/ 5 October 2012

Emails sealed Sheryl Cwele’s fate

Sheryl Cwele’s appeal turned sour based on correspondence between her and drug mule Tessa Beetge.
Sheryl Cwele’s appeal turned sour based on correspondence between her and drug mule Tessa Beetge.

State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele can now reclaim the R100 000 he put up as bail money for his former wife Sheryl, who began a 20-year sentence for drug dealing this week.

Although the Cweles were divorced in May last year, the minister had initially stood by his wife and in February 2010 attended her bail application in the KwaZulu-Natal High Court in Pietermaritzburg. During the proceedings, he left the court to withdraw her bail money and was seen returning with a large bank bag.

At the time, her lawyer, Mvuseni Ngubane, who allegedly committed suicide in May this year, strongly denied an allegation that the couple had been estranged for years and told the court this was a "made-up story", pointing out that the minister was in court to support his wife. The Mail & Guardian later reported details of how the Cwele family, including the minister and his wife, had gone on a family holiday to Mozambique during the 2009 December holidays.

But the legal battle to stay out of jail is now over for Cwele, who had cut a glamorous figure in the dock. She was ordered to report to the department of correctional services on Thursday this week. The prosecuting team, led by state prosecutor Ian Cooke, understands she will be transferred to the female section of Westville Prison in Durban to serve her long sentence.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed an appeal by Cwele and her co-accused, Frank Nabolisa, against their convictions. Instead, the court increased their original 12-year sentences to 20 years, which must have come as a huge blow to Cwele, who has always professed her innocence to the M&G. This week she was not taking calls on her cellphone. The ruling marked the end of the road as neither Cwele nor Nabolisa raised constitutional challenges during their appeal and therefore cannot approach the Constitutional Court.

In his judgment, appeal court Judge President Lex Mpati, with four judges concurring, said that for all the reasons outlined a term of imprisonment of 20 years was "an appropriate sentence in the circumstances".

Disturbingly inappropriate
"The disparity between that sentence and the one of 12 years' imprisonment imposed on each appellant by the trial court is so marked that it can properly be described as disturbingly inappropriate. The court is accordingly at large to impose sentence afresh."

The judgment is an enthralling read, outlining how the evidence had stacked up against Cwele. Crucial to this was the testimony given by witness Charmaine Moss, who had considered herself to be one of Cwele's friends.

Moss said in her evidence that Cwele had approached her and ­mentioned that she had worked overseas a number of times in 2005, but that she now held a permanent position with the Hibiscus Coast district municipality. "Sheryl informed her that she had been contacted again to work overseas and that she had been directed by 'the Lord' in her dream to offer 'work' to her," the judgment states. "When Charmaine showed interest in the offer, Sheryl advised her that a firm in Sandton would secure the work for her and that she would be paid R25 000 for the two weeks that she would be overseas. Her airfare would also be covered."

In conversations with Moss, Cwele referred to arrangements being made for visas and tickets by her "brother Frank". In answer to an inquiry about why her brother was involved, she responded that he was one of the partners in the firm that organised the overseas work. After some delay Moss travelled to Johannesburg, where Nabolisa had taken her to a friend's hotel, which she described as "very scary".

Moss called Cwele and told her that Nabolisa had said she should ask her [Cwele] what she [Moss] was going to do in Turkey, the judgment states.

"Sheryl advised her there was nothing serious, that she should not speak to anyone and that she would be required to bring back a packet for Frank. But by then Moss had already lost interest in the overseas engagement, having decided the previous evening that she would no longer go overseas. Since she knew of the availability of courier services to deliver parcels from one country to another, she became suspicious and decided that she would go back home."

On top of the evidence from Moss, there was drug mule Tessa Beetge's arrest at São Paulo Airport in Brazil on June 13 2008 for drug trafficking, after two packets containing 9.25kg and 1.025 kg of cocaine were found in her luggage. She received a sentence of seven years and nine months' imprisonment, the judgment continues.

Until her trip abroad, Beetge, a divorcée with two young daughters, had been living with her parents at their home in Margate. On hearing that their daughter had been offered some work overseas, her parents accompanied her to meet Cwele at her office to find out more about the job. After trying to call Nabolisa about the travel arrangements, Cwele told the family about her travels overseas and that the reason for her offering the opportunity to Beetge was because she was tired of travelling.

