A cold-blooded murder in South Africa, allegedly linked to a money-laundering scheme, has reverberated across the border into neighbouring Botswana — and, if explosive claims are to be believed, may even reach into the highest echelons of power of that country.
At 6.30pm on August 31 last year, businessperson Vusi Mhlanzi walked out of his office and got into his car for his usual commute home.
Somewhere along Grayston Drive in Johannesburg’s wealthy suburb of Sandton, Mhlanzi stopped. Seemingly out of nowhere, two vehicles boxed his car in. In the cool evening air, a volley of gunshots rang out. His blue Mercedes-Benz was peppered with bullets and Mhlanzi lay dead in the driver’s seat.
It has been six months since he was murdered and little or no progress has been made in solving the crime. No one has been arrested or charged. His death has all the hallmarks of a hit but this has been neither confirmed nor denied by law enforcement authorities in South Africa.
What we do know is that the 42-year-old’s murder is connected to one of the biggest financial scandals to have rocked Botswana.
It is alleged that a quarter of a billion pula (about R250‑million) from the National Petroleum Fund, which falls under Botswana’s department of mineral resources, green technology and energy security, was laundered through the purchase of houses and cars in Johannesburg and Gaborone.
This sum was allegedly moved from the fund into the bank accounts of some of Mhlanzi’s business associates and then to certain Botswana government officials.
This is how it started. Mhlanzi and Bakang Seretse, a Motswana, went into business in Botswana together five years ago. Mhlanzi had started Basis Points Capital in South Africa and partnered with Seretse to expand the company into Botswana.
Basis Points Capital is a specialist financial services company offering expertise ranging from raising capital to corporate finance.
By all accounts, the business was on an upward trajectory in Botswana, having landed large contracts with the country’s mineral resources department.
Then, a month before Mhlanzi was gunned down, he was alerted to a suspect bank account that had been opened in his company’s name.
Sources close to the Botswana investigation into the financial scandal claim that this account forms part of a wider network of transactions amounting to more than R250‑million, which lead all the way to the top echelons of the country’s government.
Seretse and two others — Kenneth Kerekang, chief executive of the Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority and Botho Leburu, the former managing director of Basis Points Capital — have been implicated in the case.
Four months after Mhlanzi’s murder, Seretse, Kerekang and Leburu were arrested in Gaborone. They were charged with money laundering and were granted bail of P30 000 each. High-ranking government officials have been implicated but deny complicity and as yet no further arrests have been made.
Reports from newspapers in Botswana suggest that the transfers were made in favour of a certain government official from the bank accounts of Kerekang and Leburu, mainly between September and November last year.
According to sources involved with the investigation in Botswana, the Basis Points Capital account had received money from the country’s department of mineral resources.
These allegations and the financial intrigue have done little to soothe the pain of Mhlanzi’s family, who have desperately sought a resolution to his murder.
Dr Thulani Mhlanzi, speaking on behalf of the family, said the South African Police Service had not made contact with them, although the police told the Mail & Guardian that the investigation was ongoing.
“The family has made several attempts to get a progress report about the case, to no avail,” he said.
Deepening the intrigue, Mhlanzi’s associate Seretse claimed that he and Mhlanzi had received death threats.
“Before Vusi died, there were threats to him and myself. I have assisted the police [in South Africa]. They said they would get back to me and that I shouldn’t say a thing because that would jeopardise the case and even my security,” he said.
Last month Seretse’s lawyers wrote to the Botswana attorney general, alleging that their client had received more death threats and that high-ranking individuals in Botswana’s government had benefited from the “alleged proceeds of crime” for which his client had been arrested. The letter, seen by the M&G, is dated January 17.
“Our side has been advised by sympathetic sources within the intelligence community of plans to kill our clients and those associated to them,” reads the letter. “In light of the aforegoing threats, the state [Botswana] shall be held responsible for the deaths of our clients, their attorneys or their family members [should they occur].”
The Botswana attorney general’s office said it could not comment on the case and it was not privy to “whether there is an investigation going on concerning a possibly connected murder incident”.
When asked about the alleged death threats, the attorney general’s office replied: “This office also notes that the issues raised are of a sensitive nature … therefore, in order to maintain the integrity of any process that might be ongoing, these are matters best left to law enforcements agencies.”
Whether the Botswana attorney general’s office acts or not, a trail of emails seen by the M&G paint a picture of a frustrated Mhlanzi on the verge of finding out what the bank account under his company’s name was used for.
Thulani Mhlanzi said Vusi Mhlanzi was planning to travel to Botswana on September 1, but was gunned down just a day before his departure.
The emails show that Mhlanzi found out about the bank account allegedly connected to the financial scandal three weeks before he was shot. Basis Points Capital’s financial director, Hope Tawengwa, had sent him a message stating that a property company wanted to verify a cheque payment made from the suspect account.
Tawengwa said she, too, had no idea how a separate account came to have been opened in the company’s name in July 2016.
The emails show that Mhlanzi asked his associates, including Seretse, to investigate how the unauthorised bank account was opened.
After weeks of no progress, Seretse responded in a lengthy email, claiming that there appeared to be a misunderstanding about shelf companies.
On August 27 last year, an agitated Mhlanzi sent a strongly worded email to Tawengwa, criticising her for failing to provide a report on how the suspect account had been set up and by whom, saying this was tantamount to insubordination.
“I would like you to investigate if there are any other bank accounts linked to Basis Points or any other entity connected to me. Check with auditors if they can assist you, or appoint someone else to do it urgently,” Mhlanzi wrote.
Two days before Mhlanzi was killed, Tawengwa told him that the bank account matter should be handled internally. “I met Bakang [Seretse] on Friday to discuss the issue. We agreed he will call you and set a time to come and see you. I request that you meet as directors before I can take the route you have requested,” said Tawengwa.
The M&G understands that the day before Mhlanzi was killed, an amount of almost R2‑million was paid into an unspecified FNB account from the suspect bank account. Neither Tawengwa nor Seretse would comment on the bank account.
Thulani Mhlanzi confirmed that Vusi Mhlanzi had been agitated about the account, saying that it had been opened fraudulently without his knowledge.
“Given the troubling information that has been coming out of Botswana through the media and the reasons for the arrest of Mr Seretse, we are very concerned that the murder of Vusi could be connected to the bank account he had discovered and the report he had asked for that never arrived. He was meant to go to Botswana, to find answers, the day after he was murdered.
“Let me also add that we have never heard from Mr Seretse, who was a close business partner of the deceased, ever since Vusi passed away,” said Thulani Mhlanzi.
Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, the police’s Gauteng head of corporate communication, said the police were still investigating and wanted to ensure the case was prosecutable and a conviction guaranteed.
“Should a need arise at any stage of the investigation for collaboration between the SAPS and [the] law enforcement authorities of another country, the appropriate processes will be followed. There have been no arrests thus far,” she said.
Seretse said he had been in contact with the police but could not divulge the information he had shared.