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The Phala Phala story: A saga so slippery, it’s a banana

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

The President, the domestic worker, her brother, the couch and the missing stash of US dollars. 

Those who do it know that cleaning a household comes with some unexpected benefits occasionally. Most deep scours of my youngest’s (a teenager) bedroom yield at least R60 in coins, which clink in my pockets. Even notes every now and again.

Speaking of cash, when offered crisp, new randelas to buy food before a matric exam recently, this member of Gen Z replied: “I would like some real money please.”

That’s how low paper money has sunk for the young in the hierarchy of value exchange in this country.

Except, of course, when that paper happens to be US dollars – and loads of them. That will make your unbelieving eyes water; you will be a convert to cash all over again.

That’s the Phala Phala story.

Finders keepers

You have to be able to imagine what half a million paper dollars looks like in the real world. Google a photograph. It makes up a considerable stack of neat little bundles.

And so it was that Froliana Joseph clocked in to spruce up President Cyril Ramaphosa’s home at his Phala Phala game farm on the morning of 9 February 2020, the year of Our Covid. Strangely a Sunday.

On 30 December 2019, Sylvester Ndlovu, acting Phala Phala manager, had moved $580,000 from the safe in the office to a couch in the President’s bedroom. There it lay undisturbed.

The cash was from the “pre-sale” of some offcut buffaloes bound for Dubai and bought by Sudanese businessman Hazim Mustafa.

From the declassified final report by the South African Reserve Bank we learn that Ramaphosa knew Mustafa and had connected Phala Phala staff with the extravagant businessman.

Ndlovu, wary of how many people had access to the safe at the lodge, struck on the idea of temporarily stashing the money under the cushions of a couch in the President’s bedroom.

About six weeks later, 9 February rolled around and Froliana Jacobs donned her apron, working her way towards the President’s bedroom and the couch.

The first thought that would have entered my mind, lifting the cushions and coming upon an eye-watering stash of US dollars, is: Why there, when there is a perfectly good safe in the office?

Whoever hid it in this strange place, I would have surmised, must have stolen it themselves. Settling on this fixed narrative would present a moral quandary, however.

Does one bad deed deserve another?

Leaving the money, I would have run home shouting: “Guys, you will never believe what I have just found stashed in the president’s couch!”

Arthur Fraser hatches an egg

No one would be able to keep such a secret.

Apart from Arthur Fraser. He held on to it until June 2022 – two years later.

At that point Fraser was still deployed by the ANC government as the director-general of Correctional Services. In that role he would conjure up medical parole for former president Jacob Zuma, whose visit to jail in July 2021 resulted in the death of more than 300 people and the torching of billions in infrastructure and property.

Froliana Joseph, we now know, only first blipped onto the radar of those who began probing the February break-in a month later, in March.

For six weeks the dollars were safe. She comes to work and “poof”, they’re gone. Behind the scenes dots were being joined. The president was informed and his personal protection head, Wally Rhoode, set to work.

First, he questioned Floriana alongside her brother, Ndilishano Joseph.

The siblings were eventually only arrested in November 2023 – three years later – and are both out on bail.

It was Ndilishano who had pumped his sister for more information after her couch revelation and who had set in motion the break-in with its twists and turns in Namibia and Cape Town.

Then in June 2022, Fraser, now retired from government with full benefits after his contract was not renewed, and despite the fact that he was seriously implicated in State Capture, walked into the Rosebank police station in Johannesburg.

There he lodged a charge against Ramaphosa, accusing him of concealing the break-in and theft of $4-million, which we now know was an inflated sum. Lord of the Files.

In December 2022 Ramaphosa was elected at the ANC’S 55th conference for a second term of leadership of the party, which has been shattered by endemic corruption in its ranks.

Rhoode once worked for Fraser’s private security company, Resurgent Risk Managers (RRM), established in 2010 during his career outside the State Security Agency.

RRM scored a R90-million contract from Prasa. Fraser’s Zumafication of all he touched still plays out to this day as this playbook continues to unfold. Ramaphosa is not tuned in to that frequency, so he fell into the trap.

Rhoode has since been sidelined by national police commissioner General Fannie Masemola for his role in the dodgy investigation.

Fraser accused Rhoode of “immediately” and “illegally” pulling together a team of former SAPS members and serving members of SAPS’s useless Crime Intelligence Unit, along with the local farmer, to get to the bottom of it all.

In other words, Fraser said Rhoode did not do the right thing.

Duty and integrity

Speaking of doing the right thing, Fraser said he learnt of the break-in a year after it happened.

At the time he served as the director-general of Correctional Services in the employ of the Republic of South Africa.

He learnt of the break-in, yet he chose to remain silent.

Then, as Karyn Maughan of News24 has reported, Fraser said that “as a person of integrity” he needed to report the matter in 2022.

What is it we expect of our DGs and managers in government, as well as ordinary civil servants who know about possible crimes? Morally and ethically? What do their codes of conduct prescribe?

Section 34 of the Prevention and Combating of Corrupt Activities Act states that “any person who holds a position of authority” who knows of any offence, be it corruption, theft, fraud, extortion, forgery or uttering involving R100,000 or more must report this. Fraser didn’t.

And as we shimmy into 2024 he remains a free man, Zondo report and all. Behind him lies a devastated ANC. An unexpected benefit of finding money cleaning a house. Who would have thought? DM

This column first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 front page

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Dryden says:

    Yep, Ramaphosa is as corrupt as the rest of the ANC, with his sickly grin he professes innocence and puts on a really remorseful face to fool the masses, one feels like crying to see him so sorrowful.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Well Marianne, at least you journalists’ focus has matured from accusing the victim (Ramaphosa) to the real culprits, namely Fraser, Ndlovu and Roode. Now the challenge is to reverse the inaccurate and untrue perception that has been created over the past year so the focus can be on the true facts instead of the myth that was created by Fraser. Many people believe that myth as keenly as religion by now.

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