As chair of the Inyatsi group, Mitchelo Shakantu has built a business empire with stakes across the Eswatini economy. But Inyatsi Construction — the jewel in the crown — has been mired in controversy

By Abby May, Hennie Van Vuuren and Open Secrets

There is a new generation of businesspeople with strong connections across Southern Africa who have become incredibly wealthy in Eswatini. They trade on royal favour and political connection and they are rich. They are building fortunes in this tiny country in a manner that the average emaSwati who survives on R35 a day could never imagine.

Inyatsi Construction (Pty) Ltd made a brief appearance during South Africa’s state capture period. It features in a report by Gobodo forensic investigators as one of the companies that profited from a Prasa contract awarded through an allegedly manipulated tender process. Inyatsi is chaired by controversial Zambian businessperson Mitchelo Shakantu, who has built a business empire with stakes across the kingdom’s economy.

Drawing from information from the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists’ (ICIJ) Swazi Secrets leak and senior sources within the country’s financial institutions, Open Secrets has dug a little deeper into the business fortunes of Eswatini’s construction kingpin.

A buffalo herd

Shakantu is married to Eswatini minister of foreign affairs Pholile Dlamini-Shakantu, who also served as justice minister from 2018 to 2023. According to Searchwork documents obtained by Open Secrets, Shakantu’s other wife, Colette Kgbang Shakantu, is believed to live in South Africa, where he and his family also own a number of properties.

There is little public information about Shakantu’s earlier life in Zambia. However public databases suggest that he has a South African ID and is listed by the first name Michelo or Mitchello. A search of the Companies & Intellectual Property Commission database suggests Shakantu is known by a number of surnames, including Shabangu, Shakantu-Shabungu and Shavambo. The reasons for this are unclear – it could be that this was a simple administrative error.

Michelo Shakantu. Picture: Inyatsi Group website

Since joining Inyatsi in 2009, Shakantu has used the group – whose logo is an African buffalo – as a launchpad into other business ventures in the kingdom. These include the Clinic Group, which provides private health-care facilities and Eswatini Mobile, the second-largest private communications company in the country after MTN. Other holdings include Inyatsi Mining and Lidwala Insurance. Inyatsi also owns a 50% stake in the Maloma Colliery, a coal mine it bought from ANC funding front Chancellor House. The remaining stake in the colliery is equally divided between King Mswati III’s company, Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, and the state.

A jewel in the conglomerate’s crown is Inyatsi Construction Ltd, operating in seven African countries, including Eswatini, South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia. The construction company, which is the recipient of large government tenders, has been mired in controversy, much of it reported in Swazi media.

The yellow brick road?

In 2013 contractors started work on the 43km Nhlangano-Sicunusa road project in southwestern Eswatini, close to the Gege border post. Expected to be completed in four years, the project was suspended following concerns of alleged corrupt activities during construction, after a significant investment of R500m. In December 2021, Inyatsi entered the picture and was awarded a contract for R647m to complete the project.

According to an act of parliament governing the public-private partnership between Inyatsi and the state and assented to by the king on November 4 2021, the Eswatini government, perhaps by some coincidence, entered a loan agreement with Inyatsi to borrow the amount of R647,378,644 to finance the construction of the road. This came one month before the announcement that Inyatsi had been awarded the contract of the same value. In addition, Inyatsi was granted an initiation fee equivalent to 2% of the cost of the project. While Open Secrets does not have the actual agreement signed between Inyatsi and the government, the act of parliament confirms the loan to the state by the construction company.

The implication would be that the government financed the project through a loan provided to it by the contractor awarded to complete the project. The agreed repayment structure, the “Inyatsi Construction Ltd and Government of Eswatini (Construction of Nhlangano-Sicunusa Road Project Private Partnership)” document shows, would occur through 27 instalments over 15 years commencing in December 2021 with an interest rate of prime plus 1.25% per annum. 

Open Secrets obtained a memo dated December 29 2021 from the principal secretary of the minister of finance to the attorney-general requesting a final “vetting”. Annexures to the memo set out the loan repayment period and milestones. This indicates that the project would eventually attract more than R500m in interest and cost R1,160,776,401. Inyatsi would therefore in all likelihood benefit from profit generated in the construction process, as well as R500m in finance fees. None of the documents suggests the involvement of a third party such as a financial institution that would source the loan. 

Open Secrets was unable to ascertain if Inyatsi did indeed pay the loan to the state. 

Still, according to the documents provided, the agreements were signed off by finance minister Neal Rijkenberg and Mswati, and certified through an act of parliament.

When asked to provide comment on the loan, Inyatsi Group responded to Open Secrets through a letter from marketing and PR manager Ncobile Dlamini which states: “This is factually not correct We are bound by confidentiality clauses and cannot comment.”

A house fit for an ex-Zambian President

In mid-May 2018 news broke that Mswati had gifted land to former Zambian president Edgar Lungu – who has been the focus of allegations of corruption and investigations in Eswatini – to build a mansion in the country. Images of the architectural drawings for the mansion were leaked on Twitter at the time. They show the plot is situated in the sprawling Nkonyeni golf estate bordering the Usutu River, 50km outside Mbabane. 

