South African truckers arrested in a deal that highlights Mugabe family's dark arts

Four South Africans are languishing in a Harare remand prison over allegations that they swindled the First Family of $1-million in a botched deal involving a shadowy Chinese man with links to President Robert Mugabe.

Court papers seen by the Sunday Times reveal that the First Family’s aide, Olga Bungu, wanted to buy six haulage trucks from South Africa and hired the Mugabes’ associate Ping Sung Hsieh, who runs companies in South Africa, Hong Kong and China.

But Ping is denying the charge through his lawyers and says he never received any money from Bungu for the trucks although he admits entering into business with the Mugabes.

On the trucking business, he says he wanted to enter into the deal with First Lady Grace Mugabe’s son Russell.

According to court papers, Ping received $1-million from Bungu in 2008 but failed to deliver the trucks and was arrested in SA, where he is now facing extradition to Zimbabwe.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s director of financial intelligence, Mirirai Chiremba confirmed in an affidavit that the money was transferred to Ping in 2008. Last week, Ping sent four SA drivers with three trucks using temporary import permits and delivered them to Grace’s Orphanage Home on February 19, according to court papers. The following day, the drivers were arrested and charged with fraud.

They appeared in court last week but were denied bail by chief magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe, who said they had connived with Ping to steal the $1-million.

But lawyers in Harare believe that the drivers have no case to answer and are being held at ransom to ensure that Ping either delivers the trucks or refunds Russell his money.

While Bungu claims it was her money, her contradictory statements in court and to Ping’s SA lawyer, Advocate Mannie Witz, have raised questions.

At the Harare court, she claimed to be an unemployed businesswoman who wanted to "venture into the trucking business until she was fleeced of the $1-million" by Ping. Documents seen by the Sunday Times reveal that Bungu told the SA lawyers that she was a policewoman close to the Mugabes and usually accompanied them on foreign trips.

Independent inquiries by the Sunday Times concluded that there is a Bungu who is usually part of the Mugabe entourage.

Witz said: "Bungu is a brigadier, a policewoman who looks after the First Lady and their family when they travel overseas. My client has never done one day’s business with her."

He admitted that his client had been very friendly with Grace Mugabe but that their relationship soured 18 months ago because of various commercial transactions. "I think they might have had one or two dinners together but he’s still friendly with Robert Mugabe and he doesn’t want to get involved."

Witz said his client had bought and installed a drilling machine on Grace Mugabe’s dairy farm for around $300 000.

"He (Russell) wanted to start a transport business. My client purchased the trucks then he decided he did not want them. Maybe it was too much hard work for him (Russell)."

The trucks were to be delivered to Stanley Nhari, who lawyers suspect to be a senior employee of Gushungo Farm in Mazoe owned by the Mugabes.

In court papers, Nhari claims to have been recently employed by Bungu to manage the trucking business.

The Sunday Times has confirmed that Nhari is a general manager at a Mugabe farm.

Lawyers for the incarcerated South Africans maintain their clients are being used as pawns in a bigger game involving the First Family.

In submissions by their lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, the four also deny the charge.

In her arguments Mtetwa said: "There is no evidence of fraud, the extradition proceedings do not allege Ping acted with the four.

"They were not involved in the purchase of the vehicles and they could not have committed the offence when the money was not sent to them. They are not even aware of the extradition case and their mandate was only to deliver the trucks." – Additional reporting by Prega Govender and Hendricks Chizhanje