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Zuma's builder pleads guilty, proclaims innocence

Phillip De Wet

Nkandla builder Thandeka Nene says a R7-billion fraud accusation against her in the Seychelles is a "political manoeuvre" - despite a guilty verdict.

Nkandla builder Thandeka Nene's lawyers say she was wrongfullly detained in the Seychelles.

The word "innocent" never makes an actual appearance, but is strongly implied in Thandeka Nene's version of what happened in the Seychelles in the past month.

Nene is best known for earning nearly R80-million through her company Bonelena from state-funded construction at President Jacob Zuma's homestead at Nkandla.

"We wish to state that there was absolutely no merit to the allegation against Mrs Nene hence she was allowed to return to South Africa," lawyer Phyllis Jailall from Durban firm Jailall, Yusuph & Associates said this week.

Jailall was not available to confirm that she acted on behalf of Nene when the Mail & Guardian first reported that Nene had been arrested and was being held in the Seychelles, accused of trying to perpetrate fraud worth around R7-billion.

But with Nene back in South Africa, her lawyers lashed out against the charges, saying Nene had been wrongfully detained in the first place, and insinuating that racism may have been at the heart of her arrest.

"We have reason to believe that the attempt to besmirch Mrs Nene’s reputation was a political manoeuvre and was spearheaded by the investigating officer in Seychelles who is a former white South African citizen now living in the Seychelles," Jailall said.

'Connected purely by association'
South African Frank Dutton, who helped form the Scorpions, was appointed to head an elite crime-fighting unit in the Seychelles in 2011 and is said to have been at least peripherally involved in the case.

He received one of South Africa's highest honours, the Order of the Baobab, in 2012 partly for exposing apartheid third force activities.

A former member of the Special Investigating Unit, which operates by Presidential decree, was also involved in Nene's prosecution.

Neither of the officers have been willing to discuss events, citing confidentiality agreements in their contracts of employment.

Nene's lawyers said she had been "connected purely by association only" with the transaction that saw her arrested.

Guilty plea
But records of court proceedings against her show that Nene was allowed to return to South Africa only after pleading guilty on two charges of fraud, and was then "promptly removed from the jurisdiction of Seychelles" by court order.

The supreme court of the Seychelles found as mitigating factors that Nene had pleaded guilty, was a first-time offender and had not benefited from the attempted fraud; the attempt to pass a €500-million fake bank draft had been detected before any transactions could be lodged against the funds.

Nene was given the choice between eight months in prison and a fine just shy of R50 000.

The state was given 30 days in which to appeal the verdict.

Contrary to Nene's statement, the court found that a third accused, Sierra Leone national Chernor Musa Kabia, had been minimally involved in what the judgment terms "the scheme", but makes no such finding on Nene, who was the first defendant.

Jailall asked "that the media respect Mrs Nene and her family's privacy during this time as she would like to put this ordeal behind her".

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