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Portia Sizani, shortly after being convicted of theft and fraud. Photo: screenshot of Twitter video.

Diplomatic wife found guilty of fraud in ‘ghost teachers’ case

In South Africa, being the wife of an MP or the spouse of an ambassador does not preclude you from engaging in fraud and embezzlement of funds destined for the education of small children, as the Portia Sizani case bears out.

Published: March 30, 2019, 3:14 pm

    With South Africa still reeling from corruption revelations via the Zondo Commission, there is more news of dishonesty in government. The wife of the country’s ambassador to Germany, Portia Sizani, was found guilty yesterday of having created “ghost teachers” on the government payroll whose salaries she then diverted to her own bank account.

    The Port Elizabeth Commercial Crimes Court, situated in the Eastern Cape province, home of Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa tribe, convicted Sizani on 15 counts of fraud and nine counts of money laundering. The total amount embezzled by the accused was R1,2 million (about €75 000).

    Sizani seemed unfazed by the guilty verdict and told the African News Agency afterwards: “The law must take its course, I’ve always been open, I’ll allow the law to take it’s course.”

    Helen Zille, a well-known politician and former leader of the official opposition party in South Africa, tweeted about Sizani:

    Sizani initially started working for the department of education as a teacher in East London in 1991, and was eventually promoted to Early Childhood Development district coordinator. During 2009 and 2010 she created an elaborate system whereby she appointed “ghost teachers” whose salaries she paid to herself. Her scheme was similar to the “ghost welfare recipients” that Winnie Mandela, ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, had created by using ID documents belonging to members of the ANC Women’s League. Mrs. Mandela was found guilty of 43 charges of fraud and 25 of theft, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. However, on appeal a more lenient judge scrapped the theft convictions but kept the ones for fraud; he also reduced her five-year jail sentence to a suspended one for three years and six months. So she never went to prison.

    Stone Sizani, South African ambassador to Germany and husband of Portia Sizani

    In some instances, Portia Sizani used the identities of real people but who were not working for the department. One of these, Sindisiwe Jafta, testified in court in 2014 that she was unemployed but that she and Sizani had grown up together. The fact that she had no qualifications as a teacher was not a problem. “She [Sizani] asked me to submit my to submit my qualifications and CV which I did in January 2009. I submitted all the relevant documentation to her offices. In October she called me to her office and gave me bank forms to sign and to hand over to the bank,” testified Jafta.

    “She told me that an amount of R22 000 plus would be deposited in my account in two days’ time. She said the money would be coming from the department of education and that it was being deposited in my account by mistake and that I should not be shocked.

    “She instructed me to withdraw the money and send it to a certain person based in Pretoria, for whom the money was meant. She [Sizani] gave me the contact number of the person to send the money to. In turn, that person gave me two account numbers to deposit the R20 000 in,” said Jafta.

    Jafta further testified that she deposited R13 000 in a Nedbank account and R5 000 in an Absa account and used the remaining R2 000 to buy herself towels and other items as instructed by Sizani, who had “also promised her a monthly stipend from the department”.

    Unbeknown to these “ghost teachers”, Sizani would have them appointed to the department, after which they would start receiving salaries in their accounts. This was when Sizani would tell them that it was a “mistake” and that they should pay the money back to her or her associates. She also falsified the school principal’s signature of approval on the appointment documents. These were usually for Grade R posts, teachers for smaller children in the pre-school year.

    Sizani was charged and arrested in 2012. However, the court case had dragged on for years because Sizani’s lawyer had tried everything in his power to obstruct it. At one time it was postponed for a year because Sizani had allegedly been “too ill” to stand trial. Then her lawyer tried to have the magistrate, Mputumi Mpofu, recused on the grounds that he was biased as his wife had previously worked for the department of education. However, the recusal application was dismissed and the trial was eventually allowed to continue.

    The court will reconvene for sentencing proceedings in July. In the meantime Sizani will probably rejoin her husband, His Excellency Mr. Stone Sizani, in Berlin where he still represents South Africa as ambassador in Germany. Stone Sizani himself was an employee in the Eastern Cape department of education before his career in politics. At one point he was the provincial MEC (member of the executive committee) for education in the province, equivalent to a provincial minister of education in South Africa.

     

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