IN June 2018 my friend Mboneni Mulaudzi called me with a job lead. Both of us were freelance communications specialists, and we had developed a close working relationship over a decade. We looked out for each other and played to each others' strengths.
I loved working with M, and we had done many big projects together. One of our specialities was assisting foreign companies to understand local conditions and to develop communications strategies that would see them establish themselves as a presence in their field. We had just wrapped up a successful engagement for a German and French multinational, developing a media strategy and training executives.
The new opportunity, Mboneni said, was right up our alley because it was in the media space, something we knew intimately, and we could leverage off the work we had done for our previous client as we had an up-to-date “stakeholder map". My television experience would be a plus.
Our potential client was a man called Tom Motsepe. We were told he was related to the family of the president's wife. I can't remember the exact connection, but the inference was that he was a member of the extended first family. A successful black businessman living in America, with a degree from Harvard and board appointments at a number of big international companies.
We received a glitzy invitation by mail “cordially inviting us to the 21st Century Group Chairman's Dinner" at the Hilton Hotel in Sandton.
Join top dignitaries in business and government at the exclusive dinner to announce new African board members who will be joining international board members like Naomi Campbell and Gayle King, who serves as the deputy chairperson.
Over the past 5 years 21st Century Group has been steadily growing it's footprints in 12 countries aiming to deliver high-demand quality media while creating sustainable value. To date, UBS and Via Holdings have invested through 21st Century Group into Africa.
We look forward to hosting you at this prestigious event.
He was bringing the American media behemoth, 21st Century Fox, to South Africa and needed some hot media strategists to help embed the company in the country's media space, which was apparently where we were to come in.
21st Century Fox had an ambitious vision to move into Africa just as streaming was starting to change traditional television, and Motsepe wanted to ensure that it became a new frontier for news, documentaries, movies and television series for the whole of Africa. Johannesburg would be the hub.
Mboneni had been approached by an old friend and colleague who was already on board. We had a couple of conversations with her. The company was setting up offices in Sandton, and Motsepe was directing operations from New York. It was an exciting prospect.
Mboneni and I were told to develop a pitch that we would present to Motsepe in a video call. We needed to lay out a “high level" vision and outline our track record and experience. Mboneni was our point person and we started emailing Motsepe about a telecon with this ostensibly uber-successful South African on foreign soil.
There was a flurry of messages between us and Motsepe, whose email signature included South African and US cellphone numbers and office addresses in South Africa, the US (1211 Avenue of the Americas, New York) and the UK (33 Soho Square, London).
Motsepe shared his “vision document" for 21st Century Fox's expansion into Africa so we could get cracking on our media strategy. From news to documentaries, this was about changing the “legacy" media landscape.
I was in Los Angeles at the time, and time zone differences meant it was challenging to set up a three-way WhatsApp video call. Our first attempt had to be rescheduled because “something urgent had come up", but when I was back in South Africa, the call went ahead.
Motsepe (“just call me Tom") was a handsomeish man with well-tended facial hair — a thin sliver of a moustache that ran down the side of his mouth to his chin. He spoke with a weird accent. A strange drawl tacked onto the end of words seemed to slip every now and then. I have an ear for accents, and there was something about the inconsistent way he spoke that seemed ever so slightly off. Mboneni and I joked about it afterwards, but we chalked it up to his having lived in the US for a long time.
What we know today is that we were in the midst of an elaborate scam. At the time, especially after our first real engagement with him on the video call, I started experiencing discomfort, but I had nothing to base it on except something on my internal radar. There was the weird way of speaking, the elementary grammar errors (“draught" instead of “draft") and sloppy punctuation.
Tom seemed well-versed in the jargon of the television and communications world, but Mboneni and I sensed a lack of real understanding of the media landscape. He glossed over our questions, rattling off answers that pivoted us away from substance. He kept referring us to documents. One was a lengthy prospectus for the 21st Century Group outlining the illustrious history of this groundbreaking new African division of one of the world's most famous media companies. There were various business units and billions of US dollars “under investment”.
Our engagement with Motsepe continued via mail. We came up with a high-level proposal but at this point Mboneni also started seeing red flags.
We discussed our growing suspicions at length but couldn't quite put a finger on what was disturbing us. Motsepe was offering us a stupid amount of money, but Mboneni now insisted we have a contract in place before spending any more time on the job.
Motsepe was understanding in yet another mail from firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line “Engagement with 21st Century Group". It read: “Good day. Thank you very much. I would like you guys to draft a MOA, so that we can discuss the implementation of your services. Thanks."
And then nothing happened, again.
