Tinashe Kairiza/Taurai Mangudhla
INVESTIGATIONS unfolding following the arrest of Tashinga Masinire in South Africa over a gold contraband worth R11 million (US$780 000) have taken a dramatic twist, with Robert Mugabe International Airport officials claiming that the suspect met all airport formalities and procedures.
This contradicts South African authorities’ claims that the suspected smuggler “did not have any permits or licenses to be in possession of gold”.
This, sources said, suggests the involvement of a well-knit syndicate on the Zimbabwean side where top officials facilitated Masinire smooth passage.
With the gold smuggling scandal now subject of investigations by Interpol and local police, Masinire, who is Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) Henrietta Rushwaya’s former driver, was nabbed by the Hawks on Saturday at the OR Tambo International Airport.
He was also in possession of US$952 which has since been seized by South African authorities.
On the day of his arrest, Masinire travelled to South Africa and landed at OR Tambo International Airport at 12:45.
Airports Company of Zimbabwe acting executive Tawanda Gusha told the Independent that Masinire, as shown by a CCTV footage which is now subject of police investigations, went through airport formalities “without any glitches”.
However, Gusha said it could not be ascertained whether he had the requisite gold export licenses.
But a statement released by the Hawks shows that the alleged smuggler “failed to declare any items and did not have any permits or licenses to be in possession of gold”.
Gusha said: “What is happening is that the police have been investigating that case since Monday. They are here as we speak. They are checking everything. It is the airport which is being investigated. The police have not given anything on what they have found so far.
“I am sure the CCTV was active. We have not heard of any report about our system going down. It is active all the time. What I can clarify is that we have two systems which we run concurrently. As far as I am concerned, both systems were working on Saturday.
“At the moment, we are not privy to what the police have found so far. The accused went through the airport formalities. As far as I am concerned, nothing was irregular about that. But I do not know whether he had the requisite papers.”
Last year in October, the Military Intelligence Department (MID) swooped on Rushwaya at the Robert Mugabe International Airport as she attempted to smuggle 6kg of gold worth US$366 000 to Dubai. At the time of Rushwaya’s arrest she was allegedly assisted by state security agents who switched off the CCTV.
Rushwaya, later implicated the first lady Auxillia Mnangagwa and her son Collins as the real owners of the bullion. The government issued statements distancing the first family from Rushwaya.
Masinire’s dramatic arrest, the Hawks said, was “just the tip of an iceberg and will potentially reveal the vast network and broad syndicates” smuggling precious minerals to South Africa and Dubai.
He was granted a R100 000 bail by a Kempton Park regional magistrate in Gauteng Province whose terms preclude him from leaving South Africa until the matter is finalised.
Hawks spokesperson in Pretoria Lieutenant-Colonel Philani Nkwalase told this publication that investigations will move to establish whether South Africa was Masinire’s final destination and how he evaded arrest in Zimbabwe.
“It’s still a new investigation; in good time we will know all the answers. He was granted a hefty bail and he paid. Ownership of the gold remains a subject of our investigation. We will work with the police from the country where the suspect came from through Interpol to get the truth and address the syndicate should it be found that this person is not working alone,” Nkwalase said.
Security sources said the Hawks, although they have not arrested any other person in connection with the crime, say indications were that “Masinire was part of a wider network of individuals in Zimbabwe and South Africa and was not acting alone”.
“The Hawks will seek to put the right pieces to the puzzle and have already identified persons of interest whom they seek to interview,” said a source.
Zimbabwe Republic Police spokesperson senior assistant commissioner Paul Nyathi said authorities were seeking to understand how Masinire left Zimbabwe with the gold contraband.
“We are waiting for a detailed report from Interpol. Secondly, we are keen to establish how he went through the airport formalities and whether the gold was declared or not? Was he accompanied or not?” Nyathi said.
“Was he acting alone or in cahoots with other people? Basically, the police are conducting investigations from the Zimbabwean side while we are waiting for information from our counterparts in Pretoria.”
Security sources said although Rushwaya distanced herself and ZMF from Masinire, law enforcement agents were keen to interview her.
“The similarities and connections relating to Masinire’s and Rushwaya’s alleged gold smuggling cases are too glaring for any credible police force to ignore. She is a person of interest in this matter. She certainly will be called for questioning,” a source said.
Across the Limpopo River, investigations by the Hawks in South Africa, Nkwalase said, would also focus on establishing whether Masinire holds a South African bank account, among a range of issues.
He declined to comment on whether Masinire paid bail for himself or it was paid on his behalf citing that “we do not give suspects’ addresses and (the names of) individuals who paid bail for suspects”.
When Masinire was arrested, the Hawks also seized US$952 from him, apart from the 23 pieces of gold.
In the wake of the gold smuggling scandal, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe told the media this week that when Masinire walked into the airport, he was not carrying any bag.
“We are going to leave no stone unturned in finding out what happened. We want to know how this man left the country with all that gold,” Kazembe said.
“So far we have established that when he walked in at the RGM International Airport (on Sunday) he didn’t have a bag, now we want to establish who gave him that bag, where and how. Investigations are ongoing, as I said, I am confident we will unearth what transpired on the day as soon as possible, working with our Interpol colleagues.”
The latest scandal has also cast the limelight on the laxity of Zimbabwe’s security at airports and ports of entry. The entry points and airports are mostly manned by security agents from MID, Zimbabwe Intelligence Corps and the CID Minerals, Flora and Fauna. Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and Immigration officers are also present at the entry points.
The Independent has also established that 20 security officers were on duty at the airport when Masinire boarded.
In September 2020, Kazembe noted that Zimbabwe was losing gold worth US$100 million per month to smuggling. This translates to US$1,2 billion annually.
Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR) general manager Fradreck Kunaka said a cabinet committee was set up to devise strategies to curtail gold leakages.
“The issue is being handled at a much higher level as said by the Minister of Mines and Mining Development (Winston Chitando) that there is a ministerial committee looking into the issue. It will come up with recommendations on the necessary interventions,” he said in e-mailed responses.
Kunaka declined to comment on whether the leakages were not triggered by the uncompetitive prices paid by FPR, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.