Last week the Mail & Guardian reported on events that resulted in a large number of Sihlali's art works, potentially worth tens of millions of rands, ending up in the possession of lawyer Mafika Sihlali. The where-abouts of the works is not known.
Hawks spokesperson McIntosh Polela said the theft case, laid on behalf of Sihlali's widow, Anna, was referred to the unit because it was already investigating another matter involving Mafika Sihlali. But the charge would probably have landed on the unit's desk anyway.
"Because of the amount of money it is alleged these paintings are worth, it falls within our mandate," Polela said.
Valuing the work is difficult, but experts familiar with the artist's work and previous sales of it estimate that the paintings, sculptures and drawings thought to be in Mafika Sihlali's possession could fetch up to R45-million on auction.
Defrauding the SABC
Mafika Sihlali is out on bail and is due to appear in the Commercial Crimes Court in Johannesburg in early August. He is accused of defrauding the SABC while he was the corporation's head of legal services by outsourcing legal work to a friend and receiving kickbacks worth R2.5-million through a football club he owned.
An internal SABC investigation into the allegations led to threats, physical intimidation and a suspicious fire.
People familiar with this investigation and those familiar with the art works saga have refused to speak on the record, claiming that Mafika Sihlali is dangerous.
Polela said if Sihlali was arrested in connection with the theft charge, the Hawks would oppose bail because of the other pending matter. That could see the once high-flying lawyer in jail for the duration of a trial. But, Polela said, investigations were at an early stage and he would not comment on the details of the case or say whether an arrest was likely.
"The investigating officer handling the new case has met with the investigating officer on the other case and they have met with and spoken to Sihlali," he said.
The Twitter account @MafikaSihlali, which had been dormant for 139 days, was reactivated last Friday and claimed that the M&G had resorted to "despicable journalism" and had avoided contacting Mafika Sihlali for fear that "lies would be spoiled by my response".
Although its ownership cannot be verified, the account appears to be under Sihlali's control. On Monday the account was set to private so that tweets by @MafikaSihlali can be seen only by approved users.
In a lengthy email exchange this week, Sihlali said he reserved his right to sue for damages as a result of "wrongful and defamatory publications". He would not answer specific questions or provide a 1500-word written reply, which he said he had prepared, unless the M&G guaranteed that it would be carried in full and unedited.
Durant Sihlali's family has prepared – but not yet filed – documents to seek an interdict restraining Mafika Sihlali from selling the work he is presumed to be holding, which they fear he might do, while they seek the return of the pieces.
"We haven't heard anything yet," Anna Sihlali said this week.
She said she had been trying to secure the return of her husband's collection – a significant body of work, which art experts believe could play a role in understanding the impact that apartheid had – for several years, but could not trace Mafika Sihlali.
Initially, the lawyer was the executor of the estate of the artist who died of a heart attack in 2004, but he dropped out of sight as his troubles at the SABC deepened.
He was eventually arrested in February this year.
Although he shares a surname with the family, it is not clear whether they are related.
Sources familiar with the saga claim that Mafika Sihlali initially seemed keen to help to establish a museum of Durant Sihlali's work, but there was a fall-out between the lawyer and Durant's widow, which led to him being removed as the executor.
They claim there were early indications that the lawyer did not particularly care about the legacy or wishes of the artist.
Mafika Sihlali allegedly cut through the locks to gain access to Durant's work stored in a Braamfontein studio where he had worked.
"It was a shambles," said a person who saw the studio shortly afterwards. "There were letters and files all over the floor – everything had been discarded but the art.
"He [Durant] was always so careful. It would have broken his heart to see it like that."