From 1983 to 1987, Zola Mahobe
was perhaps the most well-known black businessman in the country.
To Sowetans he was 'Mr Cool' - a larger-than life character who,
from humble beginnings, had turned himself into a jet-setting multi-millionaire,
bought a soccer team in the process, and steered it to the top of
Division One in the National Soccer league. Zola Mahobe also received
a sixteen-year prison sentence for bank fraud involving R6-million.
This is his story.
Zola Mahobe was born in Sophiatown,
and attended secondary school at Meadowlands High in Soweto. After
leaving school in 1971, he worked for an international company in
Johannesburg for ten years. In 1981, he joined a computer company
for just over a year and then, in 1983, started his own business:
Power Promotions. From that point on, his rise to the top was truly
meteoric. One minute no-one had heard of Zola Mahobe, and the next
his name seemed to be on everybody's lips. He was seen at all the
best places. There were plush restaurants, expensive cars, palatial
houses, overseas travel, racehorses ... indeed, all the trappings
of success. And though Mahobe was married and had two children,
he was always accompanied by his mistress, Snowy Tebelo Moshoeshoe,
a checking clerk who worked for the Standard Bank.
In 1985,thirty-one year old
Mahobe bought Mamelodi Sundowns soccer team, reputedly for R100
000. Then, in his determination to take the team to the top of the
league, he went on another spending spree. Over the next two years,
it was estimated that he spent over R2-million on the club. He paid
record fees for the country's top players and rewarded his new signings
with expensive gifts, including top-of-the-range BMW cars. Suddenly,
Mamelodi Sundowns were a force to be reckoned with alongside Kaiser
Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. And while Mamelodi Sundowns were going
from strength to strength, Mahobe's business empire was also expanding.
Before too long, he owned butcheries, bottle stores and a travel
agency, all of which he ran from his offices in Eloff Street. “I
have made a lot of ground in business because I don't hesitate when
I want something,” he said.
Mahobe earned a reputation for
being a generous man - he treated his employees well and even set
his friends up in well-paid positions - and was extremely popular
in the community. His motto was: 'Let everybody be happy then the
money will flow in.' In May 1986, for example, he took the entire
Mamelodi Sundowns team, plus wives and girlfriends - a total of
53 people on an all-expenses paid trip to the FA Cup Final in London.
It was only later that people would realise that someone else was
paying for all this extravagance. In the end, it was simple greed
that brought Zola Mahobe to book.
While on a trip to West Germany
in May 1987, Mahobe became consumed by an 'insatiable' desire to
own a Mercedes Benz 500SEL. He seemed to think that although he
had a number of other luxury cars, this particular model would signify
that he had finally 'arrived'. Because of the weak rand exchange
rate, it was suggested that it would be better for him to buy the
car in South Africa. To facilitate the deal, Mercedes in Germany
contacted its agents in South Africa. In turn, Mahobe's bank - the
Standard Bank - was notified of the impending transaction. Normally,
a credit enquiry of this nature would go through Miss Snowy Moshoeshoe,
but on this occasion she happened to be on leave and the true state
of Mahobe's accounts emerged.
A police investigation was instituted
after an internal audit of Mahobe's accounts on 20 May revealed
the real nature of his financial affairs. For five years, Miss Moshoeshoe
had been fraudulently passing credit transfer forms without substantiating
cheques, and depositing them into Mahobe's accounts. In this way,
she falsely created credit balances, which were offset by a debit
through inter-bank transactions. Snowy Moshoeshoe had aided and
abetted her lover to squander over R10-million!
Miss Moshoeshoe had first met
Mahobe in 1976, when she was still a schoolgirl writing matric.
He was the first man in her life. Later they became lovers, but
Moshoeshoe remained faithful to him, even after she learnt that
he was a married man with two daughters. So strong was his influence
on her that she tolerated his promises that she would one day be
his legal wife. Immediately after the discovery, Miss Moshoeshoe
was arrested and charged with fraud involving R7,7 million.
At the time, she was earning
R700 a month and living with her family in a municipal house in
Soweto. Two-and-a half months later she was convicted of 129 cases
of fraud and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She did not want to
disappoint him and made transfers whenever he wanted money, she
said. Zola Mahobe, meanwhile, had vanished. At first, the Standard
Bank offered a reward of R10 000 for any information that led to
Mahobe's arrest. This was later increased to R50 000. Nevertheless,
Mahobe remained a fugitive for almost nine months.
He was finally arrested in Gaborone
by the Botswana police (at the request of the South African Police)
and handed over to the South African authorities. In the interim,
both his own and Miss Moshoeshoe's estates had been sequestrated.
His wife, Mrs Siza Mahobe, and his two children, Mondi (9) and Beybey
(2), were destitute after their house had been sold by the bank
in an attempt to recoup its losses.
Zola Mahobe's trial began at
the Johannesburg Regional Court on 8 July 1988. He was charged with
five counts of theft involving R6 037 870 of the R10 315 000 allegedly
taken from the bank. The five charges related to 93 fraudulent transactions
that took place between 3 February 1983 and 9 May, 1987. Mahobe
pleaded not guilty. He claimed that when he withdrew money from
his accounts he did not know that it had been fraudulently deposited
by Miss Moshoeshoe. It was his belief, he maintained, that Miss
Moshoeshoe had received the money from farms and properties sold
in Lesotho by her relatives, headed by King Moshoeshoe.
On 12 January, 1989, the Magistrate,
Mr A.B. Booysens sentenced Zolo Mahobe to a total of 29 years in
prison after finding him guilty on all five counts of theft. Thirteen
years of the sentence were to run concurrently, giving Mahobe an
effective 16 years imprisonment. In his summing-up to a jam-packed
courtroom, Mr Booysens said that Mahobe's claim that he thought
the funds put into his various business bank accounts were a loan
from the Moshoeshoe family as 'false beyond reasonable doubt'. The
magistrate also pointed out that whereas Miss Moshoeshoe had shown
remorse for her actions, Mahobe had pleaded not guilty and shown
no remorse. He also discounted Mahobe's explanation that he had
remained in Botswana for eight months after charges were laid against
him in South Africa because he was 'sick from the shock' as 'far-fetched'.
Despite the court's findings,
a number of Mamelodi Sundowns supporters raged against the sentence
which they claimed was unfair. One supporter maintained that Mahobe
should have been given the opportunity to repay the money. “This
was the harshest sentence I have ever heard of,” he said.
And another claimed that, “the worst he should have been given
was a suspended sentence.” The sentence stood. 'Mr Cool' had
finally been stripped of his title.