Sunday, October 17, 2021

Armed DIS agents turned Cappuccino’s biz meeting into spine-chilling ordeal

In their visual, verbal and aural manifestation, the letters D, I and S – occurring in that precise order – are guaranteed to send a below-zero chill down the spine of many, if not most, people in today’s Botswana. You can well the imagine how Siberia-low the temperatures in Thulaganyo Boiditswe and Tshepo Makgalemele’s spines would have dipped when a “battalion of armed officers” from the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) swooped down on them as they had coffee at a gastropub at a busy upmarket shopping mall with two other men.

The date was August 2, 2012; the venue was Cappuccino’s, a gleaming gastropub at the Airport Junction shopping mall that is still hugely popular with the city’s cologned and iPhoned; the pace was palpably sedate and the mood calm enough for what, until its dramatic high point a few fateful minutes later, deceptively looked like a normal Thursday morning. Suddenly, the DIS battalion materialised, falling upon the men’s table and informing them that they were under arrest. Boiditswe and Makgalemele were subtracted from the other two men and – in full view of the public, marched out of the restaurant. Every cloud has a silver lining but the suspects wouldn’t even have experienced the perceptible exhilaration of walking out on a restaurant bill.

“Battalion” is a word that the pair’s lawyer, Lyndon Mothusi, uses in a February 22, 2016 letter that he wrote to the Attorney General, DIS and the Commissioner of the Botswana Police Service.  He is obviously not using the word in its strict definitional sense (a tactical combat unit made up of 500 to 800 soldiers) but rather in its loose hyperbolic sense that merely denotes a large group of people. The letter doesn’t provide precise details about how guns featured in the arrest. It is unclear whether they were pointed at suspects the way detectives do in movies. Whatever the case, the “armed officers” detail suggests that the weapons were as visibly displayed as to put the fear of God in the hearts of the suspects. The leading arresting officer, who has a two-line speaking role in this drama’s script, is only identified as David. Boiditswe remembered him from years ago when he was a policeman at Mogoditshane Police Station.

Boiditswe and Makgalemele, who are business partners in a company called Kgang Tsa Rona, got in their car with two agents and at the latter’s instructions, drove to a fortress-like DIS facility in Sebele which is sandwiched between the railway line and the A1 Highway. There they were interrogated for hours on end, they allege.

After the interrogation, Boiditswe was driven to the Broadhurst Police Station where he was detained while Makgalemele was taken to the Mogoditshane Police Station. While in Gaborone’s periphery, the latter is in a different administrative and policing district altogether. DIS agents searched Boiditswe’s car and confiscated a laptop, Kgang Tsa Rona’s trading licence and other documents they found inside.

Without providing any more detail, Mothusi’s letter describes the interrogation as having been “abusive and relentless.” In between the interrogation, the suspects were reportedly photographed and fingerprinted at the DIS facility in Sebele without caution or access to a lawyer. The letter also alleges that the suspects had no access “to a shower, food and were deprived of sleep on smelly and dirty blankets with criminals.”

In the end, no charges were brought against the men. Mothusi’s letter says that David, the lead arresting officer, warned them to stay away from a South African company called Sparkling AutoCare. This is another dimension of this story. Much earlier, Boiditswe had made contact with Sparkling AutoCare Centre South Africa which operates and franchises a unique form of carwash business. “A Sparkling Auto Care Centre is a one-stop-shop giving vehicle owners the opportunity to have their vehicles washed and to have minor interior and exterior repairs done all under one roof and while they shop.  A web caf├® is also on offer while customers wait,” the company’s website says. The interior and exterior work includes paintless dent repair, window tinting, headlight renewal and wheel repair. Boiditswe contact person was Cornelius Gustafson, the company’s chief executive officer.

