A Mosotho cleaner has accused the Lesotho police of complicity in a bizarre case of private vigilante justice, in which she was arrested, allegedly assaulted and handed over to a South African couple who claimed she stole money from them.
Relebohile Koaeana, 36, claims that a Maseru-based policeman arrested her, removed her possessions and slapped and kicked her before “rendering” her to the South African couple, who drove her in handcuffs to their home in Alberton.
Koaeana says that they crossed into South Africa without her going through passport control, and that she witnessed the exchange of an envelope between the couple and the policeman that she suspected was a bribe.
She says Vusi Tshabalala, 43, and Mapula Ramatladi-Tshabalala, 41, held her for two days and nights in handcuffs in their garage, where she was assaulted and starved in a bid to force her to reveal the whereabouts of the money.
The alleged incident happened in 2015.
AmaBhungane interviewed the couple, who confirmed that they suspected Koaeana of theft, but denied the alleged abuse. Koaeana, who has not been charged, denies stealing from them.
Koaeana made the allegations in October 2015 when applying for a Lesotho High Court order interdicting the police from unlawfully detaining, assaulting or extraditing her.
Her case came to the attention of the MNN Centre for investigative journalism in May this year, via the Lesotho-based Beautiful Dream Society, which focuses on helping human trafficking victims.
She named the policeman that allegedly arrested, beat and handed her over to the couple as Constable Matela of the Pitso Ground police station in Maseru.
AmaBhungane was able to establish that a Constable Mohlabani Matela was working at the station at the time of the alleged “rendition” and is still based there.
A police source provided a description of him as being tall and dark with a shaven head and a motloenya, or forelock. This answers to Koaeana’s description of the constable.
In a telephone interview, Matela denied he was the policeman in question and said he had never arrested Koaeana. He invited the amaBhungane reporter to meet him at his office for a face-to-face discussion.
He said another Matela had been transferred from Pitso Ground some years ago, but refused to say where the latter had moved, or give his first name. Several subsequent attempts to contact the constable were unsuccessful.
Koaeana’s Lesotho court application also asked for an order compelling police to release her possessions, which she said Matela confiscated while she was in custody and never returned. These included two mobile phones, a national identity card, a passport, a wedding ring, medical booklet and a kitbag.
Her former lawyer, Mahase Mahase, said a provisional order had been granted. Koaeana said she paid Mahase an initial fee of R3,500 but was unable to pay a further R3,000 that he had demanded. As a result, they parted ways.
Koaeana has also laid complaints at both the Pitso Ground station and with Lesotho’s Police Complaints Authority.
She says that she has been to the Pitso Ground station on several occasions to demand her possessions, but that “Matela just laughed at me”. On the last occasion that she visited the station, in August this year, she said she was told Matela was not there.
AmaBhungane sent detailed questions by email to Lesotho police spokesperson Mpiti Mopeli, who promised to answer them within a week. Among other queries, Mopeli was asked whether the police investigated Koaeana’s complaints and whether any disciplinary action had been taken over the matter.
Mopeli was specifically asked whether police had returned Koaeana’s possessions, and if not, why. At the time of writing — three weeks later — no answers had been received.
AmaBhungane also spoke to Lesotho police commissioner Holomo Molibeli, who asked for questions to be sent by WhatsApp, and promised to facilitate a response. AmaBhungane gave him Koaeana’s contact details so that he could speak to her directly. No response was forthcoming.
On July 30 this year, Koaeana took amaBhungane to Tshabalala and Ramatladi’s house at 16 Giraffe Crescent, Brackenhurst 1448, Alberton, where she says she was held.
The couple were not at home. But a deeds search revealed that they bought the property in 2005 and sold it on 21 March 2017, showing that they owned it at the time of Koaeana’s alleged ordeal.
An internet search also turned up Ramatladi’s cellphone number. In a telephone interview, she confirmed that Koaeana had worked for the couple and that they suspected her of stealing R800,000.
Ramatladi confirmed that she and her husband travelled to Lesotho to find Koaeana and reported her alleged theft to the Pitso Ground police station. She also confirmed that the police handed the cleaner over to her and her husband and that they brought her back to Alberton.
