An alleged serial fraudster has landed three South Africans behind bars in Dubai, apparently by posing as an investor and tricking them into signing false acknowledgements of debt.
And amaBhungane investigation has established that the company of the suspect in question, Indian national Amit Lamba, was endorsed by both the South African consulate in Dubai and South Africa's trade and industry department.
In an email dated May 16 2012, which amaBhungane has seen, departmental official Manono Madyo described Lamba's company, Rahi Developers, as "credible". Madyo appears to have based his assessment on an email by consular official Sudhir Mannie the previous day, which described Rahi as "genuine … I have met the company before".
Lamba is also understood to have had extensive dealings with an investment agency falling under the Limpopo government, Limpopo Investment and Trade.
AmaBhungane has now seen a circular issued by the consul general, Manabile Shogole, in December last year confirming that South African citizen Tjoko Kambule was under arrest and another South African, Jannie van der Walt, was serving a jail sentence "due to the alleged unscrupulous business transactions" of Lamba.
The circular says that a third South African, Sello Tsolo, is under a travel ban. It is understood that Tsolo has also since been arrested.
It adds that "other complaints have been received against Mr Lamba from South African nationals, alleging that [he] attempted to defraud them in business transactions".
Lured to Dubai
Two criminal cases have been opened against Lamba in South Africa, one of fraud and the other of human trafficking with the intention to extort money.
According to family and friends, Lamba lured the three South Africans to Dubai by promising to invest millions in their planned business ventures.
They were then asked to pay various costs, including those of establishing jointly owned companies, opening bank accounts and transferring funds into the accounts.
They were later arrested after signing documents in Arabic that turned out to be acknowledgements of debt, and were told they would not be released until they paid. In some cases, Lamba allegedly represented these as shareholder agreements.
Free State businessman Ali Mokoena, who claims to have escaped incarceration in Dubai, described Lamba's modus operandi as "luring people to the United Arab Emirates by promising them heaven and earth, and when they get over there, actually giving them hell".
Mokoena said Lamba had contacted a co-operative that he chaired, Ora Floriculture, and promised to invest R180‑million in a flower export venture. This followed Mokoena's request to the trade and industry department in February 2012 to distribute his business proposal to trade missions abroad.
"In early May 2012, I received a call from Lamba, who claimed to have seen our funding request at the South African consulate in Dubai," said Mokoena.
The department initially warned him not to engage with Lamba until South Africa's trade mission had run checks on him and his business.
"After a week, the department sent us an email informing us that he was, indeed, credible and we could start to engage," said Mokoena.
A signing ceremony for the deal was organised at the Willow Lake Hotel in Bloemfontein by the office of former Free State economic development minister Mamiki Qabathe.
"The ceremony was attended by many other businesspeople who were interested in [getting] funding from this man," Mokoena said.
He said that Lamba had met other business people in Bloemfontein and at the Johannesburg offices of Limpopo Investment and Trade, where memoranda of understanding (MoUs) were signed. The business people started to receive invitations to visit Dubai in October 2012.
"The MoUs were used as bait. We were then taken to the offices of the justice ministry in Dubai, where he [Lamba] told different lies to his victims to [get them to] sign Arabic documents under oath," Mokoena said.
Mokoena complained that he has written numerous letters to government departments "but, so far, nothing has been done".
Tsolo's son, Kenneth, said the family has paid over R450 000 since his father travelled to Dubai, much of it to Lamba.
According to a sworn affidavit by Tsolo, a dairy farm project manager in the Free State municipality of Setsotso, Lamba paid for their travel and expenses to Dubai in order to finalise arrangements to invest the R675-million pledged in the MoU they signed in September 2012.
"Our engagement with Mr Lamba was … at a very nascent stage to warrant … commitment of state resources into a due diligence exercise," it said.
According to a letter written by his business partner, Beatrix Jonker, Van der Walt was arrested in January 2013 for cheque fraud in Dubai's Jumeira Hotel after a business transaction arranged, controlled and orchestrated by Lamba went sour.
Jonker said Van der Walt was arrested after Lamba went to cash two of Van der Walt's post-dated cheques. He had allegedly been talked into signing documents in Arabic earlier.
AmaBhungane has seen WhatsApp messages allegedly sent by Lamba in response to the desperate pleas of Tsolo's family for him to be released.
One message reads: "Three people tried to escape without paying organisation's money: 1) Mr Walt, arrested on January 3 2013 … will remain in jail till his life or payment. 2) Mr TJ Kambule is in jail since 1st September 2013. He spent four months and will remain in jail until payment. 3) Mr Sello, he will also remain in jail until payment. I applied efforts, time and money to get them behind bars. Because I learnt: God helps those who help them self [sic]."
According to the families, the victims met Lamba at the offices of Limpopo Investment and Trade, where they signed memoranda of understanding.
AmaBhungane put the allegations to Lamba in a phone call to Haryana state in north-central India on Tuesday this week. He said he would provide detailed replies supported by documents, but had failed to do so by the time of going to print.
International relations department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said the department is providing consular support to the three men and their families.
But Monyela emphasised that the department "has no investigative powers in legal matters … before the court in a sovereign country, and is not in a position to intervene in a judicial matter in the UAE".
Limpopo Investment and Trade confirmed its involvement with Lamba, but denied recommending him as a potential investor.
In English, please
AmaBhungane also interviewed a Limpopo businessman, Thomas Smith, who claims to have lost $12 000 (R130 000) in dealings with Lamba, but who avoided imprisonment by insisting on signing documents in English.
Smith said that, after his trip, he complained to Limpopo Investment and Trade about Lamba's business conduct, but without any result.
"What the authorities don't realise is that Lamba is not only gambling with the lives of people he put in prison and those he defrauded, but also the people, most of them unemployed, who would have benefited from these projects," he said.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.