The right royal heist
Six years ago the Indlovukazi jubilantly announced the formation of what was called the ‘first ever’ women’s microfinance organisation.
It was to be known as the Swaziland Women Economic Empowerment Trust (SWEET) (Pty) Ltd and was registered under certificate of incorporation no. 2235/2014. Such an initiative was part of the Swaziland Women’s Decade Plan of action of 2010.
The Patron of the fund was Her Majesty the Queen Mother, the General Manager Thuli Dlamini, while Thuli Dladla, now Minister of Foreign Affairs, was part of the Sibongile Mdluli led board. Mdluli was then the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank.
SWEET was literally the brainchild of Her Majesty the Indlovukazi and her vision was to address the financial exclusion of mostly (rural) women through creating a first of its kind Women's Bank. The fund started off with E112 000 and quickly grew to E500 000 and within three years had accumulated savings worth approximately E7 million.
Women, whether in their individual capacities or through their cooperative trusts or associations were invited to open accounts with the Swaziland Building Society. Money deposited in these accounts was subsequently transferred to SWEET.
“Our journey began as an assignment by Their Majesties to address the issue of financial exclusion, in particular women,” Mdluli explained at the teething stages of the fund.
“At first we did not have an idea of how to address this assignment but ended up commissioning a feasibility study for the financial inclusion of women, which culminated in the Board setting to address the challenges faced by women,” she continued.
SWEET collaborated with Swaziland Building Society (SBS) who provided the technical expertise and logistics of establishing the bank. But SWEET was controversial from the start. Some SWEET depositors were not paid their money and suspicion grew that the fund was being mishandled.
Testimonies from depositors alleged that when they joined the fund the agreement was that a member could borrow money and pay interest proportionate to the savings. Some depositors complained that borrowing money from the fund was a strenuous process as it took the fund ages to release the money.
In some instances depositors were promised that their loans would be paid via MTN Eswatini’s Mobile Money (MoMo), something that never happened.
Moreover, depositors alleged that the fund breached the agreement they signed in 2015 that members would be paid their shares annually and that the amount would depend on the profits for that particular year.
Some depositors joined the fund because they were told that it was pioneered by the Queen Mother.
“Since 2015 when we signed the shares agreement, we have not received anything from the fund,” members complained to the press, to opposition political parties and to members of parliament but nothing came of it. This is when the Central Bank, through their ombudsman office, came to the picture as a last resort to resolve the impasse.
When consumers have a financial grievance, they have an option to refer their matter to the Ombudsman of Banking Services at Central Bank or the Ombudsman of Financial Services at Financial Services Regulatory Authority (FSRA) depending on their respective complaints.
When grievances are sent to the Ombudsman, consumers hope for a speedy resolution of their grievances. However, this was not the case for SWEET clients.
When the number of grievances grew the Ombudsman requested the banking sector to provide it with all information at its disposal to help investigate SWEET. When the Bank reviewed the company registration documents it was discovered that SWEET was incorporated as a savings scheme for women akin to Swaziland Building Society.
Its mandate, they discovered, was for women to invest their money as a form of saving and then receive exorbitant interest outside of market rates (which fluctuate multiple times a day).
Even though a good objective, SWEET had no investment skills at all from an administrative point of view. Investigations by the Central Bank discovered that SWEET took out numerous loans from Getbucks something that raised questions why they needed loans from a credit provider if they were already receiving money from the public.
The Central Bank’s due diligence came to the conclusion that SWEET needed money to pay off obligations hence the loans from Getbucks. The Bridge has it in good authority that depositors’ money was never actually invested but redirected to other accounts of royal family members and other hangers on.
In fact, investigators have been barred from probing who owns these accounts. The organisation subsequently became bankrupt. Getbucks loans were therefore used to pay off those who managed to get their return but the rest was sent to the other accounts and then siphoned away from SWEET coffers leaving the organisation in debt.
Transactions now seen by The Bridge show that the receiving institution would redirect depositors’ money to SWEET microfinance at building society as well as other accounts that Central Bank investigators have been barred from investigating.
