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By Ciaran Ryan

Moneyweb: Journalist & Host of Moneyweb Crypto Podcast

South African suspected of Gupta connection held hostage in UAE for 9 years

Former Free State municipality project manager was barred from returning to SA after being tricked into signing what he says was a fake acknowledgement of debt, in Arabic. It’s been nine years since he has seen his wife and daughter.

Sello Tsolo, a project manager for the Setsoto Municipality in the Eastern Free State, has been barred from returning home from Abu Dhabi for nine years – more than three of which were spent in prison.

Tsolo was lured to Abu Dhabi in 2013 by international scamster and Indian national Amit Lamba on the pretext of investing in a dairy project.

He is prevented from returning to SA until he settles what he says is a fake acknowledgement of debt of about R2 million, that Lamba tricked him into signing.

A transfer of shares document Tsolo thought he was signing, in Arabic, turned out to be an acknowledgement of debt.

That mistake landed him in a UAE prison for 37 months, though he is still barred from returning to SA until the debt is paid off, a virtual impossibility as he is also prevented from working in the UAE.

Dairy project highjacked

Tsolo was project-managing the Setsoto Integrated Dairy (SID) project, which was conceived more than a decade ago as a way to provide an income to thousands of small-scale farmers in the Free State.

Tsolo and the other backers of the project were shocked when their project, initially backed by the Free State Department of Agriculture, was deep-sixed by the department and later revived in a slightly modified version as the Estina Diary Project, which siphoned R280 million in taxpayer funds to Gupta-controlled accounts, according to the latest Zondo Report.

When Estina first appeared on the scene, Tsolo and others smelt a rat.

The first tell was the business plan, a virtual cut and paste of the Setsoso project, especially the capital requirement of R114 million over the first three years.

“They didn’t even bother to change the figures, it was so obviously a cut and paste of our project,” says Godfrey Marange, a German-Zimbabwean businessman and the originator of the SID project.

He had spent more than a decade studying the SA dairy industry for ways to improve it and discovered that yields could be improved up to 30% in the winter months by stabling cows in so-called ‘cow hotels’, using German dairy technology.

“The key difference with our project is we had German partners; the Guptas wanted to bring in Indian partners. The Guptas copied our ‘integrated dairy project’ over to Estina, but there was nothing integrated about theirs.

“Their project was a washout, managed by people who knew nothing about dairy, as the Zondo report makes clear. Our project has 15 different business units, such as a bakery and training school, built around the dairy business.

“We have no doubt the Guptas stole our project and intercepted provincial money originally intended for the SID project,” says Marange.

“The other key difference is ours was commercially viable and clean; the Guptas’ version of it was corrupt to the core.

“And we now know that there was no benefit to local farmers in the Gupta project. It was just another way to siphon money from the state.”

Suspicious links

This brings us back to Tsolo, and his disastrous encounter with Lamba.

Tsolo and Marange say they cannot establish a direct link between Lamba and the Guptas, though there are some suspicious intersections, notably the timing of their arrival in SA, and the sudden waning of support for the SID project by the Free State provincial government in favour of Estina.

So keen was the Free State Department of Agriculture to support the SID project that it allocated R6 million in its 2012/13 budget for this purpose.

That’s when the problems began.

The department insisted on appointing a project management company to approve spending, which was the first red flag.

The money never came, and then the Setsoto Municipality decided to back out of the project.

Tsolo then went to the Land Bank, which committed to the funding of R100 million, but the deal was never finally approved as Tsolo was by now absent from SA.

Lamba arrived in SA in 2012 waving a cheque book, and some apparently serious endorsements from the crown prince of Ajman, UAE, and senior SA government officials.

Tsolo was introduced to Lamba in 2012 on the recommendation of a senior official in the Department of Agriculture in the Free State, which gave him some comfort that he was dealing with a person of repute.

Lamba was hosting interviews with potential business partners in the offices of Trade Investment Limpopo and seemed to all outward appearances to be an investor in search of opportunities.

What was needed for the SID project was funding of R675 million, and Lamba appeared more than ready to back the scheme.

He signed a memorandum of understanding with Tsolo and invited him to Dubai to wrap up the paperwork.

Tsolo flew to Dubai in 2013, believing he was on his way to arrange funding for the dairy project.

Lamba, it turns out, was a fraudster who was imprisoned in India in 2016 (and since released) for duping multiple victims into his shakedown operation, apparently with the aid of some crooked UAE lawyers.

The Indian authorities, it turns out, were also keen to get their hands on him, which they did in 2016.

Fateful day

“I arrived in Ajman [in the UAE] in the early morning of 27 June 2013,” Tsolo told Moneyweb from the SA embassy in Abu Dhabi.

