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By Vukosi Maluleke

Digital Journalist

‘You want to die?’: Members open up about nightmare of investing in United African Stokvel

Members share detailed accounts of their personal experiences with the stokvel, and how they lost their investments.

United African Stokvel member Nqobile Sibanda said what she thought was a good investment has turned into a lost cause.

After inheriting some money from her late father in 2022, Sibanda said she invested about R230 000 into the stokvel.

According to Sibanda, the stokvel was endorsed by top corporate firm Ernst & Young – so she had no reason to doubt its legitimacy.

Hopeful at the prospects of gaining 50% interest over a year’s period, Sibanda said she was looking forward to receiving her payout – with the first payment scheduled for April 2023.

However, when she tried claiming her payout in April, Sibanda was informed the process would take 10 to 15 days. To this day, she says she has never received a payment.

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After numerous unsuccessful attempts to follow-up with the stokvel, Sibanda said she referred the matter to her attorneys, who tried to serve a letter of demand at United Africa Stokvel’s offices.

“There was no one [present] to receive the letter,” said Sibanda.

Sibanda said she has since given up on pursuing legal action.

As a single mother whose brother is struggling with drug addiction, Sibanda had planned to use the payout to cover his rehabilitation costs.

Expressing safety concerns, Sibanda said she’s grateful the story has reached the public eye – saying it was scary for her and a group of other disenfranchised stokvel members to secretly conduct their own investigations.

‘What could go wrong?’

Meanwhile, Nicole Davids had just resigned from her previous job and was ready to start afresh, when she decided to invest R30 000 from her provident fund claim into United African Stokvel.

Davids said the stokvel had glowing reviews on social media, great overall publicity and was associated with an active NPO – Siyakunakekela – which she said ran sanitary pad drives and provided self-defence classes.

Davids said African United Stokvel was a client of the company she previously worked for, and that’s how she first heard about it.

When she changed jobs and started working for another company, she said she was surprised to discover the stokvel was also a client of her new firm.

After doing some research, Davids decided to make her first and only investment in November 2022. 

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According to Davids, she was offered the “triple saver” package which would triple her investment over a period of six months, with a payout expected in May 2023.

It, however, didn’t end as Davids had expected.

The stokvel member said alarm bells went off when she started hearing reports about payment delays on social media earlier this year.

Concerned about her investment, Davids quickly reached out to her stokvel agent, whom she said was eager to assist in the beginning, but “started being cold” to her towards the end of May, which was closer to her payout date.

“A representative [of the stokvel] told me they were still dealing with claims from March, and would attend to the rest once they’re done,” said Davids.

Same WhatsApp group

According to Davids, the stokvel set up a few Facebook groups to communicate with members and address complaints.

Davids said most members started to leave the group when the stokvel allegedly turned commenting off on their posts.

According to her, some members went on to start their own WhatsApp group, which Sibanda confirmed currently has 485 members.

The WhatsApp group was not without challenges, recalled Davids. She said some staff members of the stokvel infiltrated the group – posing safety concerns for group members.

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‘Don’t be a hero’

Davids told The Citizen she received a death threat during a phone call on 2 July. The person warned her to stop looking into the stokvel.

“Are you trying to be smart? You want to die? You want to be a hero? You will die!” said Davids, quoting what she said were the words of the angry caller.

According to Davids, the caller also said “I’m going to find you, and (name withheld) is looking for you because you think you’re a hero.”

“He also mentioned my father’s name and listed my previous home addresses – even [those] from when I was growing up,” Davids said.

The United African Stokvel member says the following day she received a text message from her father’s cellphone number.

“Don’t text me on this number, phone is AWOL,” the message read, said Davids.

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“What do you mean?” Davids responded.

Davids said she started to panic when she was sent single-worded response: “snatched”. She knew something was not right because her “very old” father would never text like that.

What really happened? Davids said her father had received a meeting request from someone he thought was a potential client for his business.

“When my father arrived, he was jumped and beaten up,” Davids said.

According to Davids, her father said the robbers forcefully took his wedding band and one of his phones – which she said they texted her from.

“If this was a random incident, why didn’t they take his vehicle?” Davids asked.

“Why didn’t they take both phones, and his wallet?

“They could have taken everything. It was too co-incidental for me.”

Davids said she suspects she was singled out because she’s one of the “most vocal” members on the WhatsApp group.  

Smooth start

Bruce Conrad told The Citizen he first found out about the African United Stokvel on Facebook in 2021 and was impressed by client reviews on the fund’s social media page.

“People were happy,” Conrad said.

Convinced by the testimonials, Conrad decided to invest R5 000 with the stokvel at the guaranteed “monthly reward” of R350 over a 12-month period.

Six months later, Conrad made another deposit of R70 000 which he said would earn R4 900 monthly interest over 12 months.

Having received previous payouts, Conrad trusted the social investment scheme. He then re-invested his funds.

Unfortunately, Conrad fell ill in 2021, which led to him losing his mobility.

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Due to medical incapacity, he was eventually laid off from work – receiving a R400 000 cash lump sum from his provident fund in May 2022.

Eager to double his life’s earnings, Conrad invested the money into the stokvel, splitting the funds across multiple investments.

“Things were looking good,” he recalled.

But, not for long – that would be the last time he held his hard-earned cash.

Conrad said in October 2022 he started experiencing delays with payouts and poor communication from the stokvel – often met with what he viewed as subpar responses, and representatives blaming load shedding.

By February 2023, Conrad said communication had worsened, but it was not until watching an episode of The Devi Show when his worst nightmare was confirmed.

The episode featured stokvel member testimonies, and a recorded sting operation at United African Stokvel offices, followed by Devi Sankaree Govender’s confrontation of founder Darren Langbein – from which he was captured walking away.

Conrad said watching the show left him feeling he might have been scammed.

‘Pay back the money’

Conrad said, like other members, he just wants his capital investment back.

Meanwhile, Davids said her investment is not much compared to the thousands of stokvel members that may have lost their life’s savings. She said her primary goal is to help desperate members get their money back.

Conrad said he’d tried reaching out to Langbein weeks ago after finding alternative contact details. 

“I sent Darren a message – it was read but there was no response,” Conrad told The Citizen.

Sibanda said she’s made peace with the idea she might never get her investment back.

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FSCA statement

The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) conducted a search and seizure operation at the United African Stokvel’s premises in June.

According to a media statement, the FSCA said it will examine the evidence and take appropriate regulatory action afterwards.

The Citizen tried to call and email the founders of United African Stokvel for comment, but was unsuccessful.

DISCLAIMER*: No real names were used in this article. Sources asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

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