Zweli Jele. This, ladies and gentleman, is the man many love to hate and others hate to love but what cannot be ignored is that he remains a force to reckon with and a trail blazer that is difficult to ignore. 

To understand Jele one must recall an often told story of his time at Mbabane Highlanders, a club he has supported since childhood. Then acting as the club’s chairman, Jele got dissatisfied with tactics employed by then head coach, Mlungisi Professor Ngubane, and wanted a way to get him out.

Hindered by contractual obligations, Jele couldn’t expel Ngubane without consequences, yet this was something he so desperately wanted. Jele then facilitated the unforeseen change of fixtures that pitted Highlanders with their town rivals, Mbabane Swallows, who, at the time, were at their element best and riding at the crest of the Swazi footballing wave.

As expected, Swallows trounced Highlanders at the mecca of Swazi soccer, Somhlolo National Stadium and, predictably, the latter’s legions of fans went berserk and bayed for Ngubane’s blood. The former Highlanders coach had to be whisked out of the stadium by security and police. The next morning Ngubane left the country for his native South Africa on his own accord and Jele, probably beaming a smirk, knew he had done a clean job.

In fact, some senior players and technical team members at the time believe the gaffer was already in South Africa when he sent through his resignation letter but none knew how his path out of the club had been paved so smoothly all thanks to Jele.

But Jele laughs at this story arguing that in fact himself and Ngubane had to be barricaded by angry supporters after the defeat by Swallows. But the enigma around Jele goes beyond a small rumour of his fratricidal relationship with Ngubane in the footballing world. It’s a story of a bigger man, whose hand and influence goes beyond the legal fraternity he has conquered with such meticulous finesse, way beyond the corporate world his law firm controls and rules and touches to the very political life of this country and it’s never ending heroes and villains. 

To illustrate this, consider the case of a citizen who thought he had done everything in the book to buy a property from a reputable real estate agency, Pam Golding, but was taken aback when all of a sudden he was informed that the seller had pulled out of the deal citing ‘expiry of contract’.

After signing a deed of sale with Pam Golding Estates Agents on the 27th June 2007 the buyer, name withheld, went on to acquire a home loan from Standard Bank for the full amount of the said property the following day. The deed of sale had given the buyer sixty days in which to raise finding for the purchase. The bank then wrote a guarantee letter to the conveyancing attorneys— transferring attorneys being Cloete Corporate Consultants and the registering attorneys MJ Manzini and Associates—notifying all the role players of its readiness to pay the registration attorneys once the property is transferred. The said letter was dated 18 July 2007.

Lo and behold, on the 31st August 2007 the estate agency wrote to MJ and Associates informing them that, "We are sad to announce that the seller of the above property is cancelling the deal since the contract has expired on the 10th July 2007…". This letter elicited a clarity seeking response from Cloet Corporate Consultans in which both the buyer and MJ Manzini and Associates were copied- directed to Manager Credit Support of Standard Bank seeking clarity on the contents of the Estate Agent’s letter.

Unfazed by the developments, the buyer drove to the offices of the Pam Golding at eZulwini where he learnt that the deal was being cancelled because the same property had been sold and the new buyer had paid cash. It is during this inquiry that the identity of the new buyer was made known to the other ‘prospective’ buyer. 

The new buyer was lawyer Zweli Jele. Hearing none of it and clearly dissatisfied by the explanations, the now former prospective buyer instructed Magagula & Hlophe Attorneys to fight the injustice on his behalf. After a few efforts, Jele relented, surrendering the property and disappeared. The mystery that remains difficult to ascertain even today is how the seasoned lawyer got to buy the ‘already bought’ property. 

Jele’s version is that a friend of his serving in one of the country’s diplomatic missions requested him (Jele) to find an immovable property to buy. On his return to the country, the friend changed his mind about the property and indicated to Jele that he wanted to sell the property. Jele adds: “I made an offer, but unbeknown to me, he had enlisted the services of an estate agent through which Sibandze bought the property, and that was the end of my interest in the property.”

Documents in the possession of ‘The Bridge’ show that the seller of the property was Mabili David Dlamini former Minister of Housing and Urban Development who was previously minister of Foreign Affairs between 2003 and 2006 after returning from Malaysia where he was Swaziland’s ambassador.

In 2009, The Liberty Group (Stanlib Swaziland, Liberty Life Swaziland and Liberty Properties Swaziland) had a fallout with one of its senior employees, Abel Mphile Sibandze, whom they eventually dismissed in 2012 after a protracted court battle. The dismissal of Sibandze by The Liberty Group and the protracted litigation that ensued is well known and documented.

In one of the court appearances Jele, appearing for the giant financial services company, cast aspersions on the citizenship of Sibandze claiming his case should only be heard in South Africa, Sibandze’s native country. In 2019 the company subsequently fired Jele as its lawyer, and soon after— and quite ironically too— the company negotiated an out of court settlement with Sibandze.

