Johannesburg lawyer George Sabelo and former state-owned oil company PetroSA boss Yekani Tenza are due to appear in the Bellville Magistrate's Court this week on charges of fraud or, alternatively, theft.
The charges relate to shady dealings in 2011 and 2012 that saw a law firm Sabelo was a partner in (Farber Sabelo Edelstein) paid R13m by PetroSA, signed off by Tenza, for work another law firm – Webber Wentzel – had already been contracted to do.
Webber Wentzel was hired to conduct the due diligence and transaction advisory on PetroSA’s acquisition of Sabre, a company that owned significant oil rights on the west coast of Ghana, a billion rand deal.
At the time, Sabelo was a 15% partner in Farber Sabelo Edelstein (FSE). But, Sabelo had clandestinely registered his own, new law firm, Nkosi Sabelo, behind the backs of his partners at FSE. Tenza was the acting CEO of PetroSA.
When the subterfuge was discovered, Sabelo was invited to leave the firm in 2012. But by that time, Sabelo and Tenze had colluded to ensure FSE was paid R13m for work Webber Wentzel had already done, according to the charge sheets seen by News24.
Following Sabelo's departure, FSE became Edelstein Farber Grobler (EFG) – the law firm that was recently caught up in the storm of allegations over President Cyril Ramaphosa’s successful ANC presidential campaign in 2017, CR17.
EFG managed an attorney's trust account that was used to house more than R100m in donations to Ramaphosa's campaign.
But in 2011, with Sabelo leading FSE's work on PetroSA, FSE was paid the R13m with Tenza's approval, and Sabelo then invoiced FSE for his services, amounting to R8.9m.
'I served PetroSA and this country with distinction'
As a result, the pair face two counts of fraud or, alternatively, one count of theft and another of attempted theft.
The second count relates to a R3m invoice from Sabelo, which Tenza signed off on a day before leaving PetroSA.
When PetroSA staff queried the R3m invoice, Sabelo did not pursue his claim. According to prosecutors, this amounts to fraud or alternatively, attempted theft.
The charge sheets are attached to summons ordering the two men to appear before the court on November 15.
Sabelo did not respond to calls and texts seeking his comment.
Tenza said he could not comment on the charges.
"What I can tell you is that I served PetroSA and this country with distinction. I am happy to subject myself to public scrutiny. I spent most of my professional life holding executives to accountability. I am no exception. I am subject to the laws of South Africa, as a citizen of this country. As you might be aware, lots of things have been written in the media about my tenure at PetroSA.
"The time has finally come to deal with facts and allow the truth to prevail. I sincerely hope that this court case will expose the true motives of all parties involved," he said in a text message.
News24 understands this is the first step in a series of investigations surrounding Tenza and Sabelo's misadventures at PetroSA, which have been well documented by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, published in the Mail and Guardian.
While the current charges against Sabelo and Tenza relate to the Sabre deal – the men are also deeply embroiled in a second, bigger scandal involving a local consultancy firm named Harith Fund Managers.
Harith CEO Tshepo Mahloele is also the chairperson of Lebashe Investments, which was announced as the new owner of Tiso Blackstar Group – the owner of major news publications such as the Sunday Times, Sowetan and Business Day – earlier this year.
Under Tenza’s acting stewardship in 2011, PetroSA fired HSBC as transaction advisors on the SOE’s planned, but confidential, acquisition of Engen petrol stations around the country.
Cancelling HSBC’s contract cost PetroSA R19m in penalties, and the then-less experienced Harith was brought on board. Initially the company was due to be paid a R340m success fee if the transaction succeeded, but this was later reduced to less than R200m after Tenza’s departure amid growing controversy over the alleged corruption.
According to amaBhungane’s reportage at the time, Sabelo played the role of double agent – advising PetroSA on the deal, while at the same time being paid by Harith to advise the firm also.
The Serious Commercial Crimes Unit of the elite police unit, the Hawks, has been investigating the two mega-oil deals since 2012.
Both Tenza and Sabelo have reported links to the Zuma family.
Zuma's daughter, Duduzile, the twin sister of Gupta-linked Duduzane Zuma, was a client of FSE while Sabelo was a partner.
Sabelo was also listed as a co-director in a company with Edward Zuma, Sizwe Sethu Coal.
Sikhumbuzo Selby Zuma, who has in the past denied being related to Jacob Zuma, but acted as the family spokesperson during the former president’s rape trial in 2005, is also a director of the company.
News24 understands, from a source who was close to Sabelo at the time, that Zuma himself was a client of Sabelo's.
Nkosi Sabelo again featured in allegations of grand corruption around the 2013 multi-billion rand Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) locomotive procurement scandal involving Swifambo Rail Leasing, a company owned by Auswell Mashaba.
In 2016 City Press reported that Nkosi Sabelo was paid roughly R39m by Mashaba in April and May 2013.
In March 2013 – two weeks before Prasa made its first payment to Swifambo – George Sabelo, one of the firm’s two directors, said in an email to Mashaba, which Rapport has seen, that his "clients" wanted the "agreements" signed as soon as possible, City Press reported.
Tenza meanwhile was reported by amaBhungane as suggesting at the time that a thorough investigation into the money trail would cause a "national embarrassment" because "big names" were involved in the PetroSA scandals.
*Do you have a tip for our investigative journalists? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org