While the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) delves into dozens of allegations of fraud, corruption and misconduct against officials at the master of the high court, many families have been left destitute after the death of their loved ones.
After years of complaints, it was only last year that President Cyril Ramaphosa, working with Justice Minister Ronald Lamola, issued a proclamation empowering the SIU to investigate.
The scale of the investigations is huge and saw 15 master of the high court offices in the nine provinces shut down — the first time in the history of that office — to allow the SIU to copy court files and mirror hard drives to collect thousands of documents in a bid to get to the bottom of the allegations.
The investigation is still ongoing. The Mail & Guardian, with funding from the Henry Nxumalo grant for investigative journalism, has also examined the problems
“These people stole my children’s future,” a frail-looking Jennifer Skhosana said while standing outside the Mbombela magistrate’s court on a hot day in September last year.
Skhosana has lost count of the number of times she has waited outside a courthouse but she said she will continue to do so until she gets justice.
She is one of 11 complainants who have allegedly been swindled out of a collective R1.7-million in inheritances by Bina Masuku, now the former deputy master of the high court in Mbombela, and her partner, Elvis Kgosiemang.
Masuku made a brief appearance for the finalisation of a trial date, but this was postponed because the state prosecutor was unavailable. Her next trial date will be at the end of April.
She also faces charges of fraudulently obtaining a South African identity document. An investigation by the home affairs department found that she is a Malawian citizen and is in South Africa illegally.
Masuku and Kgosiemang were arrested in early 2020, despite most cases dating back to 2014 and 2015. They face corruption and money laundering charges.
Skhosana and others had complained, but justice department processes to deal with Masuku failed.
She was allegedly protected by the acting chief master, Theresia Bezuidenhout, who apparently intervened in an internal disciplinary hearing against Masuku in 2019.
Bezuidenhout denied the allegation, saying it is part of a campaign to embarrass her.
It was only after the home affairs department confirmed to the Hawks that Masuku’s papers were falsified that action was taken. The justice department charged and dismissed Masuku.
The couple’s trial is set to begin in late April after delays related to an extended bail hearing for Masuku, who remains in jail without bail, as well as a Covid-19 outbreak in the Mbombela magistrate’s court earlier this year.
Targeting the poor
The Hawks spokesperson in Mpumalanga, Captain Dineo Sekgotodi, said they had discovered that Masuku, by virtue of her position at the court, intercepted the poor and uninformed and referred them to Kgosiemang — who is not a lawyer — for assistance to act as an agent to help wind up their deceased estates.
“The recipients did not get their payments from the deceased estates, and the boyfriend [Kgosiemang] diverted them to his bank accounts for their use,” she said.
Most of their victims are like Skhosana. They are poor, with limited education and do not know how the system at the master of the high court operates.
The first time Skhosana, a 60-year-old mother of three from Mhlaza village between Hazyview and White River, ever went to a courthouse, was six years ago after the death of her common-law husband, Moshate Nyoka.
Even though Nyoka had taken early retirement a year before and cashed in a portion of his pension, Skhosana knew there would be a little left over for her then 18-year-old son Melusi to study further.
Their firstborn daughter, Londiwe, had already completed her post-matric studies. Melusi had completed matric and was about to go on a church mission to preach the gospel in West Africa for two years.
“The plan was that he would study once he got back, but the money’s disappearance has now destroyed his future.
“He could not continue with school and ended up doing piece jobs and working in restaurants. He is now sitting at home because of Covid-19,” Skhosana said.
She still has no idea how much money is due to the family.
In another case, Masuku and Kgosiemang are alleged to have connived to steal R540 000 in death benefits from the dependents of Elias Ngcongwane. Masuku abused her authority by handing Kgosiemang executor powers, which enabled him to siphon money from the trust.
Masuku was also accused of handing executorship over Mbombela resident Corrine Musgrove’s estate to a third party — whose name is known to the Mail & Guardian — who then stole R705 666.60 from Musgrove’s beneficiaries.
Bezuidenhout is accused of issuing Masuku with a final written warning in December 2016, which the latter used as a way of getting out of a disciplinary hearing related to the public’s complaints about her and Kgosiemang’s conduct. It is not clear what processes informed this warning, insiders said, but it rendered the ongoing hearing nullified.
The master of the high court is one of the pillars that supports the dispensing of justice in the country. There is an office in each province.
The master of the high court serves the public in respect of deceased estates, liquidations (insolvent estates), registration of trusts, tutors and curators, administration of the Guardian’s Fund (minors and mentally challenged people), as well as beneficiaries of pension funds and deceased estates who can’t be traced.
It is also allegedly a hotbed of corruption — thousands of case files or dockets go missing or are stolen and the poor and desperate are either fleeced out of their inheritances or made to pay hundreds of rands for assistance in deceased estates.
The numerous complaints about these offices include maladministration, allegations of corruption and other malfeasance.
These include the destruction or theft of 45 000 files at the master’s office in Pretoria and the Cape Town office has backlogs in processing the registration of trusts. In the Mthatha master’s office, 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 some of the money awarded to their clients and pocket the rest.
Earlier this year, the Hawks arrested a master of the high court employee and her runner after they were caught in a sting operation accepting a R800 bribe from a bereaved person in return for a letter of authority. This letter allows the bearer control over a deceased estate and is often a trump card between family members fighting over it.
‘Not aware of charges’
The department’s labour union leaders and employees have pointed to Bezuidenhout as a key enabler of maladministration and the rot inside the department.
The M&G has previously reported that Bezuidenhout’s alleged misconduct included intervening in an irregular expenditure investigation against the master in Kimberley. Her branch paid more than R1.3-million to accommodate a personal assistant who travelled between KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg from March 2017 to September 2019.
On the M&G’s second attempt at getting comment, she said: “At the time I had issued written warnings to Ms Masuku, in December 2016, I was unaware of any additional and or other disciplinary actions being taken by the department against her.
“I cannot fully comment as I was not made aware of charges brought against her … After the charges were withdrawn … I ascertained that her attorney launched a point in limine, that she had been sanctioned as the charges brought were the same as for which I sanctioned her.
“It is clear that the department did not do a due diligence test when bringing the second set of charges.
“During February 2017 it was brought to my attention that indeed charges by the department are being brought against her. I was only informed after the fact that complaints had been lodged against Masuku, and I addressed internal queries as to the content of further charges against Ms Masuku.
“I had not been successful in ascertaining the content thereof or to which complaints this referred to.
“I strenuously deny any implication that the actions I took at the time were designed to interfere with any additional investigation either in a criminal forum or within the department.”
Bezuidenhout has acted in the position of chief master since 2018 after the sudden resignation of chief master of the high court, Lester Basson.
The cabinet announced in October the appointment of Martin Mafojane as the new chief master. Bezuidenhout, according to several insiders, is set for a chief director position at the constitutional development section of the department.
“It is as if everything she has done here is being erased, when she is at the centre of the mess,” said a labour leader in the department, who asked to remain anonymous. “The fact that she can interfere as she has in disciplinary matters in the office should be enough to suspend and charge her.”
Bezuidenhout said: “I have not been informed of any specific charge against me and I am not aware of any disciplinary investigations pending against me. I have not been requested to respond to any allegation against me but, should any such complaint be presented, I will give such an investigation my full cooperation.”
Justice remains elusive
Meanwhile, for Skhosana, justice remains elusive, especially since the courts recently rebuffed the family’s attempts to recover the money stolen from them.
She said: “As you can see, this house uBaba built here still remains incomplete, and the hope was that the kids would complete this job once they finished studying and got decent work.”