'I'm afraid to tell my spouse': United African Stokvel investors mourn their losses

27 December 2023 - 07:00
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Hundreds of people across the country who invested their hard-earned cash realised their hopes of returns were gone when the founder Darren Langbein disappeared without a trace. Stock photo.
Hundreds of people across the country who invested their hard-earned cash realised their hopes of returns were gone when the founder Darren Langbein disappeared without a trace. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/Olivier Le Moal

Investors allegedly swindled in the United African Stokvel scam say they are clinging to the hope they will one day be served justice and have some of their money returned.

Hundreds of people across South Africa invested in the Bryanston-based stokvel, which claimed on its social media pages to be a digital stokvel that invested clients’ funds in property and telecommunications. It claimed the returns from these investments were used to pay clients. Some investors were promised their money would triple in value.

The Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA) opened an investigation into the stokvel earlier this year.

“There are various complaints from clients stating that though they were promised returns they have not received them,” the FSCA said. It invited investors to make contact as they gathered evidence for an inquiry.

The FSCA “suspects United African of conducting unauthorised business and breaching certain financial sector laws”. The stokvel was not authorised to provide financial products or services and the FSCA disputed its claims on social media that it applied for a financial services provider licence.

TimesLIVE attempted to contact the company without success. This article will be updated if a response is received.

Lutendo*, who invested R370,000 of her retrenchment payout after losing her job in 2022, said she became concerned in April when “the page went quiet on Facebook and people started complaining”. The owner “then created a WhatsApp group saying there was a delay with investors not paying on time and the consultants said they were paying as the money comes in”.

She said she had been following the stokvel since 2019 and had seen comments and testimonies from investors who received returns.

“Two things drew my attention: there was a seminar sometime in 2019 in Sandton before the lockdown where they had United Stokvel banners and I went to get more information. When I saw them again on Facebook, I was convinced they were legit.”

A WhatsApp victim group has been opened, which has been joined by 485 people from different provinces, she said.

“We've got cases where people have committed suicide in this group. We have cases where people are in psychiatric institutions for depression.”

She is still afraid to tell her husband about her loss.

“My husband doesn't know I invested in the stokvel. There are days when he asks me to get some food and I duck and dive. It's been a journey-and-a-half. I think this festive season I must come clean, because in January he will expect me to contribute to stationery,” Lutendo said.

The 42-year-old said she feels cheated.

“Afterwards you feel stupid and ask yourself, 'how was I calculating this, where was this money going to come from?' But as you see testimonies you think this is real, only to find the testimonies were 'bought' people,” she said.

Some of the screenshots from the Stockvel's Facebook page.
Some of the screenshots from the Stockvel's Facebook page.
Image: Supplied

Peter* is going through a rough patch with his wife after seeing no returns on his R26,500 investment.

The 44-year-old and his wife, who were living in their in-laws' back room, invested the money in hopes of saving for a deposit for a house.

“We want a house so the children can have a big yard to play in. Now we are back to square one.

“Since then my wife and I started having fights over little things, understandably because of the frustrations. I have even moved out. I have rented a cottage where I am living alone. We are not separated. I still see my wife and I still go to see my children, but it's better this way, until I get back on my feet, until I get things sorted and we can buy a house and we can be together,” he said.

“Frustration is eating me. It's bad. Every day I feel like I am late for something. All my peers have their own houses and they have left their family homes. I want to also pay a bond, I don't want to pay rent for the rest of my life. What this guy did to us, I can't even explain it.” 

A Johannesburg woman who invested R110,000 said all the signs pointed to a legitimate investment at first, but when it was time for her to receive her payout, all she received was excuses.

“They would send you an e-mail and receipt to confirm your payment and your payout date so everything looked legit until when it was time for me to receive my first payout and I started receiving excuses. Then I realised it was not right.

“He [the owner] put out a press release claiming there was a backlog of payments due to load-shedding. They started making up stories the whole of May and June and we realised these people were playing us and no-one is getting their money.

“There was no communication and they were not answering their calls. But if you want to invest, you get a quick response,” she said.

Some of the communications from the Stokvel Facebook page.
Some of the communications from the Stokvel Facebook page.
Image: Supplied

The 34-year-old feels regret.

“I felt stupid because at first, you do all your homework. We know with network marketing you hear about those which sound ridiculous. This one we trusted because it is a South African company, they are registered, and by the time I joined them they had been in existence for about three years, going into their fourth year. He had done so many interviews on radio and news outlets, it looked legitimate,” she said.

Like many investors, she had plans for her money.

“I feel cheated because I thought I had never done stokvel my life, but I was thinking it would be a nice way to help me save. Many people had plans. For me it was school fees I was saving for because next year I have to pay for pupils in grade 8 and 1. The admin fees are high, school uniforms and everything. Some people were saving for family tombstones, their children, buying a house, a wedding. I know there is a woman who was planning to get the payout for her wedding, so everybody had different reasons. I know two domestic workers who [lost] R80,000.”

She has opened a fraud case at the Sandton police station.

The victims are being assisted by lawyers and liquidators to try to see if they can retrieve what is left of their investments.

“Some people committed suicide, some are depressed, others got sick from the stress,” she said. 

“At least some of us still have employment, we can survive. I know a guy who had taken a loan for R200,000 and now he is paying a loan for something he didn't get. Things like that would make people fall into depression.” 

Her family is also in the dark about her losses and she says she is not alone in this.

“There are people who haven't told their families, their spouses, like me. Nobody knows, my family think I put money away for investment that I said I wouldn't touch. I know somebody who was saying 'this December I might just get divorced'. It is money her husband gave her for the children. For somebody else it was their varsity money. What do you tell your child, as a parent?

“The only way we cope is by praying and having hope that they won't get away with this.”

The victims hope they will get justice, though they acknowledge they might not get all their money back.

We worked for this money. Some of us worked hard and with the economy, to even set aside that money, do you know what work went into that? It was money I was putting aside because Covid-19 happened. We had no jobs. I had just got back on my feet by God's grace and I was hoping to save something for rainy days.”


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