'I don’t sleep, I feel like I could just die' – VBS bank heist victim on losing her money

Tshinyalani Elisa Mudau . (Photo: DRUM)
Tshinyalani Elisa Mudau . (Photo: DRUM)

Tshinyalani Elisa Mudau (59) lost R500 000 in what has been called South Africa’s most brazen bank heist.

Along with 23 000 other depositors, she saw her precious life savings disappear when VBS Mutual Bank was looted of nearly R2bn.

Her house is unfinished but it’s nearly complete – all it needs is a roof and a lick of paint, and it will become a home.

But whether Tshinyalani will ever have the money to complete the place is unlikely.

Instead of it becoming the dream home she had hoped, for her daughters and grandchildren, the building is now a constant reminder of her shattered dreams.

Tshinyalani, who is her family’s sole breadwinner, had trusted the bank with her money for 25 years and was shattered when it was placed under administration after it ran out of funds.

Advocate Terry Motau, who was appointed by the Reserve Bank to lead the investigation into the bank’s affairs, found earlier last year that at least 53 people, including politicians, executives and even royals, benefited by raiding the bank of R1,89bn before it collapsed.

The mother of five from Tshiulungoma, a village located outside Thohoyandou in Limpopo, says it has been a devastating blow. The scandal has taken its toll on her health, leaving her deeply depressed and with blood pressure problems.

"I find myself going to bed as early as 18:00," she tells DRUM. "But I don’t sleep – I’m constantly thinking about my lost money and worrying about the future. I feel like I could just die because of the pain I’m feeling right now. I’m heartbroken."

Everything has changed as a result of the VBS nightmare, she adds. Now she has to think twice about every cent she spends as she needs to make sure she has enough for her youngest daughter’s tuition fees.

Tshinyalani, who works for the Thulamela municipality in Limpopo as a TLB (tractor-loader-backhoe) machine operator, opened a savings account at the bank in 1993, with the goal of saving enough money for her children to study at tertiary institutions so they wouldn’t have to rely on bursaries.

Every month she’d put away part of her salary, always at VBS Mutual Bank. By the time the bank was placed under administration, she’d saved a healthy R600 000, which was to be her investment in her children and grandchildren’s futures.

Now that future is uncertain.

Tshinyalani felt helpless when she was told her money was gone. She’d been waiting to see her doctor in May when she overheard people in the waiting room talking about a rumour that VBS Mutual Bank had collapsed.

She immediately went to the bank "and told them I wanted my money". She was told only a maximum of R100 000 was being given to clients so she took her money and left.

"I was so disturbed. VBS was a bank started by Vhavenda people who resonate with my culture, that’s why I started a relationship with that bank.

"I never imagined there would be a scandal like this."

Tshinyalani reinvested her R100 000 with Nedbank. The bank was appointed by the government to facilitate payment to investors after the national treasury provided a guarantee to the South African Reserve Bank to pay out R100 000 per depositor.

"I thought of buying a safe to put my money in because my faith in banks was at an all-time low and burying the safe inside the garage.

"But then I thought, ‘What if I die before I tell my children where the money is?’ They would never find it."

The money Tshinyalani had painstakingly saved over decades had, in addition to paying her children’s tertiary fees, been for her to enjoy when she became a pensioner.

"It was supposed to be a way of thanking myself for all these years I’ve been working hard."

She had also planned to finish the house she was building for her daughters, as well as build a second house on a nearby stand she owns.

"I wanted to put on a roof and finish it off so my daughters could live there with my grandkids," she says. "I didn’t want us all living in a full house."

Now she isn’t sure it will ever be finished – and it’s unlikely she’ll be able to build a house on the second stand.

Tshinyalani’s youngest daughter, Murendeni (22), is studying financial accounting at Damelin College and started her final year in January.

Her R40 000 fees will have to come out of the R100 000 that’s left of her mother’s payout.

“As a mother, I cannot fail her. It has been hard for her over the past couple of months and she is worried she won’t perform well in some of the modules since her attention has been divided due to uncertainty of where the money for her studies will come from.”

But she’ll make a plan, Tshinyalani says, and use some of her salary to make up the shortfall if necessary.

Tshinyalani’s other daughter, Rofhiwa (26), also lives with her. She put her studies on hold after she gave birth to her daughter, Uzwothe, who is now 18 months old. Her sons, Dennis (41), Fhulufhelo (36) and Mpho (30) live in Joburg.

 Life has changed for the family, Rofhiwa says.

“We used to get everything we wanted, but not anymore. For instance, we would go out as a family to our favourite restaurants in town at least three times a month, but now we can only afford it once a month.

"Money is very tight."

It’s uncertain if Tshinyalani and the bank’s other customers will ever get their money back.

In November 2018, the high court in Gauteng issued a final order for the liquidation of the bank.

Anoosh Rooplal, director of accounting firm Grant Thornton, was appointed as liquidator and his task will be to ensure civil and criminal proceedings can be pursued to hold those responsible for the theft of almost R2bn to account.

The liquidation order will allow for the recovery of funds from those who looted or owed the bank money.

Advocate Motau’s report has been referred to the National Prosecuting Authority for civil or criminal action to be taken against those implicated.

Meanwhile, people like Tshinyalani can only wait, hope and count every cent they have.

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