In the midst of the City Press exposé of State Security Minister David Mahlobo’s alleged friendship with a suspected rhino horn trader, a theft case of 112 rhino horns worth about R116 million has virtually collapsed.
The horns were stolen from the storeroom of the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Agency (MTPA) in Mbombela on April 20 2014 following a break-in.
The case took a knock when its investigating officer attached to the organised crime unit of the Hawks, Constable Mduduzi Motubatse, was arrested for an unrelated rhino poaching incident that happened in 2011.
Mpumalanga Hawks spokesperson Captain Lucy Sekotodi said that Motubatse was suspended from work following his arrest last year.
“The criminal case is provisionally withdrawn pending a decision from the NPA [the National Prosecuting Authority] while the departmental [disciplinary] case is still on,” Sekotodi said.
However, she was unable to clarify whether the MTPA case was given to another investigator or whether any new suspects had been profiled or arrested.
The Hawks initially arrested four men after the break-in. Last year, the Nelspruit regional court provisionally withdrew the burglary and theft charges against Gideon Mtshali (51), Leonard Sizwe Malatjie (34), Velly William Zwane (43) and Selby George Khoza (39) owing to insufficient evidence.
Mpumalanga finance and economic development MEC, Eric Kholwane, also hired iFirm – a private forensic investigation company owned by former Gauteng and Mpumalanga police commissioners, Mzwandile Petros and Thulani Ntobela – to investigate the storeroom break-in.
Kholwane’s spokesperson, Mohau Ramodibe, said: “A decision has been taken not to release the report on the rhino horn theft owing to future security measures of the horns. I also don’t know the contents of the report.”
The MTPA’s former board pointed fingers at erstwhile CEO Jacques Modipane, but failed to link him to the theft. Modipane took a golden handshake estimated at R5 million, following a settlement agreement.
National Hawks spokespesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi said the Chinese national, Guan Jian Guang, who claimed to be Mahlobo’s friend in an Al Jazeera documentary last week, was on the run.
Guang’s spa at Sonpark Centre in Mbombela, which Mahlobo conceded to visiting from time to time for treatment, was closed for four days this week after the documentary was aired.
It reopened on Friday and clients were trickling in.
When City Press visited the spa in the afternoon, a young Chinese man came with a local newspaper and all the workers – four Chinese woman – huddled around it reading about Guang. They spoke among one another in Chinese.
City Press overheard two black woman doing a manicure praising the service. “They’re better than the white-owned spas, because they’re not afraid to touch you,” said one woman. “You definitely feel better after their massage,” said the other.
Guang is also running a spa at Khayalami Lodge in Sonheuwel, Mbombela, and also owns a restaurant, Shiang Xu, at Sonpark.
A South African woman who answered the phone at Khayalami Lodge claimed that the spa’s staff did not report for duty this week.
“There’s nobody this side as well. We don’t have their contact numbers, but go on the internet, you’ll see there’s a number there,” she said.
At Shiang Xu, a Chinese woman answered the phone. “I never see this guy. The owner not here (sic),” she said.
Mulaudzi said Guang had been a “person of interest” for some time and that the Hawks had pleaded with Al Jazeera not to broadcast the documentary because it would interfere with their investigation.
“You know how investigations go. You collect evidence until you are satisfied and sure that NPA would not have a problem. We were waiting for the right moment to take him on,” he said.
Mulaudzi said the Hawks would make sure that Guang did not leave the country. “Our members had been busy in Limpopo this week, but when they return to Mpumalanga, they will look into the matter,” he said.
Mahlobo has confirmed visiting Guang’s spa, but has denied the Chinese national’s assertion that they were close. He has also said that he was not going to resign amid calls from opposition parties to do so.
More photos circulated after the documentary, which showed that former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa’s family and ANC Ehlanzeni regional chairperson, Ngrayi Ngwenya, also used Guang’s services.