Both of us were asking serious questions now. Why should we be coming up with a memorandum of understanding? Surely a media company of this international standing would have a standing protocol about how to onboard high level advisers, as we were ostensibly supposed to be. Motsepe finally suggested a meeting at the 21st Century offices in Sandton where “everything will be settled".
I flew to Johannesburg. The offices were impressive but still being set up. There were what appeared to be big servers, still wrapped in plastic, on the lower of two floors of a tower block. The staff included a number of big names in the media world, many of whom had left other jobs to be part of this incredible new opportunity. It was late afternoon as we sat in front of the boardroom's large screen, waiting for Motsepe to join us by video. This didn't happen. I can't remember exactly what the reason was, but nobody seemed too perturbed. After all, this was only one of the irons he had in the fire. He was a top-tier international businessman with many demands on his time.
Mboneni and I presented our ideas to Motsepe's team, including one of the chairman's pet projects, an “international lifestyle magazine" he repeatedly referenced in our first telecon.
It was a 26-part TV show called Vibes, and the project outline said it would be about “South African millennials travelling the world exploring lifestyle and pop-culture trends and experiences unlocking the wealth the world's Metropolitan cities." (Note the sloppy grammar, strange syntax and missing words.)
The pilot was to be shot in “London and New York" and the proposed “talent" were mostly beautiful, successful South African women – models, TV stars and social media “influencers".
In retrospect, knowing what we know today about the real identity of Tom Motsepe – a skanky jailbird who was serving a life sentence for murder and rape, and whose modus operandi had been to lure beautiful “models" into his orbit by promising them jobs and opportunities before robbing them, raping at least two and murdering one with a knife – there is a deeply macabre undertone to the way the women are framed in this proposal. Motsepe was clearly playing out his disturbed fantasies on a huge canvas, but we did not know that at the time.
When the doors of the lift closed on us after the meeting, Mboneni and I looked at each other. “There is something seriously fucking wrong with this picture," I said. “Indeed," I remember M saying in his classic understated way.
We agreed that we no longer believed Motsepe was who he said he was, and that this was no longer a simply fishy situation, it was a big, fat, stinking carcass. Even then, it was only instinct warning us off. After all, we had just left a fully operational office at one of the smartest business addresses in Africa, staffed by some of the most experienced people in the South African media world. Not one person in that office was a nobody. In fact, I had felt quite intimidated by the brains trust gathered around the spanking new conference table.
We never heard from Motsepe again. And it was not long before the scam started to fall apart.
But not before a “21st Century Fox" celebrity-studded Women in the Media event in Sandton that had been the talk of the town. Big names such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Amanda du Pont were in attendance (although Halle Berry, one of Motsepe's many so-called Hollywood besties, took to Twitter to say she had no idea who Motsepe was and would not be headlining the event as he had claimed). This did not deter Motsepe. Dressed in fancy evening attire, he made an appearance via video from New York (in reality from his prison cell), and the audience sang happy birthday to “Chairman Tom".
To clear the air... I will NOT be attending #WimCon2018. I apologize to any of my fans who were mislead - I know NOTHING about this, I have never heard of it. It’s shameful that @21stcg_Global would advertise this way. Thank you @TherealTaraji for letting people know. https://t.co/GRvUcimEBv— Halle Berry (@halleberry) August 11, 2018
That August event was the beginning of the end.
Shortly afterwards, salaries, which until that point had been paid to staffers at the 21st Century offices, dried up. 21st Century Fox issued a statement saying it had no connection with this South African company and sent cease and desist letters. So did the American celebrities with whom Motsepe was ostensibly friends and who were supposed to support his expansion into Africa – from Berry to Naomi Campbell and Oprah's best friend, Gayle King. And the Motsepe family went public, saying there was no Tom. Ultimately, it was all a massive hoax, but delivered with such grandiose sociopathic conviction that it kept the scam afloat for a time.
Tom Motsepe was a fake name and a fake identity, one of many that the criminal Thabo Bester used over the years. I cannot figure out what the aim of this scam was. Was it just him playing out some control fantasy. Was it just the fun and games of a disturbed mind? Or was there a money-making angle? If there was, I can't see it.
What we do know is that a significant amount was spent executing the scam. And a significant amount of collusion by others made it possible. For starters, there were those inside the prison who provided the laptop, phones, data and privacy that allowed him to assume a different digital persona. But there must have also been significant financial support from outside, because this was not a cheap fantasy. Millions were invested.
Mboneni and I had a lucky escape. We were freelancers. We did not give up other careers to become part of this scam. There were others who did. Good people. Excellent, experienced professionals. And some are still struggling to recover professionally from being played by a jailbird from a high security South African prison.
♦ VWB ♦
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