New twist in truck saga

South African drivers incarcerated in Zimbabwe and facing charges of swindling the First Family of $1-million were granted bail last week but will remain in prison after immigration authorities said they were illegal immigrants.

The four, Cassimjee Bilal, Henry Radebe, Samuel Rasinati Baloyi and Sydney Masilo, were hired by a Chinese businessman and a former close associate of the First Family, Ping Sung Hsieh, to deliver three trucks to Grace Mugabe’s aides in Harare.

The dramatic intervention by immigration has given further rise to assertions by lawyers in Zimbabwe and South Africa that the drivers are being held at ransom until the First Family recovers its money or its trucks are delivered.

Court papers seen by the Sunday Times show that the First Family had through its aide, Olga Bungu, contracted Ping to buy six haulage trucks from South Africa, using $1-million which the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe transferred to Ping’s account in South Africa in 1998.

The trucks were never delivered but last week, Ping allegedly sent the four drivers with three South African-registered vehicles but they were arrested soon after delivering the trucks to Stanley Mhari, a manager at one of Mugabe’s farms.

The four were first denied bail at the magistrates’ court. On Monday they were granted $500 bail by the High Court but authorities in Harare refused to let them free, with immigration authorities arguing that they were now illegal immigrants.

In terms of their bail conditions, they are supposed to stay at a given address in Harare and report to the police twice a day. Their passports have been confiscated by the police.

Their lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, told the Sunday Times that the devastated drivers were now completely confused, especially after being told that they were not going to be released even after being granted bail.

"They are shocked and I am equally stunned. They were granted bail by the High Court but authorities at immigration are now saying they are staying in Zimbabwe illegally but everyone knows that they could not go back home because they were in detention.

"In any case, their passports clearly show that they were given 30 days in the country and their permits are due to expire on March 18.

"This is clearly turning out to be political and I really don’t understand. I filed an urgent application on Thursday against the immigration officials and the co-ministers of home affairs to have the four released. Judgement was reserved by Justice Musakwa and I am still to be told when it will be delivered.

"I feel sorry for the guys, I spoke to them and they are devastated, they can’t believe what is happening to them given that they were just hired to deliver the trucks. The only explanation is that the four guys are victims of big players in a botched business deal they know nothing about," said Mtetwa.

An immigration official who spoke to the Sunday Times said the issue was being dealt with by senior immigration officials.

"If they were given 30 days then it is surprising that they are now being labelled illegal immigrants. The issue was strangely dealt with by our bosses and it is clear that the instructions are coming from some very high offices because these people did not flout any immigration laws. Maybe there is politics at play," said the immigration officer.

Investigations revealed that Bungu is a close aide of Mugabe and she allegedly misled the courts in Harare by claiming under oath that she does not work and was banking on the trucks business to sustain herself when she was "fleeced" of the $1-million.

But she also told Ping’s South African lawyer, Advocate Mannie Witz, that she was a close Mugabe aide.

Mhari, also claimed in court papers that he was unemployed but was due to become the manager of the trucks, but the Sunday Times has confirmed that he is actually a farm manager at one of Mugabe’s farms.

Legal and political experts in Harare suggested that the two were being used as fronts of the First Family.

Ping has also told his lawyers that he wanted to do business with Grace’s son from her first marriage, Russel, but this is doubtful, with banking officials in Harare saying the money came from the First Family’s account.

Ping is a controversial businessman and had been a trusted business associate of the Mugabes until the truck deal.

He is linked to the house in Hong Kong which was allegedly bought by the First Family.

He confirmed through his lawyers that he has done business with the Mugabes and is known to pamper the family with undisclosed gifts.

He has also allegedly been linked with the theft of diamonds together with officials from the Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation.

Ping runs companies in South Africa, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  – TimeLive