The unwanted meerkat in the “Butterfly” case, Gerrie Nel, seems to be making some headway towards the gates of hell because questions are already being raised over the behaviour of South Africa’s major banks that seem to have colluded with the defence and powerful personages to block investigation of certain accounts and even deny they ever existed.
South African financial giants ABSA and Nedbank have found themselves entangled in the controversial case that has pitted regional neighbours Botswana and South Africa against each other on a prosecutorial course that could strain their relations.
Questions have been raised regarding how they came to assist powerful South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe while the Botswana Government was simultaneously blanked out by South African government authorities in its request for Mutual Legal Assistance. Botswana investigators and prosecutors were left scratching their heads when, just months after making their request, ABSA and Nedbank both came out to dismiss a major point in the request: a look into alleged accounts belonging to Motsepe-Radebe.
The South African authorities gave the inquiry a cold shoulder, especially this aspect of it, at a time when the accounts were the focus of South African and Botswana media reports. It is for this reason that hard nosed legal mind Gerrie Nel, whose appointment by Botswana has received criticism for his pro-Afrikaner advocacy work, will seek to focus his inquiry on highly suspected behind-the-scenes collaboration between bank officials, South Africa government officials and powerful political leaders both in and outside government.
This week Nedbank sought to distance itself from the controversy by claiming that it was merely responding to a legal request by Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe’s legal representatives. “Nedbank confirmed in November 2019 that it does not hold accounts in the name of Blue Flies (Pty) Ltd and Fire Flies (Pty) Ltd. Following requests by both Ms Radebe and the attorneys representing Hilton Lerato Motswana late last year, letters were sent to both parties confirming that Nedbank does not hold accounts for these entities,” the bank said in a response to an inquiry by The Botswana Gazette.
This publication sought to know what Nedbank knew and how in the entire time when Botswana authorities were blanked out and unable to get a response to its inquiries into the bank accounts allegedly held in the banks, Motsepe-Radebe was able to get their cooperation, including a statement from the bank.
In media interviews, Motsepe-Radebe is curiously arguing that the pursuit of Botswana’s Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) request through Nel in South Africa is intended “to open apartheid wounds”. However, those close to the investigation say she is launching a major diversion from the fact that as a politically connected and prominent businessperson, she is actively interfering with key evidence in the graft case against powerful political elite in Botswana. The full extent of the collaboration of South African institutions and Motsepe-Radebe is becoming clear.
Gazette investigations reveal that Nedbank South Africa spoke to Motsepe-Radebe in November after which it released a letter titled “W.M. Maswabi 11 THE STATE (BOTSWANA HIGH COURT)” to her. The communication between Nedbank and its subsequent assistance came two months after Botswana sent its request to South African authorities. In Botswana, Motsepe-Radebe facilitated the bail release of the main accused person, Welhelminah Maswabi, by causing the bank to deny that account numbers 8061923840 and 1099810081 were opened with the bank. Motsepe-Radebe made this inquiry before investigations by South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) which would have been caused by Botswana’s MLA request if it had been granted. Following this, on 11 November 2019, ABSA Bank in Pretoria responded to a letter from Maswabi’s lawyer Uyapo Ndadi which he had sent to the bank through Motsepe-Radebe, also denying existence of account number 40892246893. This is despite the fact that Motsepe-Radebe is cited in the Botswana’s MLA request as a suspect.
The focus for Nel will be whether or not there were political arrangements to assist Motsepe-Radebe. Nel’s team will be interested how, even before South Africa could act on Botswana’s request, Motsepe-Radebe was personally actively working with another bank that could have possibly been investigated by the NPA if the MLA request had been granted. Nedbank would not be drawn into elaborating on how it collaborated with state bodies in South Africa at the time. “Nedbank is not in a position to comment on its engagements with authorities, which should not be construed as having /not having engaged with authorities,” a statement from the bank reads.The Botswana Government had requested South Africa to assist in the investigation that involves obtaining evidence from financial institutions in that country, among them ABSA and Nedbank. A South African source says developments around this raise eyebrows. “Our information shows that whilst the Botswana Government still awaits the outcome of its MLA request to South Africa, the very banks that are potential witnesses in the matter have been swift in responding to enquiries by Motsepe who at this time is not party to any ongoing investigations,” the source points outs. “This is despite the fact that by doing this, Motsepe may be using her political and business connections to meddle with damning evidence central to the Botswana case.”
It also raises serious questions why, after denying any personal knowledge of Maswabi, who is better known as “Butterfly,” Motsepe-Radebe should go out on a limb for her and secure denials from ABSA and Nedbank on Maswabi’s behalf. “If Umam’ Maswabi is a stranger to Bridgette, why would she expose herself to the risks of being caught in future NPA investigations that may lead to her criminal prosecution?,” ponders a source inside Nedbank. “It is clear that the letter from Nedbank was made on behalf of Maswabi at her (Motsepe-Radebe) request and the title of the letter is very clear on that.”
The amount of political weight on the case compelled the prosecutors to pursue an MLA rather than the more circuitous diplomatic channels between the two countries. But when even the MLA was stalled, the delays by the South African authorities may have helped both Motsepe-Radebe and her allies in Botswana. “Botswana Patriotic Front (BPF) argues that Botswana should have exhausted diplomatic channels,” notes a government source in Gaborone. “They know it affords them a strategic delay that helps them interfere with potential investigations while also marshalling a political programme to paralyse the current administration. However, diplomacy cannot trump concerns against crime involving politically exposed persons.”
Motsepe-Radebe’s connections to Maswabi and ex-president Ian Khama are well known. Under normal circumstances, Botswana’s MLA request – which is still at South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) through which it was properly channeled, should been sent without delay to the country’s Ministry of Justice for approval. If approved, South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority would have investigated the money laundering allegations raised in Botswana’s request to establish the extent to which institutions like ABSA and Nedbank, as well as politically connected persons like Khama, Motsepe-Radebe and Maswabi were involved, at least on the surface.
Nel says his clients suspect the delays were caused by the profile of the people that are the focus of this inquiry, in particular Motsepe-Radebe. Meanwhile, she continues to deny any involvement, directly or indirectly, in the matter(s). Sources in Botswana say by choosing Nel, they wanted not just a lawyer with insight into the working of the NPA but the connection between the political leadership, prosecuting authorities and the South African economy, in this case, the banks.