Having secured a Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) loan and a Sparkling franchise, Kgang Tsa Rona (trading as Sparkling Auto Care Botswana) was set to become the only company in all of Botswana that operated this business. That was until DIS agents pounced that fateful morning. On elaborating the point about his clients not having been with any criminal wrongdoing despite what they suffered, Mothusi states in his letter: “The plaintiffs were only told by one David who acted as the lead arresting officer in Setswana saying, ‘Banna, le seka la tlhola le dira jalo. Le bake gape le seka la tlhola le ya ko Sparkling’ meaning ‘Guys, don’t ever do that again and never go back to Sparkling’ or words to that effect.”

This side of the story is amplified in more dramatic detail in an affidavit jointly deposed to by both men. When Kgang Tsa Rona’s CEDA loan took too long to come even as the Botswana centre took shape at Sparkling South Africa’s expense, Gustafson cast his eyes elsewhere.

Boiditswe and Makgalemele say that the South African cut them out of the deal and saw to the formation of a company called Bear Breaches Enterprises in which the Roman Catholic Church, represented by Bishop Valentine Seane, had a 50 percent stake. In contravention of the law, Bear Breaches Enterprises used Kgang Tsa Rona’s trading licence to start doing business at Airport Junction. The situation unravelled when some Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry officials, including the Deputy Permanent Secretary, Ruth Seipone, conducted an inspection and found “some white people” at the carwash working as managers. (Here, “white” appears to mean foreign because there are white Batswana.) As required by city council bye-laws, the Kgang Tsa Rona trading licence was displayed on the wall. Seipone enquired from a GCC licensing officer what whites were doing at a business reserved for Batswana. The ministry then started investigating this anomaly and during a meeting with GCC officials, Boiditswe and Makgalemele were asked if they were fronting for foreigners. Seipone would later instruct GCC to have the Kgang Tsa Rona licence displayed on the wall at Sparking Centre removed. The remedial action took the form of a “raid” undertaken by GCC officials, with Boiditswe and Makgalemele tagging along. The carwash was closed and the following day, Gustafson called Boiditswe from South Africa, charging that Kgang Tsa Rona was “sabotaging” his business. Gustafson is said to have vowed to “use his connection” to re-open the carwash and afterwards, would come to Botswana and met both Kgang Tsa Rona directors at Cappuccino “with a pretext to resolve the pending issues at Sparkling Auto Care Centre Botswana. Also attending this meeting was a Mr. Goaba whom Gustafson introduced as a manager at the Botswana franchise.

“Whilst we were still discussing the issues, Cornelius then excused himself to withdraw some cash from Standard Bank ATM. We were chatting with his manager who informed us that he is actually a shareholder in the company that operates the Sparkling Auto Care Centre. As the conversation went on, Mr. Cornelius came back, went to where he was seated and immediately four gentlemen approached our table and asked me and Tshepo Makgalemele to accompany them to their office,” reads a part of the affidavit that is evidently attributable to Boiditswe and refers to Gustafson by his first name.

Boiditswe and Makgalemele say that a day after their release from DIS custody, Bear Breaches Enterprises was given a trading licence and restarted its operations: “We then got surprised how they got the licence since the business was reserved for Batswana only.”

Five years later, the state has not charged the men for any criminal wrongdoing. Individually and jointly through their company, they are now suing the Attorney General, DIS and the Botswana Police Service for a total of P18.6 million.

Conversely, the DIS Director, Isaac Kgosi, has deposed to an affidavit in which he says that the arrest of the men was lawful as his men had reason to believe that Boiditswe and Makgalemele had forged some documents that he doesn’t name. The plaintiffs find themselves in a bind because they filed their court papers past the deadline. They have applied for court permission to file out of time (condonation) and Kgosi is opposing such application.

The fire around Kgang Tsa Rona spread as far as the new CBD and CEDA and at least one senior executive manager, who has since resigned, got singed. As the two directors, the manager was taken in for extensive questioning and five years later, has also not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing. The company’s laptop and documents have also not been returned.

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