 2020 at 10am. DM

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