SA Express official hid R9.9m to avoid detection in lifestyle audit, inquiry hears

An official from SA Express asked that R9.9m be kept in a consultancy's account to avoid the funds being detected in his personal account through lifestyle audits, the State Capture Commission has heard.

The commission, led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, is investigating allegations of fraud, corruption and maladministration at several state entities, and on Friday heard evidence from Vivien Natasen, the director of consultancy Neo Solutions.

Natasen's company has been implicated in allegations of the looting of money from the North West government's transport department and SA Express by Brian van Wyk, former commercial manager of SA Express.

Natasen was introduced to Van Wyk by a former employee in 2014. They had never engaged in business until October 2015, when Van Wyk expressed interest in being part of a farming venture which Neo Solutions was looking to set up. Natasen, who was aware of van Wyk's role at SA Express, viewed him as a potential business partner, as he seemed "competent".

The farming venture was expected to require R100m in capital. The pair expected to acquire a loan to cover 80% of the amount and would each contribute R10m in equity. Van Wyk explained to Natasen that he had a private enterprise which had yielded dividends. He asked Natasen to hold the funds from the business – R9.9m – which would be invested in the farming venture as his capital contribution.

Natasen said he agreed to assist Van Wyk, and that he asked if the money was "clean" in that it did not relate to SA Express in any way. "I understood he earned the money through a clean source and I took it at face value," he told the commission.

The commission also heard that Van Wyk wanted Natasen to keep the funds so that the money would not be detected in lifestyle audits. Zondo probed Natasen as to whether he found anything strange about van Wyk's explanation. To this Natasen replied that van Wyk was not opposed to declaring the funds in a lifestyle audit but did not want his colleagues to be "jealous" of the money he had earned from a private entity.

Zondo proceeded to question Natasen on the matter and asked if he did not consider that anything illegal was underway. Natasen responded that he did, which was why he asked if the money was "clean". "When I asked him (Van Wyk) if the money was from a clean source it was to satisfy myself that it wasn't state money," Natasen said.

'He was very friendly'

"He was very friendly, always around us. My guard had dropped a bit. I trusted this guy. He was a businessman and he wanted to do business with us…  I did not suspect he would bring money that would bring the whole business venture into disrepute or to bring risk to it," Natasen added.

Natasen reiterated to the commission that he did not think the money was suspect or involved in unlawful activities. He assumed the funds would be used to set up the farming venture.

However, Van Wyk had requested withdrawals of the funds to purchase a house. Natasen agreed to this as the farming venture was far from getting off the ground and believed that when the time came, Van Wyk would be able to provide his portion of the capital contribution.

There were five separate transactions between December 2015 and March 2016, in which the entire R9.9m was withdrawn. Natasen confirmed to the commission that he did not know to whom the payments were made, as van Wyk dealt directly with Neo Solutions' accountant.

'He wanted to hide the money'

Evidence by the commission's investigators found R9.6m was transferred to Batsami Investment Holdings, owned by Van Wyk, and R300 000 was transferred to Van Wyk. Natasen was only made aware of this in September 2017, by the commission's investigators.

Natasen said he felt that he acted reasonably and since the commission's investigators brought the evidence to his knowledge in 2017, he had been willing to cooperate with the commission.

Zondo asked if it could be accepted van Wyk wanted to "hide" the money. To this Natasen replied: "With the benefit of hindsight, now that it is proven true, he wanted to hide the money. But at that time, the thought never crossed my mind."

Natasen was unable to complete his evidence and will be called back at a later stage. The inquiry resumes on Monday July 15, 2019 at 10:00.