THE feud between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s family and its erstwhile South African business partner Hsieh Ping Sung (also known as Jack Ping) is set to intensify as the tycoon pulls out all the stops in defence of a US$5 million luxury mansion in Hong Kong which is at the centre of a court dispute between the two parties.
This comes amid indications the case might open a Pandora’s Box around the exact nature of the business relations between the Mugabe family, apparently being represented by the Zimbabwean government in the court case, and the South African Taiwanese-born magnate after they reportedly had a major fallout over business deals. Sources say the Mugabe family and Sung used to be close, but fell out over business deals which went sour.
Sung’s South African-based lawyer Mannie Witz told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that they would soon be challenging the Harare government’s claim to the house in court “in order to prove that it belongs to Sung and not to Mugabe’s family or the Zimbabwean government”.
“Our fellow lawyers in Hong Kong are currently dealing with the issue, but their (Zimbabwe government) court papers don’t actually have much detail,” Witz said. “They don’t, for instance, show any evidence that the Mugabe family or the Zimbabwean government actually bought and own the property. They simply don’t show when, how and where they paid for the property, but we will show that our client bought it and it is his. We have the details of the purchase agreement, documents showing proof of payment and all the necessary transfers associated with the transaction. We have no doubt from the available documents that our client actually bought and owns the property.”
Witz, who has vast experience in white collar criminal defence after working in various countries including Mauritius, Hong Kong, Vancouver (in Canada), and London (Britain), said his client was prepared to fight for his property.
The attorney, who in South Africa is highly regarded for his handling of murder trials, personal injury and road accident fund claims as well as South African Revenue Service-related work (including tax, customs and excise and exchange control matters), indicated their response to the Zimbabwean government’s claim would be ready soon.
“The lawyers in Hong Kong are working on that and we will file our papers soon,” he said.
At one time, it was believed the luxury Hong Kong villa belonged to Mugabe, but he denied ownership in 2009, claiming his family was only renting it for use by his daughter, Bona, who was then studying in Hong Kong.
However, South China Morning Post recently revealed that the Zimbabwe government had approached the High Court in Hong Kong claiming ownership of the building, apparently on behalf of the Mugabe family.
This was confirmed by a writ of summons issued by the Hong Kong High Court on January 27 2014 stating the Zimbabwean government is suing Sung, demanding he surrenders the building. The case number is HCA 167/2014.
The property was reportedly bought for HK$40 million (Hong Kong dollars) which translated to US$5 million at the time in 2008, by Cross Global, a property company then representing the Mugabe family and Sung. It was subsequently transferred to Sung in 2010.
The Zimbabwean government is now seeking to have the Hong Kong courts declare “that the transfer of the property between (Cross Global and Hsieh Ping Sung” on or about January 29 2010 was void and has no legal effect.
In addition, it wants the court to issue a declaration confirming that it is the 100% beneficial owner and that Cross Global only held it on trust.
Further details obtained from the parties feuding over the house deal show Sung was close to the Mugabe family before falling out over business deals, particularly around the purchase of trucks, a gold mine in Zimbabwe and the mansion.
Reports in the Chinese media also indicate Mugabe’s wife, Grace is claiming that Sung stole the US$1 million she had given him to buy trucks. Grace has previously tried to have the businessman arrested and extradited to Zimbabwe. She reportedly ordered the arrest of four South African drivers hired by Sung to deliver the trucks.
The drivers spent six months in prison awaiting trial before they left Zimbabwe in 2011.
Sung is claiming that he bought the house and because of his then close relationship with the Mugabe family, he rented it out to Bona. She reportedly moved out after a break-in occurred at the property.
“Our client was doing business with people associated with the Mugabe family,” Witz told the Independent. “He came to Zimbabwe a few years ago and got involved in different sectors of the economy, particularly mining. During the course of his stay and business dealings, he became friends with the Mugabe family, especially Grace, and they engaged in business together.”
Witz said Sung then introduced the Zimbabwean First Lady to his business circles in Hong Kong and Singapore which explains why it became possible for him to rent his mansion out to Bona after buying it.
“But I do not know what the arrangement was,” Witz said of the rental deal.
“However, I understand that she (Bona) left the property after it was broken into and that is understandable given that she was a young lady who was at university and might have been terrified by the break-in.
“After that I do not know who occupied the mansion, but later the Zimbabwean consular-general Paul Chikawa came to live in it.”
Witz said that in terms of the lease agreement, Chikawa was supposed to pay HK$80 000 (US$10 310) per month as rent.
“The rent was initially supposed to be HK$80 000 and later HK$88 000 (US$11 341) per month before he (Chikawa) defaulted. He has been in arrears for months and now a process was initiated to get him out of the house by the end of this past month,” Witz said.
Chikawa was not available for comment despite repeated attempts to reach him. Initially, a lady who said she is part of the consular office staff at the Zimbabwean consulate in Hong Kong promised he would be available to answer questions on the telephone yesterday morning, but later she later requested the reporter’s contact details promising he would call back once he was out of a business meeting he was attending. He did not.
She, however, refused to identify herself after requesting to be furnished with the questions, saying “the media cannot be trusted lest my name be splashed on the front page of your newspaper”.