Explaining to ‘The Bridge’, a former Robinson Betram employee said “samudla luhlata loSibandze webantfu shem”, loosely translated to mean “poor Sibandze, we gave him a raw deal”. Asked to elaborate on what exactly they did to frustrate Sibandze and why, the former subordinate of Jele indicated that “we would try every trick in the book to convince the company (The Liberty Group) that they had a strong case and as such to consider an out of court settlement would be an unwarranted liability for them and a reward for bad behaviour in so far as Sibandze's transgression was concerned.”

Jele on the other hand argues that in his quest to advance a client’s interest, “I am sometimes misconstrued as being ‘personal or belligerent”. He finds this  regrettable as he had nothing but respect for Sibandze and (Phesheya) Nkambule especially for their tenacity.

Nkambule is another top bank executive who Jele was accused of trying to ‘destroy’ through his influence and network of patronage. The concerns about Jele’s possible patronage stem largely from discontentment by some lawyers with his ‘irregular’ relationship with the Chief Justice about which one senior lawyer decries the flouting of the Procurement Act to acquire the services of Jele who by his own admission “my legal practise has been retained for a considerable period by the Office of the CJ and the Judicial Service Commission.

Another lawyer complains that him representing the judiciary and then appearing before the CJ is “harmful to the institution because ordinarily the representation of the CJ and the judiciary should be the forte of the office of the Attorney General which – admittedly, can agree to government departments briefing lawyers from the private practice. Such instances should themselves be few and far in between. As things stand, it appears that it is only Jele that gets such briefings, which renders him the ‘de facto’ Chief Justice.”

Another legal eagle suggests that there are even suspicions that some judges would even ask for Jele’s assistances in writing judgements, especially those judges whose appointment he would have co-facilitated. Ironically, one cited a case where a judge was thought to be ‘intimidated’ or 'dwarfed’ by Jele. It is said that in the case in question judge Nkosinathi Maseko ‘exhibited unparalleled inferiority to Jele’. But it is difficult to ascertain the factuality of such allegations save to say that within the legal fraternity some view him with both jealousy and admiration.

But to his credit Jele has turned down a judicial appointment in the past. It is worth remembering that Jele was once appointed by then CJ, the Malawian born Banda, together with Judge Nkululeko Hlophe but he turned it down. It is rare for people to turn down an appointment endorsed by the King. But Jele did.  Later when he was seen to be representing the CJ (and judiciary) in his official and personal capacity many questions were asked about how he has unwittingly married himself to the mess that is the CJ’s administration of the courts.

But his political views were for years confusing despite his illustrious history as a founding member of HUMARAS, a human rights organisation of the early 90’s.  When his law firm issued a strong rebuke against the heavy handed nature of how this government had dealt with protests in August 2021, many asked ‘how things have changed’. Others charged that this rebuke couldn’t come from a law firm that had for years fawned to the monarch, silly as that argument goes because in truth people change with new facts. 

If at all Jele has to be charged for crimes against corporate governance then his tenure as MVA  Chair of the board would count as count number  one. For over five years Jele sat next to the king every other February for the Ingwenyama Cup, a tournament imposed on the MVA Fund by him and Victor Gamedze. While comfortably chatting with the king during the finals and prize presentation dinner, he had the privilege of determining price increases....just him and the King, a decision which would later be announced by the king. 

But while all that was happening, the senior Labour Lawyer precided over the worst era in labour affairs at MVA, most notably the protracted salary review excersise that would later help claim the job of the then CEO, Helmon Vilakati. At first, Vilakati had fended off all attempts by Gamedze to have the Fund sponsor soccer activities. Until Jele, then Board Chairman, manoeuvred to have the Fund spend millions of emalangeni in a tournament to be patronised by HMK. 

Not only did it end there, two board members who opposed the tournament soon had their board membership cut short mysteriously. But this is not about the machinations around the soccer tournament. It is about a man who sold his conscience to the highest bidder when the possibility of ascending to higher office was pitched to him by the late Gamedze. What followed next defied reason, and the integrity that this Senior Partner (at Robinson Bertram) ought to have demonstrated where corporate governance is concerned. 

He became part of the problem, and subsequently millions were channelled to a vanity soccer project, while thousands of accident victims had to wait for years to have their payouts. The King's project became a priority, and as chairman, Jele did not defend the injured, orphans and widows he had vowed to defend. Instead, he did all he could to please the king. After all, the tournament guaranteed him at least two days of quality time with the king, where they would discuss anything under the sun. 

The remarks he made during these events, which are archived, do not point to a man of the people, but just another wounded soldier who's ambitions died along with Victor Gamedze, the master chess player who controlled a significant portions of Swazi politics in the years leading to his death. Gamedze had the king's ear so Jele, like many, pinned his hopes on Gamedze and allowed himself to be used, and abused, with the hope of that one favour from Gamedze. 

 The corruption precided over by Jele did not end with a mere soccer tournament, but further with the construction of the MVA Fund office park. His name, along with another prominent board member was dragged into a tender award mess, which was later to be reported to the anti corruption commission. Just when ACC was moving in, it was Gamedze who facilitated to have his dirty linen dry cleaned by the country's authorities. That case never saw the light of day.

These are allegations that a man of Jele’s statue can probably give answers to but surely has harmed his reputation.