THE RISE AND FALL OF 'MR. COOL'

ZOLA MAHOBE: 1983-87

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.

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