In her high court affidavit Koaeana alleged: “Tshabalala… stopped the vehicle along the way and, in the presence of his wife and [a] gentleman friend rained a serious and vicious assault on me with his fists. Upon my crying in pain his wife and their friend asked me to produce the money to save myself.
“Thereafter he drove me to his home in Alberton and, still in handcuffs, locked me in the garage… On the days that followed, Tshabalala would return from work in the afternoon to commence his most vicious assaults on me…”
However, Tshabalala and his wife strongly denied Koaeana’s allegation that she had been held against her will or that they beat or starved her.
Asked where Koaeana had stayed in Alberton, Tshabalala shouted: “I’m not interested in a story about what happened in 2015! Why are you interested? That’s not news!”
Asked why she had so much cash on the property, Ramatladi said she owned “a chain of businesses” that included “bottle stores and trucks”.
An employment search showed that she works for the South African Revenue Service and Tshabalala for the Johannesburg City Council.
AmaBhungane could find no companies linked to Ramatladi through the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission. But CIPC shows that Tshabalala is a director of six active concerns, including a burial society, a property company and a firm of accountants.
Koaeana said Matela arrested her at the Maseru Mall on August 1 2015, after the Tshabalalas had entered Lesotho and reported the alleged theft of money to the Lesotho police.
This followed a five-month period between March and July 2015 when she was a domestic worker for the Tshabalalas.
She said that while she was employed, Ramatladi formed a close relationship with her, taking her shopping, buying her a dress, and taking her to church. The relationship soured when she (Koaeana) refused to accompany Ramatladi to a funeral in July 2015.
Koaeana then quit without notice, leaving the couple’s child in the care of a relative. The domestic conflict had nothing to do with “missing money”, which became an issue only after she left.
She added that at one stage during her employment, the couple told her they had mislaid the key to their safe, which she then found in their bedroom. No accusation of theft was levelled at that stage, she said.
Her circumstances do not suggest newfound wealth. Koaeana, her husband, Simon, and their four-year old son, Mpho, live in a single-roomed house they rent for R350 a month. Koaeana does piece jobs as a cleaner, while Simon recently found work as a security guard.
There are also questions about the amount she allegedly stole. In her court papers, she says the Tshabalalas initially accused her of taking R180,000.
Koaeana said she had had neither seen nor heard from the couple since her flight from their Alberton house and no longer considered them a threat.
In 2016 the case was referred to the Child and Gender Protection Unit, which took over the docket from the uniformed police. According to Beleme Moerane, the unit’s head, the docket records an alleged theft of R250,000.
Moerane said after waiting in vain for a witness who saw Koaeana’s arrest to come forward, his unit dropped the case.
Police ministry spokesperson Moipone Mokhehle said the Police Complaints Authority was still awaiting ministerial authorisation to proceed with an investigation.
Koaeana told amaBhungane she was aware her former bosses had reported different amounts to different people, but said she gave her lawyer the R180,000 figure “because that’s what they (Tshabalalas) first told me I stole”.
Both Tshabalalas told amaBhungane that they reported the R800,000 theft to the Lesotho police and “the South African Interpol” — a non-existent body.
Following her arrest, Koaeana said she was taken to the police station where “they beat me up; they kicked me and slapped me, saying I should say where the money is. I told them I didn’t take it”, she said.
Less than an hour later, she said Matela handed her over to the Tshabalalas at the police station. Still wearing handcuffs, she was then ferried in their silver Toyota Fortuner to the Maseru border.
They crossed the border without her being asked to produce her passport, Koaeana said. “It was like things were planned,” she said. “I didn’t have my passport because Matela took it. No border official requested to see my passport. They just chatted with the Tshabalalas and we drove off.”
Koaeana said she noticed Tshabalala handing an envelope to Matela before they crossed the border. She did not know what it contained, but suspected it was a bribe.
On their arrival in Alberton, she was immediately locked in a garage.
“I was not given any food while I was locked up. They only gave me water. I spent two days and two nights there, and Vusi would come during his breaks at work to beat me up, insisting I should give them their money,” she said.
“I saw my death coming with each passing day. But on the third day, I found a screwdriver in a toolbox in the garage. I used it to open the handcuffs and opened the garage door to escape,” she said.
She said she hitchhiked back to Maseru and was able to recross the border without a passport when a relative paid border officials a small bribe — a common practice among poor Basotho moving between Lesotho and South Africa.