It was no small matter: the Times of Swaziland reported that construction of the mansion would allegedly cost $3.9m. Zambia’s minister of information & broadcasting at the time, Dora Siliya, confirmed the land was a donation to Lungu from the king and that it was normal practice for the Zambian president to receive gifts on international travels. Amos Chanda, Lungu’s State House spokesperson, reinforced the presidency’s position that it was a private affair between the two heads of state.

The president’s aide reportedly denied that the land had been developed, but information from the Eswatini Financial Intelligence Unit (EFIU) would seem to suggest otherwise. Which raises the questions: if the land was a gift, how would Lungu raise the funds to construct a multimillion-dollar mansion? Who would pay for the construction costs?

Documents contained in the ICIJ Swazi Secrets leak provide some insight.

The leak shows that in December 2021, the Zambian Financial Intelligence Centre submitted a request for assistance to the EFIU to verify information related to allegations that Lungu had used the proceeds of corruption to build his Eswatini mansion. In response to the request, in February 2022, the EFIU found that there was no property in Swaziland directly linked to Lungu. However, documents show the EFIU did find evidence that linked Shakantu to the property. In its monitoring and analysis report, obtained by Open Secrets, the EFIU wrote: “The property in question Lot 225 Nkonyeni Golf Estate, allegedly bought by Dr Edgar Lungu to build a mansion is not registered under his name but the property is registered under the Link Trust, which is duly represented by Mr Mitchelo Shakantu, which in a way links Dr Lungu to Mr Shakantu …”

Unhelpfully, the EFIU documents do not clarify the nature of this link in further detail, and we do not know what it based this analysis on. However, the concerns are noteworthy given that the individuals involved are all politically exposed persons.

The Times of Swaziland reported in 2018 that the property was originally owned by Rudolph Investments (Pty) Ltd and the deed transfer, facilitated by law firm SV Mdladla & Associates, gave Inyatsi ownership. Open Secrets’ investigation could not find public records of this deed transfer.

Inyatsi responded to questions by Open Secrets and denied any relations with Lungu or that the Link Trust purchase was on behalf of Lungu. It also denied that the property was purchased with the assistance of SV Mdladla & Associates, but confirmed that the firm, “provide[s] legal services to the [Inyatsi] Group”. However, other unrelated EFIU documents show Shakantu signing an agreement with another entity as the representative of the Link Trust, thereby confirming some form of relationship between Shakantu and the Trust.

Lungu was contacted through the Edgar Lungu Foundation; he did not respond to requests for comment.

Funds ‘being laundered’?

The ICIJ Swazi Secrets leak does provide evidence of SV Mdladla & Associates’ role in facilitating a different set of questionable financial transactions for Shakantu in 2017. One of these took place in June 2017, when the EFIU flagged suspicious transactions involving millions of emalangeni paid from the Swazi National Provident Fund (SNPF), via a SV Mdladla & Associates Nedbank account, to the personal accounts of Shakantu and his deceased business partner Victor Gamedze.

According to a report by the EFIU (then known as the Swaziland FIU, or SFIU) accessed by Open Secrets as part of the Swazi Secrets leak, the unit detected a June 2017 transfer of E50m from the SNPF to a Nedbank account of SV Mdladla & Associates, which then remitted E20m each to Shakantu and Gamedze. The remaining E10m was paid to Swazi Mobile, which Shakantu and Gamedze co-founded.

The SNPF claimed the money was paid for shares in Swazi Mobile, but the EFIU in its internal documents casts doubt on these claims, saying “it is not clear why 80% of the funds were deposited into personal accounts. The funds remitted into personal accounts makes the SFIU believe the funds are being laundered and the claim of buying shares by SNPF is a front to cover up an alleged illicit act.” 

In October 2017 a similar transaction occurred, where SV Mdladla & Associates used a First National Bank account that received a transfer of E70m from the SNPF, according to the SFIU report. In the span of days this money was apparently disbursed, with E33m paid to accounts linked to Shakantu, E33m paid to accounts linked to Gamedze and the remaining E4m transferred to an African Alliance account. The latter company is close to the monarch’s financial affairs, and is listed as a banker to the royal company Tibiyo Taka Ngwane, according to its 2022 annual report.

The SFIU report goes on to suggest that Shakantu moved a portion of this money into a prime-linked account at the Swaziland Building Society and, when that institution inquired about the origin of the funds, he claimed the proceeds were from the sale of property.

Open Secrets put all this to the Inyatsi group, which responded that “this is factually not correct”. An opportunity was extended to Inyatsi to explain why it believes this is incorrect. No answer was provided.

SV Mdladla & Associates had not commented at the time of publication.

The roaming buffalo

The allegations, taken collectively, suggest that Shakantu’s Inyatsi Group, on the face of it, may be linked to several questionable financial transactions that may require further investigation. Given the group’s footprints across Southern Africa, the Inyatsi Group looks set to expand its operations and influence. As the Swazi Secrets leak reveals, the influential Inyatsi Group has, it seems, operated with impunity precisely because the institutions of state in an ostensibly corrupt absolute monarchy have tolerated this. The question is for how much longer will this continue – and at what cost to the people of Eswatini?

First published by Financial Mail (South Africa)                                               

*Read the first story in the series: The Swazi Secrets leak — part 1

*Read more about Swazi Secrets: Swazi Secrets part 3: How to capture a bank

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