He had been drawn into a scandal where none existed, Mafika Sihlali said in a letter to the Mail & Guardian in 2009. Despite the best efforts of a “bitter individual” at the SABC, procedural failings by the auditor general and “spirited articles” by the M&G since 2007, the Hawks had refused to prosecute him.
But on February 15 2012, the Hawks police unit said it had invited Sihlali to its offices and arrested him on charges of fraud and corruption. After many years of denying allegations that he had been instrumental in ripping off first the South African Post Office and then the SABC, and court cases that included a gag order against the SABC and an attempt to interdict it from suspending him, Sihlali had to pay R15 000 in bail before he could walk free again – for the time being.
The charges against him stem from a report initiated by the SABC in February 2007 following complaints from a union that he was defrauding the public broadcaster. An initial report found evidence of conflicts of interest, suspect deals, doctored invoices and up to R1.8-million in fraudulent payments. Subsequent investigations by the Hawks uncovered what the unit says is strong evidence that Sihlali outsourced legal services to a company that belonged to a friend and then allegedly received R2.5-million in kickbacks laundered through a football club he owned.
The alleged kickback arrangement and other irregularities were traced back to just weeks after Sihlali took up his post as the head of legal affairs at the SABC.
The case against him is now before the Commercial Crime Court.
This has not been Sihlali’s only brush with controversy, however. He has been involved in at least two empowerment vehicles that concluded deals with Telkom and Deutsche Bank and his law firm was accused of overbilling the post office to the tune of R6-million for work that was never delivered. He has persistently denied all allegations of wrongdoing and conflicts of interest.
That he doesn’t always follow all the rules in pursuit of wealth is certain, according to those who have crossed paths with him over the past decade, but they also describe him as a hands-on man willing to work hard and make sacrifices in pursuit of money.
“He was a man in a hurry for success and he was willing to do what it took,” said one former colleague. And for a while his law firm made good – it had prestigious offices and a list of high-profile corporate clients. Then, somewhere around 2005, the money started to run out and unpaid bills started to mount. By 2010, lawyers who had defended Sihlali against claims for money were themselves obtaining judgments against him for unpaid fees.
The elusive Mafika Sihlali
Despite the movement restrictions imposed by the fact he is out on bail, Mafika Sihlali is a hard man to find. “He does that; he always goes to ground,” said a lawyer who has worked with Sihlali. “He changes his cellphone numbers and then nobody can find him.”
Over the course of several days the Mail & Guardian tried to reach Sihlali on four cellphone numbers and six landline numbers. We spoke to four lawyers who have had professional dealings with him and to three former colleagues, three (apparent) family members, two people who had been involved in business disputes with him and a former classmate. All said they had had no dealings with Sihlali for years and most – even those who had only good things to say about him – were not happy to be quoted.
“Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t hesitate to speak to you on the record, but being as dangerous as he is … well, he is a very dangerous man,” said one.
Several said they had not parted with Sihlali on good terms, often because he had allegedly not repaid money he owed them. Others said they had been paid in full for their services and described an outgoing, even jovial man, but even they had heard stories that made them unwilling to defend him.
Some of these stories are well documented. In March 2007, according to a subsequent complaint, Sihlali said he would break the legs of (female) SABC company secretary Ramani Naidoo, in front of at least one witness. Others at the SABC refused to co-operate with or provide statements to investigators looking into complaints about him. When the home of one investigator was mysteriously set alight, rumours abounded about a link. Those rumours dog him to this day.
“If I spoke to you, I’d have to look over my shoulder all the time,” said a man who had business dealings with Sihlali. “I have a family to think of here.”
– Phillip de Wet