May 6 2011
The faces in Court A said it all. For family and friends it was shock that Sheryl Cwele - the wife a cabinet minister - had been found guilty of drug-dealing.
Sheryl Cwele, the wife of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele, was found guilty of drug trafficking by the Pietermaritzburg High Court. The judge said it was clear that Cwele and her co-accused Nigerian Nabolisa had worked together to recruit two women to work as agents to transport drugs. The two had pleaded not guilty to dealing or conspiring to deal in drugs, procuring a woman called Charmaine Moss to collect drugs in Turkey, and procuring another woman, Tessa Beetge, to smuggle cocaine from South America. Beetge, of the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, was arrested when 10kg of cocaine was found in her luggage in Brazil in 2008, and is serving a jail sentence in Sao Paolo.
For state advocate Ian Cooke, who had earlier braced himself for an acquittal, it was surprise and relief. For Cwele - who just hours earlier had professed her innocence and maintained her faith in God - there was no emotion.
So, too, her co-accused, Frank Nabolisa, who remained impassive as Judge Piet Koen found them each guilty of one count of drug-dealing.
Before judgment on Thursday, Cwele told The Mercury: “I’ve prayed enough and whatever happens it’s all in God’s will.
“But it wouldn’t be fair (conviction), because I haven’t done anything.”
While many had expected Judge Koen to acquit Cwele, he was in no doubt that there was a “pattern of complicity” that the two accused had recruited young women as drug mules.
Cwele, the director of health and community services at the Hibiscus Coast municipality, and Nabolisa, a Nigerian national, now face possible 15-year jail terms.
They will be sentenced on Friday, but it is likely that they will appeal against the conviction and sentence.
Cwele and Nabolisa recruited two South Coast women, Tessa Beetge and Charmaine Moss, on the pretext of overseas jobs, although the plan was to smuggle cocaine into South Africa.
Moss turned down the offer after Cwele told her the “job” was to bring a parcel for Nabolisa.
But Beetge accepted.
She was later arrested for drug trafficking after Brazilian authorities found 10kg of cocaine in her possession at Sao Paulo airport. She is serving a jail term of eight years in that country.
So convinced was the State of a possible acquittal, that it made an eleventh hour application on Wednesday to reopen its case.
It had wanted to call witnesses to testify about the authenticity of intercepted phone calls between Cwele, Nabolisa and Beetge, but Judge Koen turned down their application.
For those in the court room it appeared that Cwele might just walk free after all.
In his judgment on Thursday, Judge Koen rejected the cellphone call evidence, saying it had not been proved by the State.
Cooke looked dejected, but later perked up as it became clear that a conviction would indeed be secured.
On hearing the verdict, Cwele remained impassive.
Accompanied by family - there was no sign of the husband State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele - she left the High Court building to return home.
She ignored requests for comment from the media.
An angry relative told journalists: “It’s enough now, are you now going to follow us all the way to the car?”
In their reaction, Beetge’s parents, Marie and Gert Swanepoel, said they were happy that justice had been done.
An emotional Marie,who had to stop herself from crying, said she was happy that Cwele and Nabolisa had been convicted.
“God has been with us all the way. I’m just glad for my daughter’s sake and will phone her as soon as I can, but I’ll wait until tomorrow (today). I want to hear everything tomorrow (today) before I phone her.”
Marie said she had trusted Cwele, but had been duped.
“She pulled the wool over our eyes and she could have done it to anybody. I even said to her jokingly in her office that I hope you (Sheryl) have a job for me too,” she added.
The minister’s spokesman, Brian Dube, declined to comment, asking why the minister should have to react to his wife’s conviction.
Asked how a minister in his position could not have been aware of his wife’s illegal activities, Dube again replied with a “no comment”.
Hibiscus Coast municipal manager S’bu Mkhize said that the municipality had noted the judgment, but was aware that Cwele could appeal against the conviction.
“However, the fact of the conviction is very material to her status as an employee of the municipality. We have established systems of due process to deal with such matters appropriately and we will begin to do so,” Mkhize said.