This story is part of a seven-month News24 investigation into accusations of gross human rights violations, alleged money laundering and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse. To read and watch our full series, click here: Exodus | Uncovering a cult in KwaZulu-Natal
Allegations of money laundering and fraud against the leadership of the KwaSizabantu (KSB) mission, captured in affidavits and financial statements before the Hawks, read like a James Bond movie script.
Cash packed in cooler boxes and zipper bags, was allegedly driven in 4x4 vehicles or flown in a small four-seater Cessna plane from the heart of a Christian mission in KwaZulu-Natal to various places in Gauteng.
A mysterious middleman with overnight riches, a family feud, and a new matriarch: these are all elements that form part of a private forensic investigation into the finances of KwaSizabantu that has led to a criminal docket being opened with the Hawks.
Captain Simphiwe Mhlongo, spokesperson for the Hawks in KwaZulu-Natal, told News24 their investigation was at an early stage and no arrests had been made yet.
Former members of the mission, including family of the mission's founder Erlo Stegen, have come forward to detail how money was allegedly laundered and used to enrich the leaders of the mission instead of uplifting the members and workers of KwaSizabantu's companies, who are earning notoriously low salaries.
The mission has a thriving commercial arm through its ownership of aQuellé bottled water and lush farms supplying fruit and vegetables to a number of retailers, including Woolworths, Spar, Checkers, and Shoprite.
And the mission has friends in high places - at the 20th celebration dinner of aQuellé at KwaSizabantu, former IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi referred to Stegen as "my dear friend" in his address. He waxed lyrical: "It is hard not to think of the tremendous symbolism of water. I love the idea that pure, good water from KwaSizabantu is being distributed throughout South Africa."
But beneath the polished images of aQuellé mineral water and crisp peppers brews a bitter battle about the KwaSizabantu millions that has ripped families apart.
In essence, Erlo Stegen's brother Friedel, who was a senior leader at the mission before he and his family left, accuses Erlo and his close ally and protégé, Lidia "Thofozi" Dube, of syphoning off almost R150 million in a serious of dubious loans from the church's companies to a mysterious businessman.
Erlo Stegen and Dube are two of the active directors of KwaSizabantu's business assets - the KSB Trust, Ekhamanzi Springs (that owns aQuellé), and Emseni Farming, that supplies Woolworths, Spar, Checkers, and Shoprite. Erlo founded the KwaSizabantu mission in 1970 and still lives on the premises, with his daughters and their husbands.
An investigation into the mission’s finances was instituted by former members of KSB, Reverend Peet Botha, Friedel Stegen’s son-in-law, Koos Greeff, and others who wish to remain anonymous out of fear for their safety.
Private investigator Mike Bolhuis wrote in a media statement published in September 2019:
At the heart of the investigation is the allegation that Erlo, Dube, and other church leaders embezzled millions of rands in cash transactions by using false loan entries in the books of the mission's businesses.
According to News24's sources, confirmed by financial statements and affidavits in our possession, leaders of the mission collected millions of rands in cash from supermarkets and small businesses owned by members of KSB.
The cash was packed in money bags or cooler boxes for transportation back to the mission's compound in Kranskop, KwaZulu-Natal.
To reimburse these small businesses, electronic transfers were made by Ekhamanzi Springs, the company that owns aQuellé, and recorded in their books as "loans". The "loans" made by aQuellé were later "bought" by the KSB Trust.
An affidavit in possession of the Hawks, former mission member Daan van Tonder, who is married to one of Erlo's daughters, details how he had to deliver packages of cash to various locations in KwaZulu-Natal, the Free State, and Gauteng on behalf of his father-in-law.
"The deliveries were to be made during obscure hours to an unknown agent of KSB Mission, under the name 'Moses Ndlela' at different locations like at the N3 Caltex Petrol Port in the Free State and Rand Airport in Gauteng, on more than [one] occasion," Van Tonder stated under oath.
Van Tonder states that he and other members transported money upward of R25 million in a short period of time.
The mysterious Mr Ndlela
According to Botha, Ndlela only exists on paper. It was allegedly an alias used by a businessman from Johannesburg, Canaan Ndlovu.