Beetge's mother, Marie Swanepoel, heard from her daughter on Friday June 13 2008. "Tessa reported to her that she had been arrested in São Paulo for drug trafficking," the judgment states. "After she had received the news of Tessa's arrest, Ms Swanepoel called Sheryl, who promised to call her back the next morning. Sheryl indeed called her as promised and told her that the Brazilian embassy would contact her, which never materialised."

The judgment recaps how the mother visited her daughter in prison in Brazil and brought home her cellphone, a SIM card from Peru and another from Colombia, plus a SIM card from South Africa and a suitcase, which was not the one she had left with on her trip.

Swanepoel used her daughter's password and downloaded all the data messages between Cwele and Beetge and handed the evidence to the police. Email correspondence was then obtained by an investigating officer who had visited Beetge in Brazil.

According to the judgment, Cwele's counsel conceded that she knew the business venture that was to involve Beetge was unlawful.

"The concession was wisely made, in my view," reads the judgment. "But counsel persisted with his argument that even though that may be so, there was no evidence that Sheryl knew what the substance was that Tessa was to bring into the country."

Yet the judgment elaborates on how the correspondence between the two women shed further light on the case.

On June 6 2008, while in Peru, Beetge wrote in an email to Cwele that she was waiting for a reply from her and Nabolisa.

"Otherwise, I am still freezing my butt off in Peru, with Frank that is telling me to wait and wait and wait, and then when it's time to go I am ready and they cancel everything again. So has Frank told you when I am leaving??? or don't you know?"

Cwele responded two days later: "Hi Tess, Frank told me about the delay which is for your own good really. I understand you are coming back on Monday/Tuesday? Keep well and avoid people who may end up asking a lot of questions. See you soon, hang in there. Sheryl Cwele."

The judgment states that Cwele recruited Beetge and worked closely with Nabolisa in arranging her return to South Africa. "She even assured Tessa that the delay in her travel arrangements was for her own good, an indication in my view that she had knowledge of the dangers associated with the trip.

"… [S]he knew that Tessa was required to bring back something which it is unlawful to possess. Tessa was thereafter arrested with cocaine in her possession. The inference is irresistible, therefore, that Sheryl knew that the unlawful substance that Tessa was required to bring back was, in fact, cocaine."

Neither Cwele or Nabolisa chose to testify in court. In the case of Cwele, as she faces her lengthy sentence behind bars, little is known about why she would have become involved in drug dealing.

"It may well be, as the trial court found, that Sheryl played a lesser role in the whole enterprise, but I agree with counsel for the state that, as a qualified nurse, she must have known the dangers inherent in the use of drugs," the judgment finds. "Yet she was a willing partner in the commission of the crime, who befriended and preyed on vulnerable women in furtherance of the criminal enterprise. I consider that the trial court was correct in treating the appellants equally."

'Mother of pearl' campaigned tirelessly

Convicted drug mule Tessa Beetge made a card for the 60th birthday of her devoted mother, Marie Swanepoel, last month and drew a pearl in the "o" of the word "mom".

"Happy birthday to my mother of pearl," she wrote from prison in São Paulo in Brazil.

It was her mother's love that had kept Beetge alive in the minds of the South African authorities.

Following her daughter's arrest in Brazil in 2008, Swanepoel did not let up on the pressure in South Africa, lobbying for Sheryl Cwele and Frank Nabolisa to be brought to trial. Without any money behind her but with support from her family and friends, she gave countless interviews to the press in her drive to see justice done.

It was no easy task and Swanepoel told the Mail & Guardian in interviews over the years of her fears that no one would listen to her, because Cwele was at the time married to Siyabonga Cwele, the minister of state security.

Today, exhausted but as determined as ever, Swanepoel said she would not rest until she had her daughter home again and reunited with her teenage daughters.

Swanepoel is hoping the South African authorities will now assist her in trying to get Beetge's sentence reduced or commuted, following the sentencing of Cwele and Nabolisa.

"For now, I am feeling on top of the world. It is even better than what we expected," she said, after learning this week that their sentences had been extended from 12 to 20 years each.

"I sent a message through to Tessie at the prison and I hope she got it. Nothing would have stopped me trying to see justice done. I feel sorry for the others whose parents do not speak up for them." – Glynnis Underhill