/ 11 February 2022

Former Tongaat Hulett bosses in court for fraud

Tongaat revealed that its financial statements for the year ended March 31 would need to be restated.
Greed has cost nearly 8 000 workers in Tongaat’s sugar division and its milling operations their jobs when the company moved to sell off assets and reduce its debt, while the firm and its suppliers sustained huge losses. (Dean Hutton/Bloomberg/Getty)

Just over two years after charges were laid against them, former Tongaat Hulett Limited chief executive Peter Staude and six others accused of defrauding the sugar and property giant of R2.5-billion have finally appeared in court.

The group of former executives charged over the fraud includes Deloitte audit partner Gavin Kruger, who was responsible for auditing Tongaat’s books; former chief financial officer Murray Munro; former property division head Michael Deighton, finance section head Rory Wilkinson; legal executive Kamlasagrie Singh and finance executive Samantha Shukla.

They appeared in the Durban commercial crimes court on Thursday and were granted bail of R30 000 each. They will appear in court again on 11 April, then the matter will be transferred to the high court.

Straude and his co-accused backdated sale agreements by Tongaat’s property division to the value of R2.5-billion between March 2015 and September 2018, when the fraud was discovered by the new Tongaat board, which appointed a forensic investigation.

By inflating the company’s profits, they scored themselves millions of rand in productivity bonuses based on the fraudulent sales, with Straude alone raking in R94-million by cooking the books.

Their greed cost nearly 8 000 workers in Tongaat’s sugar division and its milling operations their jobs when the company moved to sell off assets and reduce its debt, while the firm and its suppliers sustained huge losses. 

The company has gone after Staude’s assets and those of Munro and Deighton.

It instituted a high court claim against them for R450-million in 2020, seeking repayment of all the bonuses, salary payments and benefits it had paid them during their tenure.

Tongatt also wants the court to attach the accused’s pensions, which it has withheld pending the outcome of the civil and criminal matters.

According to the charge sheet, the seven had acted with “common purpose” in planning to falsify sales figures and defraud the company.

The group also “actively associated themselves with the common purpose, and worked together to misrepresent the true state of the revenue brought about by sales of land by Tongaat Hulett Development (THD), and to falsify the financial records of THD and or Tongaat Hulett Limited”.

They had overstated the company revenue by R2.4-billion, an act which, once discovered, exposed Tongaat to “negative publicity and has been brought into disrepute with shareholders, lenders, regulatory authorities and the broader public”.

Their “fraudulent conduct” cost Tongaat R44-milion to have its financial statements restated and it was fined a further R7.5-million by local bourse the JSE and R20-million by the Financial Sector Conduct Authority.

The seven “knew that material inaccurate accounting records had been compiled and maintained which were ultimately processed and incorporated into the financial statements”, the indictment said, adding: “The financial statements, as prepared and presented to the board for its approval and their subsequent presentation to the shareholders, were materially unreliable, false.”

It said Kruger, as Tongaat’s external auditor, had failed in his duties and had presented an audit opinion that was “not true and correct”. He has also been charged for failing to report a criminal offence.

Tongaat company secretary Johann van Rooyen said the company welcomed the arrests and would continue with the civil action against its former executives:

“Tongaat Hulett welcomes this development in the legal process and it will continue to cooperate with law enforcement authorities whenever required to ensure that those responsible for the historic mismanagement of Tongaat Hulett are held accountable,” Van Rooyen said.