"Our investigation has also established that 'Moses Ndlela' is real, and his true identity is, in fact, Canaan Ndlovu," wrote Bolhuis in his media statement.
"He has cooperated with our investigation to the extent where he has revealed that he operated under the direct instruction of Lidia 'Thofozi' Dube who is a senior trustee at KSB, with an agenda to deceive the founder of the KSB mission, Erlo Stegen, and defraud KSB.
"Based on the deception, Erlo Stegen gave his blessing and support for cash from KSB to be given to ‘Ndlela’ to fund fake activities, concocted by Dube. Moses Ndlela (actually Canaan Ndlovu) kept a commission and repaid the balance of the money to his handler, Thofozi."
Rapport reported in February that Ndlovu had no property on his name until 2017, but suddenly bought two expensive houses and built the Phumuza Maphiko Pub & Grill in Katlehong on the East Rand for millions of rands.
A false loan account was allegedly also created in Dube's name, says Greeff. He was given power of attorney by Friedel Stegen, his father-in-law and Erlo's brother, to conduct an investigation into the mission's finances.
"This loan account runs into many millions of rands, although the law prohibits such loans to trustees of trusts," said Greeff.
He said no audited financial statements had been signed off since 2004, which "is a breach of all the laws relating to the financial affairs of companies and or trusts and or NPOs".
The mission’s financial statements for February 2017 indicate a series of loans that were made to Dube, totalling more than R72 million, from Emseni Farming (that produces vegetables and fruit for major retailers), and Ekhamanzi Springs (that owns aQuellé) among others.
By 2019, the loans paid by KSB's companies totalled more than R136 million.
While the Hawks confirmed to News24 that the Pietermaritzburg serious commercial crimes unit was investigating the allegations of fraud at KSB, the mission itself said it was "surprised" that News24 was aware of the investigation – as it was not.
"We welcome any official investigation by the Hawks/police into any of the acts of duplicity alleged by you," KSB said in response to questions from News24.
It denied allegations that money laundering took place, saying attorneys and auditors had assessed the mission's financial records and parties allegedly involved.
"We have been informed that no money laundering took place,” the mission said, adding that it does not receive or earn illegal money.
"Our financial records are presently audited and are up to date. All financial transactions are regularly being scrutinised by a risk and audit committee consisting of, inter alia, a practising auditor and attorney.”
The mission said it is the target of a smear campaign.
"Under the circumstances we believe, as should you, that it would be irresponsible to impede this investigation by way of a trial by public media and we will accordingly respond to any allegations in the appropriate forum."
The mission invited "any lawful police investigation" into its activities and members accused of wrongdoing.
While Spar did not reply to News24’s questions by the time of publication, Shoprite said it would review its procurement from Emseni Farming should any adverse legal findings be made against it, "in respect of any supplier's business practices".
The retailer said Emseni Farming had been its supplier for the past 10 years, supplying sweet peppers, lettuce, and dragon fruit to their supermarkets in KwaZulu-Natal.
"Shoprite has made enquiries with its supplier Emseni Farming with regards to the allegations. We will continue to monitor the situation," the group said.
Woolworths told News24 it was aware of previous allegations made in the media against KwaSizabantu.
"We take allegations such as these very seriously. As far as our supplier is aware, no formal charges have been laid for authorities to investigate.
"Independent auditors have visited the supplier and reported that the supplier adheres to our code of business principles for ethical and sustainable business practices," the company stated.
Dube did not respond to questions from News24 by the time of publication. When News24 contacted her via phone, a woman answered claiming she was not Dube, but that Dube was ill and couldn't comment. The woman referred News24 to Tobie Vermaak.
Messages sent to Vermaak on WhatsApp were read but he did not reply. Dube and Vermaak's comments will be added once received.
Do you have a KwaSizabantu story to tell? Email us at email@example.com.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article and you need someone to talk to, please contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on one of these numbers:
- To speak to a counsellor between 8am and 8pm Monday to Saturday, phone 011 234 4837
- For a suicidal emergency, call 0800 567 567
- For the 24-hour helpline, call 0800 456 789.