Minister 'smuggles' friend in a state jet

22 May 2016 - 02:04 By MZILIKAZI wa AFRIKA

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula smuggled a Burundian woman with a false passport into South Africa on an air force jet.

The minister - who remains defiant about her involvement in the case - yesterday denied she had abused her power, saying: "I'd do it again if I had to."

Confronted by the Sunday Times yesterday, Mapisa-Nqakula conceded that she flew from Waterkloof Air Force Base to the Democratic Republic of Congo to fetch Michelle Wege, 22, on January 28, 2014.

Wege had been detained by officials at Kinshasa International Airport 10 days prior, when she tried to board a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg.

She was arrested for travelling using fraudulent documents, which had allegedly been organised by Mapisa-Nqakula's sister, Nosithembele Nontobeko Mapisa, who worked in the Burundi embassy at the time.

Wege's fake passport said she was a Congolese national named Amina Yambayamba. But officials became suspicious when she could not speak French or any of the other regional languages.

Mapisa-Nqakula touched down in the DRC with a high-powered delegation of more than five officials from her office, including an air force lieutenant-general, to negotiate Wege's release into her care.

After securing Wege's release they continued to Addis Ababa with her for a conference, before returning to South Africa.

Nosithembele, who was South Africa's deputy ambassador to Burundi at the time, was later suspended for her involvement in obtaining the fraudulent documents.

 

During an interview at her home in Bruma, Johannesburg, late yesterday, Mapisa-Nqakula said she did this to help the woman, who came from an abusive family.

"There was nothing wrong in giving Michelle a lift on the air force plane. My sole intention was to save her from abuse, and give her education and love."

The minister said Wege was a friend of her sister's children, and that Mapisa-Nqakula had first met the 20-year-old when she accompanied her sister's family on a holiday to Johannesburg in June 2013. Wege again visited the family in December that year.

block_quotes_start My family isn't ready to part with her and I will sacrifice everything for Michelle                                             block_quotes_end

In January, Wege asked her father if she could again travel to South Africa, but on the day she was supposed to fly back, her father confiscated her passport.

"That was the first time I heard Michelle's real story. She has no mother and grew up in an abusive home. Her mother committed suicide due to abuse. On hearing her story, I told myself I am going to take the child and treat her as mine."

Days later, the minister was told Wege had left Burundi for the DRC. But Mapisa-Nqakula refused to discuss how Michelle left Burundi.

"I have nothing to do with Burundi. What happened in Burundi has nothing to do with me.

"I can't poke my nose in the embassy where my sister worked. I am not an official at the Burundi embassy, but the minister of defence here in South Africa."

Mapisa-Nqakula claimed that when Michelle got to the DRC, she had used a different name and convinced authorities there to give her a Congolese passport.

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"She was, however, arrested at the airport because she could not speak French. Michelle only speaks English. When the officials tried to speak to her in the other Congolese languages, she also could not respond. That is when they arrested her," said Mapisa-Nqakula.

The minister then personally wrote to the South African ambassador to the DRC, asking him to facilitate a visa for Wege to enter South Africa.

Mapisa-Nqakula said that when she arrived in Kinshasa, Wege was released into her care and flew with her to Addis Ababa, where the minister was "dropped off to attend the African Union meeting" before the air force jet flew to South Africa and Wege was taken to the minister's house after landing.

On the minister's return to South Africa, she went to home affairs to get Wege a study permit.

"My family isn't ready to part with her and I will sacrifice everything for Michelle."

When the Sunday Times visited Mapisa-Nqakula's house yesterday, a young woman walked out of the house and confirmed that she was "Michelle" and that she came from Burundi. Security guards in the area said she had been living at the house for " quite a long time".

But Mapisa-Nqakula denied abusing state resources, saying she had flown to Kinshasa to meet with her counterpart before attending the Addis Ababa conference to discuss the DRC. "If I wanted to abuse power I would not have waited for days [before fetching Wege]."

block_quotes_start A highly sensitive person was discovered to be in collaboration... during the perpetration of this misconduct block_quotes_end

Two months after the incident, South Africa's ambassador to Burundi, Oupa Monareng, suspended Nosithembele in connection with her having arranged the false passport for Wege.

In a letter, Monareng accused Nosithembele of intentionally and knowingly misleading the embassy.

He also accused Nosithembele of giving one of her staff members "orders to transport or smuggle out a Burundi National to the DRC, with an aim of using fraudulent documents, at the Kinshasa Airport, heading for South Africa".

The letter reads: "The full investigation will ... highlight that the aforementioned culprits had other motives other than the mere transportation or smuggling of a Burundi national to South Africa, and we are also ... aware that a highly sensitive person was discovered to be in collaboration ... during the perpetration of this misconduct."

A source close to the matter confirmed to the Sunday Times that the "highly sensitive person" was Mapisa-Nqakula.

"It has been established that you are very close to Laurent Wege, the father of Michelle Wege, who is staying at your sister's house in South Africa, and you and Mr Wege coincidentally ... travelled to South Africa. You travelled to South Africa on March 12 2014 and returned on March 25 2014, whereas Mr Wege travelled to South Africa on March 9 and was due to return on March 18," read parts of Monareng's letter.

Monareng also says in the letter that Nosithembele is being suspended because the "person concerned" is in a position to embezzle evidence and that witnesses were being "interfered with and influenced or blackmailed".

However, sources said that after more than a year of intimidation by senior politicians, Monareng was forced to lift Nosithembele's suspension in August last year.

Monareng refused to comment and referred all questions to the Department of International Relations and Co-operation.

Dirco spokesman Nelson Kgwete said: "The department doesn't want to discuss this".

mzilikazi@sundaytimes.co.za