Bina Masuku, the deputy master at the high court in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, has been in jail since November last year. She was arrested for stealing R1.7-million from people seeking help with deceased estates.
Masuku, who has worked for the justice department for 15 years, cannot get bail because she was found to have fraudulently obtained South African citizenship. She was also found to have falsified her qualifications, passing herself off as an advocate.
Among the eight victims who fell prey to Masuku and her husband Pule Kgosiemang are the wife and two children of Elias Ngcongwane. The family lost more than R540000 in death benefits in 2015 after Masuku introduced them to Kgosiemang, saying he was an attorney and would help them register the estate. She then abused her authority by handing Kgosiemang executor powers, which enabled him to siphon money from the trust.
In another instance, which forms part of four charges in a departmental disciplinary process against her, Masuku was accused of handing executorship over Mbombela resident Corrine Musgrove’s estate to a person (whose name is known to the Mail & Guardian), who then stole R705666.60 from Musgrove’s beneficiaries.
Masuku’s case is one of many involving the master of the high court offices, which saw the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) raid all 15 offices in the country on Monday.
The raid, involving 87 investigators, was co-ordinated to take place at the same time at all 15 offices. It also saw Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Ronald Lamola shut the masters’ offices and order all officers away for two days.
This allowed the SIU to take specific desktops and laptops it had identified as necessary for the investigation, which will have far-reaching implications for the master’s branch in the department of justice.
The branch assists with the administration of deceased estates, liquidations, registration of trusts, the appointment of curators and the administration of the Guardian’s Fund, which looks after minors and legally incapacitated people, as well as beneficiaries of pension funds and deceased estates who can’t be traced.
The numerous complaints about these offices include maladministration, allegations of corruption and other malfeasance. These include the destruction or theft of 45000 files at the master in Pretoria, as well as problems at the high court in Cape Town, which has backlogs in processing the registration of trusts.
In the Mthatha master’s office in the Eastern Cape, there is apparently little compliance oversight on millions of rands in trusts emanating from medico-legal and Road Accident Fund litigation. It’s alleged that attorneys, instructed by the court to open trusts for their clients, deposit part of the money awarded to their clients and pocket the rest.
Lamola’s spokesperson Crispin Phiri said he was not in a position to comment on individuals, save to say the investigation would address numerous complaints brought to the ministry. “The issue of the deputy master in Nelspruit in particular has called into question the administrative process in the master’s office.”
A proclamation signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa on January 30 empowers the SIU to investigate the master of the high court regarding:
• Maladministration in the administration of deceased estates, winding up of insolvent estates and the protection and administration of the funds of minors;
• Losses or prejudice suffered by the master’s offices or the state as a result of maladministration;
• Unauthorised, irregular or fruitless and wasteful expenditure in respect to travel, subsistence and accommodation costs for officials;
• Irregular appointment of officials at the office;
• Interference by senior officials in pending disciplinary matters against officials or a failure to institute disciplinary proceedings;
• Procurement of contract cleaning services and payments made in respect of those contracts; and
• Payment of salaries to ghost employees in the office.
The investigation will cover the period from January 1 2014 until January 30 2020.
SIU spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said: “Our teams were there and worked throughout the night and were done by yesterday [Tuesday]. What will happen next is that they will mirror the hard drives and begin the process of going through what is in there. After that we will see if there are any other documents we need.”
Since assuming office last year, Lamola has been inundated with complaints against acting chief master Theresia Bezuidenhout, who is accused of meddling in disciplinary cases to protect deputy masters — including Masuku — and officials she favours.
Bezuidenhout is the subject of an investigation into misconduct and irregular expenditure involving the master in Kimberley, Craig Davids. Documents show that the department incurred travel and accommodation costs so that Davids could travel to Mbombela to represent an employee accused of gross negligence and prejudicing the administration of the department.
This was related to the employee having issued a letter of authority to an ex-wife, giving her power over her former husband’s estate when the man had a five-year-old child who should have been a beneficiary.
Davids referred all queries to Bezuidenhout’s office.
The M&G has also seen payment stubs that show Bezuidenhout’s branch paid in excess of R1.3-million to accommodate a personal assistant who travelled between KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg from March 2017 to September 2019. The payments to Travel With Flair show the employee stayed at the Tsogo Sun 39 times at a cost of R1.1-million, flights cost R86309 and R55089 was paid for car hire and transfers.
Bezuidenhout said she could not comment on the allegations because they will form part of her responses to the SIU.
Another set of documents — statements that are part of a criminal investigation into the office of the master by the police’s organised crime unit and then the Hawks — detail allegations of fraud and corruption dating back to 2013.
A source with intimate knowledge of the investigation said Ramaphosa was approached, through Luthuli House, to have the SIU do a consolidated investigation.
“The president has given the SIU a year to get the investigations out of the way even though the trials will likely take years to conclude,” the source said. “The focus will be people in the office as well as high-profile private liquidators.”
A former employee of the high court in Pretoria alleges in a statement made in relation to the police investigation: “I received information during June 2013 from two liquidators relating to alleged fraud and corruption by [name withheld] and others. I am in possession of a number of emails and other types of communication in this regard.”
The whistleblower also said one of the informants, Erly Bester, was “found dead” on July 15 2013, just four days after he cancelled a follow-up meeting. Bester says in the letter he sent to the whistleblower that he had received death threats and was scared.
Another former employee in the office of the master said giving evidence regarding alleged fraud and corruption implicating senior officials led to them being removed from the office’s panel of liquidators.
Chris Gilili is an Open Society Foundation fellow