The Bridge can today reveal that upon investigation, it was concluded that SWEET promised hundreds of women a savings scheme that would generate profitable interests that were almost above market value and inflation.
This, they found out, did not make sense considering Dladla and her team had no financial experience and no credentials of being investment bankers. It became evident that SWEET was just a pyramid scheme ran by the royals to steal money from the poor.
“The transactions on various banking statements show that consumers would deposit money into SWEET and that money was transferred to unknown accounts that investigators have been stopped from investigating,” said a highly placed source who has seen the Central Bank report.
The Central Bank investigations have uncovered that SWEET took out multiple loans from Getbucks with no apparent reason nor was there an investment committee to guide Dladla in taking these loans. This resulted in loans with no economic value.
Taking a cue from the Qhawe Mamba fiasco, this is always short-lived because the debt will accumulate causing you to become bankrupt because you have stolen all you can and have strangling debt and arrears. This is what caused SWEET to close its doors to the public, with millions of emalangeni in old women’s money vanishing with it.
The Bridge investigators have been told that the Indlovukazi's Trust Fund was run like a Ponzi scheme and in the process pensioners money was stolen with the hope that the organisation would recoup the money from Getbucks. However, they stole that money too, hence they could not pay back their investors. The money is today gone. As it stands SWEET has no money in any of its accounts at FNB or elsewhere.
“As an economist, you ask yourself what rationale there is for taking out loans from Getbucks and getting money from consumers simultaneously. It does not make economic sense. But when a pyramid scheme is the nature of the business you are in, it makes sense because you have a monthly expenditure to abide by like consumers withdrawing their money or monthly salaries and operational costs,” continued the source.
Getbucks is owned by Dave Van Niekerk the same man who used to run the controversial Exponent. Sandile Dlamini, the former long serving Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Services Regulatory Authority (FSRA) knew about the irregularities at SWEET after inspections FSRA made at Getbucks.
However, Dlamini did nothing about this because he is in bed with the owners of Status Capital who were instrumental in the collapse of SWEET. In essence, despite knowing this sophisticated yet illegal activity, FSRA never blew the whistle on this matter.
Almon Mbingo, a royal insider, is the deputy Chairman of Status Capital. He has become a representative of the royal family at Status Capital because the owners have been in bed with the royal family since the start of SWEET.
The great cover up
Quite interestingly, the owner of Exponent, Getbucks and Status Capital is Dave Van Niekerk. Niekerk is a controversial person having started blue financial services back in 2012 but it folded owing to questionable financial expenditures. He then came back and started Ecsponent and then a year later Getbucks.
Niekerk messed things up at Ecsponent in South Africa resulting in all clients losing their money. Ecsponent was a South African Investment firm that stopped operating in February last year because it could not pay its investors back. The story of Ecsponent was widely reported in the South African pres. Many investors of whom were old men and women above 60 lost their money.
Meanwhile, Ecsponent (now called Esw or Eswatini Investments) took out an article in the local press saying Swazis would not be affected by they would not be affected by the company’s bust in South Africa. This article was published immediately after the South African company crashed.
Esw came to save those clients. While that happened they started status Capital and then hired Sandile as a Director with Almon Mbingo Deputy Chair.
In a joint statement released by the Central Bank and FSRA on Sunday 10 October 2021, the two organizations confirmed the investigation carried out regarding the circumstances leading to the closure of SWEET and SWEET Micro Finance, acknowledging that there were serious administrative failures in the operations of the entities.
"By and large, the failures were attributable to weaknesses in governance structures, lack of controls and other short comings," reads the statement in part. On the involvement of Indlovukazi, the explanation given by the Central Bank and FSRA is to the effect that her role was purely ceremonial and that she was not part of the governance structure.
PS: The Bridge is in possession of bank transactions that show how money was taken from SWEET to individual personal accounts but because of clients confidentiality and ethical reasons we did not publish the transactions.