/ 28 January 2021

NPA cool on ire over VBS saga’s glacial pace

National Director of Public Prosecutions Shamila Batohi.
NPA head Shamila Batohi said although the SIU was mandated to make referrals to the NPA, many of its cases needed further investigation to justify reasonable doubt. She said the SIU was almost using the NPA as a post box for its cases to be sent to the Hawks. (Gallo/Sunday Times/Alaister Russell)

The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has confirmed that the trial of those charged in the alleged R2.3-billion VBS Mutual Bank heist — which could start this year or early in 2022 — will likely be prolonged and run for more than four months.

The NPA has disputed claims that any delays in finalising the saga were down to the ineptitude of its prosecutors, and denied that the trial would begin only next year. 

This followed reports by the Mail & Guardian this week that, according to three highly placed sources, the trial of the seven VBS executives and directors — as well as three others who the NPA said had yet to be arrested — would begin only early in 2022. 

The seven people accused are: Tshifhiwa Matodzi, the former chairperson of VBS;  Andile Ramavhunga, the company’s former chief executive; Phophi Mukhodobwane, its former treasurer; Sipho Malaba, who was an auditor from KPMG; Lieutenant-General Avhashoni Ramikosi, who was a non-executive director; as well as Ernest Nesane and Paul Magula, both of whom were representing the Public Investment Corporation as non-executive directors on the board.

They all appeared on Tuesday in the Johannesburg specialised commercial crimes court. The matter was postponed until March, because a racketeering certificate from NPA head Shamila Batohi, in line with the Prevention of Organised Crimes Act, was needed for more people to be added to the charge sheet.

A source, who asked to remain anonymous, said the NPA would likely begin the trial early next year when all delays to the case had been sorted out. 

“We had expected the trial to only run for eight weeks, but it seems the NPA will push for a 16 weeks-long trial. The trial is only likely to start in early 2022 because the state wants to add more charges and additional defendants to the matter.

“This matter is expected to be transferred to the high court in Pretoria at the next appearance [in March],” the source said.  

Two other sources, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the reported 2022 trial start date, as well as the expected 16-week duration. 

However, NPA national spokesperson Sipho Ngwema said it was incorrect that the VBS trial would begin only next year. 

“The state is ready to start with the trial as soon as we get the expanded racketeering authorisation from the national director of public prosecutions [Batohi] and we have added the additional accused,” Nwema said. 

“However, the defence for the accused may need time to prepare for trial. Therefore, we hope to start the trial during the fourth term (October to December) of this year as a result.” 

On how long the trial would last, Ngwema said: “It is going to be a lengthy trial. In all probability, it will take longer than 16 weeks and will run into next year.” 

He added: “The delay is not caused by the prosecution team. Our indictment and application for the expanded authorisation was finalised and submitted by the end of November last year.”

On Tuesday in the Palmridge magistrate’s court, state advocate Hein van der Merwe asked for an eight-week postponement for the prosecutors to finalise additional counts and make three more arrests, to add to the seven accused already facing charges. 

The postponement application angered accused number six Ramikosi’s legal representative, Rudzani Netshiavha, who accused the state of ineptitude, saying the ongoing delays since the first arrests were made in June last year were financially prejudicial to his client.

The seven are accused of depleting the now-defunct mutual bank of almost R2.3-billion by allegedly falsifying VBS’s financial statements for the fiscal year ending March 2017, to show that the business was solvent when, in fact, it was not.