“I was with Albert Mokoena, who was also invited by Amit [Lamba], although I didn’t know him or about his visit.

“Amit came to our hotel the very same morning at around 8am and told us that as a sign of goodwill and appreciation, his company wanted to make us its representatives in SA and Africa, and they will also give us shares to the value of 480 000 AED [Emirati dirham], which is worth about R2 million.

“He requested that we first have to go to the government offices to sign for those shares. We arrived at the offices, which later became clear to us that it was Court of Ajman.

“The presiding officer asked us if I know about the money, to which I said yes, it was for the shares, and he asked me to sign. Everything was in Arabic, and it was an electronic signature.”

Lamba had suckered Tsolo into believing he was signing to receive shares in a UAE-registered company that would make him, on behalf of the SID, a company representative in Africa.

It was a fatal mistake.

“I only became aware later that what I signed for was actually acknowledgement of debt to Amit’s partner, Shweta Tyagi, for 480 000 AED,” says Tsolo. 

Tyagi is reputed to have been Lamba’s girlfriend.

At least two other South African businessmen – Albert Mokoena and Jannie van der Walt – were likewise allegedly scammed by Lamba, prompting the SA Consulate in Dubai to issue a warning about Lamba in 2013.

Half a dozen more South Africans claim to have been fleeced by the scamster during visits to SA in 2012 and 2013.

Zondo testimony

In an affidavit before the Zondo Commission, former mayor of Setsoto Local Municipality, Mbothoma Maduna, testified that the SID “was parachuted to Phumelela Local Municipality [Vrede], where it became known as the Estina project to the detriment and economic disadvantage of the community of Setsoto Municipality.”

Maduna, until recently the speaker for the Thabo Mofutsanyana District Municipality under which the Setsoto Local Municipality falls, says he first encountered the integrated dairy concept in 2006 on a trip to Germany, when Marange outlined the details of the project.

Maduna, then executive mayor of Setsoto Municipality, was so impressed with the presentation and its potential to revive the Eastern Free State’s erstwhile reputation as the dairy hub of the province that he suggested the plan be incorporated into the municipality’s Integrated Development Plan.

That plan turned into something quite sinister, as the Zondo report makes clear.

Peter Thabethe, former head of department of agriculture for the Free State, testified before the Zondo Commission that he conducted desktop research that led him to an Indian company as the only viable model for the dairy project.

Maduna confirms Tsolo’s story, and the fact that Tsolo was representing the municipality when he travelled to the UAE nine years ago at Lamba’s request to raise funding for the project.

Estina “used the fairy tale Indian connection [Paras, an Indian milk producer] to milk more than R250 million from the government, which deliberately or with gross negligence blindly pumped money without asking questions or looking as to how it was spent,” says the report.

Meanwhile, Tsolo remains holed up in the SA embassy in Dubai, living off support from South African expats.

It’s been nine years since he has seen his wife and daughter.

Change.org has started a petition to pressure both the SA and UAE governments to allow him home.

Official intervention

The SA Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation raised the matter with the UAE in 2020, but was rebuffed saying a (previous) petition for Tsolo’s repatriation “was not legally relevant to the creditors’ rights” and that no action would be taken.

This, despite the fact that Lamba is a criminal known for shaking down numerous other people around the world in similar scams.

“The current SA ambassador, Saad Cachalia, negotiated with the authorities here to allow us to leave, but so far this is to no avail,” Tsolo tells Moneyweb.

“At one point in 2018, there was hope that we may be allowed to leave, but the process came to an abrupt end.

“Unofficially, we learned that it was at the instruction of former president Zuma that [the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) staff] stop interfering in our case.

”In response to questions from Moneyweb, Dirco spokesperson Clayton Monyela provided the following response:

Dirco is aware of the presence of Mr Tsolo and other SA citizens in the UAE and the unfortunate circumstances that are preventing them from departing the UAE. Through the South African diplomatic missions in the UAE, DIRCO has been providing them with consular support since their initial arrest;

The three gentlemen in question were found guilty of offences in an UAE Court. After serving their sentences, UAE Law requires them to settle their debt despite claims that they were victims of fraud.

It is standard practice for the UAE Government to put travel bans in place in respect of foreigners with outstanding debt, preventing them from leaving the UAE until such time as the debt are settled.

Through the years, South Africa raised their plight with the UAE Government on various occasions. The final decision on the release of the gentlemen rests with the UAE authorities.

DIRCO’s efforts are continuing in the best interest of Mr Tsolo and the other South Africans affected in this particular case. It is not possible to attach a timeline.