Johannesburg - A member of the VhaVenda royal family has questioned the timing of President Jacob Zuma's decision to crown incumbent VhaVenda king Khosikhulu Toni Mphephu Ramabulana - who owns shares in VBS Mutual Bank, which granted Zuma a loan to pay back the money for non-security upgrades at his Nkandla home.
"It [the court battle over his kingship] is ready to go to trial. Then all of a sudden this year we heard that Zuma would coronate Ramabulana. It did not make sense to us. Why? Surely he would wait for the case to be heard first? It was just a few months," said Mbulaheni Mphephu, who, together with his niece Masindi Mphephu, secured an urgent interdict in court to stop the coronation from going ahead.
"Why would you coronate the king when a trial date has been set, followed by the pronouncement of the loan?"
The announcement this week that VBS Mutual Bank gave Zuma a loan to pay back the money for the upgrades at his Nkandla residence has led to speculation that the loan is interlinked with a battle over the VhaVenda throne.
It was made public this week that the little known VBS Mutual Bank granted Zuma a R7.8m loan, and that the bank's majority shareholders are the Public Investment Corporation (PIC) (25.26%) and Dyambeu Investments (Pty) Ltd (25.22%).
Dyambeu Investments is under the leadership of Ramabulana, whose kingship has been under dispute since his 24-year-old niece Masindi filed papers in 2012 arguing that she is the rightful heir to throne but had been overlooked because she is a woman.
Before her application Zuma had announced Ramabulana as king. Masindi was the only child of the late chief Tshimangadzo Mphephu. She was joined in the case by her other uncle Mbulaheni, who has argued that if Masindi is not considered for the throne he should be next in line.
Respondents include Zuma in their application to the court to set aside the decision that recognises Ramabulana as king.
The case has seen many delays and postponements, Masindi's lawyer Johann Hamman said. A court review of the kingship had been under way since 2012 following Zuma’s recognition of Ramabulana as king.
A court date for the start of trial had been set for December this year, but in August it was publicly announced that there would be a coronation ceremony for Ramabulana on September 9, where Zuma was going to symbolically hand over the recognition certificate to him.
Masindi and Mbulaheni went to court and were granted an urgent interdict to stop the coronation until the application for review had taken place.
A source who did not want to be named but who was familiar with the battle over the throne said during the interdict application there was much speculation that Zuma was going to crown Ramabulana as a "thank you" for the loan.
Meeting with bank official
Attorney Dali Mpofu, acting on behalf of Masindi, said during proceedings that there seemed to be a rush to coronate Ramabulana.
Mpofu questioned if there was something behind the "rushed" coronation.
However, it was revealed that the invitation from the royal house to Zuma for the coronation, the date of which had not yet been set, had been made in May 2015.
Mbulaheni said he thought there may be a relationship between the coronation and the bank loan.
"Why say there will be a coronation at the same time Zuma was making a pronouncement on the loan?"
City Press previously reported that on July 20 a senior VBS Mutual Bank official met with Zuma's lawyer, Michael Hulley, to discuss the loan. Treasury had announced the R7.8m figure that Zuma had to pay back at the end of June.
Speculation 'absolute nonsense'
Zuma and Ramabulana are known supporters of each other. In 2013 Ramabulana awarded Zuma the highest honour in the VhaVenda Kingdom, the King Makhado Bravery Award. The award was given for the role the president played in the struggle against apartheid and the liberation of South Africa.
City Press stated that Ramabulana was instrumental in behind-the-scenes discussions to encourage government to reconsider its plans to move communities in Vuwani from Makhado into a new municipality that incorporates Malamulele. The article also stated that through Dyambeu Investment, VBS Mutual Bank had financed "black industrialists who formed part of the country's broadcast migration project for up to R550 million".
Ramabulana's spokesperson Jackson Mafunzwaini said speculation on the connection between the coronation and the loan was "absolute nonsense".
"VBS operates as its own entity. It is independent. We are not the bank, we are the [kingship]. Give us space to live our lives," Mafunzwaini said.
He said the dispute over the who the rightful heir is has being raging since 2012 so there could be no connection to the loan.
"The coronation is separate. The president wanted to coronate the king. That's a family issue. Zuma went alone to the bank, he didn't go with the king."
In a press statement earlier this week VBS Mutual Bank said the PIC is the largest pension fund and investor in the country and has a varied shareholding in almost all banks.
"While Dyambeu Investments has significant shareholding in the bank, it has no direct involvement in the day-to-day running of VBS Mutual Bank. It also does not participate in the governance structures of the bank."
CEO Andile Ramavhunga said the highest decision-making body within VBS Mutual Bank was the board of directors who acted independently of the shareholders of the bank.
Dyambeu Investments has five active directors: well-known property magnate David Mabilu, an attorney who has represents the royal family Paul Makhavhu, the bank's chairperson Tshifhiwa Matodzi, businessman Maanda Reuben Phalanndwa and Edward Fulufhelo Ramabulana.
It has been reported that Mabilu made his riches through government tenders. In 2011 he hosted Julius Malema and a group of celebrities at his extravagant Mauritius wedding. He and his wife, Phala, chartered an aircraft to transport hundreds of people for the wedding which allegedly set him back R15m.
The Mail & Guardian reported at the time that Mabilu had cashed in on billions of rand in public land deals.
In 2008 Mabilu's company, Promafco, concluded a land-swap with the Polokwane municipality through which he secured two lucrative patches of property in return for four farms. The paper reported that a year later Mabilu sold one of the two patches at almost five times the price he bought it to the Limpopo local government and housing department, netting R20m.
Mabilu did not comment on questions sent to him about any possible connection between the loan and the battle over the throne.
Spokesperson for the Presidency Bongani Ngqulunga denied the accusations, pointing out that the invitation to the coronation had been made more than a year ago. He said they would issue a formal statement later.