Fishrot whistle-blower faces many threats

By James Kleinfeld

“THE storm is brewing. We are preparing ourselves for war,” says Johannes Stefansson.

In anticipation of breaking his silence on the corruption he admits to facilitating, Johannes sought the legal services of the world-famous politician, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Eva Joly. The naturalised French citizen of Norwegian origin, who once ran for the French presidency, told me of the “huge risks” that Johannes faces by blowing the whistle.

“Death threats among whistle-blowers are rather common. It can get very dangerous, because people have a lot to lose.”

The South African mafia

In the months before July 2016, when Johannes departed Namibia for good, he spent some time in Cape Town, South Africa, where he undertook negotiations with a local businessman, Allie Baderoen, who was interested in entering into a business partnership with Samherji in the South African fishing industry. While the negotiations ultimately led nowhere, these relationships were to have serious consequences for Johannes’s life, as he came to appreciate the interconnected worlds of business and the mafia in South Africa.

Death threats among whistle-blowers are rather common. It can get very dangerous, because people have a lot to lose.

After leaving Namibia, Johannes moved to Cape Town and struck up an unexpected friendship with a former Congolese soldier, Christian Yema Y’Okungo, who now works in private security in South Africa. While he was negotiating his termination agreement with Samherji, Johannes began to hear rumours about himself - that he abused drugs and alcohol.

Christian, who Johannes refers to as his “brother”, warned him of the impending danger to his life as he began to extricate himself from the web of corruption he had been a party to in neighbouring Namibia.

To this day, Johannes and Christian enjoy an extremely close relationship and speak on a daily basis. Whenever Johannes travels abroad, Christian calls upon local Congolese expats to provide him with tight security.

According to Johannes, shortly after finally terminating his employment with Samherji in December 2016, he began to suffer acute health symptoms, including seizures, collapses and uncontrollable shaking. He went to a doctor in Cape Town who told him his symptoms were unexplainable, and a doctor in Iceland later told him that his symptoms resembled those of someone who had been poisoned, although a definitive diagnosis was not forthcoming.

Close friends of Johannes who witnessed the rapid deterioration of his health continue to be astounded by his eventual recovery, convinced that he should have succumbed to his life-threatening symptoms. Suspicions that he was poisoned have occupied Johannes since he left Africa at the beginning of 2017, but definitive proof, not to mention evidence of the culprits, has been elusive.

A curious document sent to Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit in early November, two weeks after it reached out to people to respond to the allegations against them, may provide some insight into the forces Johannes was up against.

Tamson Hatuikulipi, who was Samherji’s conduit into the local industry, sent us an affidavit, signed by Johannes’s “brother” Christian at a Cape Town police station. The affidavit made a series of allegations against Johannes: that he is an alcoholic, a drug addict, and that his purported addiction to prostitutes led to him being 75,000 rands (more than $5,000) in debt to Cape Town pimps.

Johannes strongly denies all such allegations and, indeed, has long been expecting them.

A few days after Al Jazeera sent Tamson Hatuikulipi the letter requesting his response to the allegations against him, Christian says that his family were threatened by figures associated with the Cape Town mafia. Evidence allegedly implicating him in criminal activity would be shared with the police, he was told. Thus, with the threat of physical violence and imprisonment, Christian was blackmailed into signing an affidavit with false allegations against his close friend.

Attached to the forced affidavit was a purported certificate from a “medical surgery” in the Cape Town suburb of Kraaifontein, which alleges that Johannes sought “drug rehabilitation” treatment in December 2016 - as false rumours of Johannes’s drug addiction reached a crescendo, and a few days before his health took a swift turn for the worse.

A cursory glance at the document indicated some red flags: The address of the “medical surgery” is non-existent, the name of a doctor absent, and the telephone number provided is not active. These suspicions have since been corroborated by the Health Professions Council of South Africa, which was unable to find evidence of the existence of this “medical surgery”.

Why somebody would seek to forge a medical record attempting to portray Johannes in a bad light, and attach such a forgery to an affidavit signed under threat of blackmail made by figures associated with the mafia; and how such a forged document and forced affidavit would come into the possession of Tamson Hatuikulipi mere weeks after receiving a letter presenting him with evidence of his alleged criminality; and why Tamson Hatuikulipi would find it necessary to send such an obvious forgery to Al Jazeera are all legitimate questions that, for the time being, can only be answered with speculation.

Caryn Dolley, who has spent six years reporting on the Cape Town mafia, focusing on links between the criminal underworld and police services, told Al Jazeera that allegations have been made linking the Cape Town mafia with certain police officers. “It is not clear just how common it is for underworld figures to blackmail others into making affidavits against their rivals,” she said, “however, claims in this vein have definitely surfaced in Cape Town”.

But, for his part, Johannes remains unperturbed by these attempts to silence him. His lawyer Joly plans to bring him to the Fishing Committee of the European Parliament, where he can share his singular expertise on corruption with politicians. In the meantime, she speaks of his courage in blowing the whistle: “He knows why he is doing this, he knows that he is doing this for the ordinary people in Namibia. He thinks that fighting corruption is paramount for the development in Africa.”

The response to Al Jazeera’s allegations

Since Al Jazeera first presented the accused parties with evidence of their alleged wrongdoing, the response has been swift and overwhelming: Minister of Fisheries Bernhard Esau and the minister of justice have both resigned from their cabinet positions; James Hatuikulipi has resigned as the chairman of Fishcor, and has also resigned from his job as the managing director of Investec Asset Management.

In the run-up to elections in Namibia, the #Fishrot affair has caused outrage in the country, leading to protests in the capital, Windhoek, with hundreds of people marching to the Anti-Corruption Commission demanding decisive action against corruption in the country.

On the day of the elections on November 27, six of the Namibians implicated in the investigation were arrested on charges of corruption, money laundering and fraud. All the Namibians featured in the Al Jazeera investigation deny all wrongdoing.

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