After seeing poor Makokoba residents struggle to bury their relatives, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) members in Bulawayo’s oldest suburb adopted what they believed at the time was a novel idea.
On April 2, 2009 the Ward 7 MDC Burial Society was formed where members paid R10 per household each time there was bereavement in the community.
The burial society grew rapidly to include ordinary residents, who were not affiliated to the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa. Some members were drawn from neighbouring suburbs such as Mzilikazi and Barbourfields.
So impressive was the growth of the society that then MDC deputy president, Thokozani Khupe contributed R10 000 from her own pocket to boost the grouping’s coffers.
The substantial donation, however, was to prove to be the proverbial poisoned chalice, as the society’s members are now at each other’s throats fighting over money, which they say was embezzled by a top MDC politician.
A month-long investigation by CITE unearthed allegations that former councillor James Sithole abused the burial society’s funds leading to its collapse, dividing Makokoba.
Sithole is now the MP for the constituency after he beat the previous Zanu PF legislator for Makokoba, Tshinga Dube in last year’s elections.
A section of the community accuses the MP of dipping his hands into the coffers of the society, as the R10 000 donated by Khupe and another US$16 000 contributed by members, cannot be accounted for.
The missing funds have paralysed the initiative, amid accusations of theft and abuse of the legal system.
Police have been drawn into the dispute, as their investigations have so far not yielded anything and disgruntled burial society members now accuse the law enforcement agents of taking sides in the dispute.
According to records obtained by CITE, the alleged theft of the funds was recorded under case number 3499985 and handled by Mzilikazi police station.
Bob Phiri, who was one of the leaders of the society from the Ekusileni branch, said their problems started when Khupe donated money to bolster their purse.
“The burial society had grown to accommodate people that did not belong to our party and this saw Khupe donating R10 000,” he said.
“However, the money made people greedy and this is when our councillor at the time, James Sithole started going behind our backs to take money from the society’s coffers using the treasurer Margaret Sibindi.”
Phiri said the abuse of funds was exposed last year when Sithole and Sibindi had a fallout in the run-up to the 2018 harmonised elections.
Sithole allegedly made a report to the police that Sibindi had stolen money from the burial society.
Phiri claimed the police had to fire warning shots during an attempt to arrest the treasurer due to commotion at her house.
“The police fired three warning shots,” he said. “It then emerged after her arrest that Sithole had been siphoning money from the burial society for his own personal use.”
Phiri claimed the police officers handling the case accused them of being jealous of Sithole’s political ascendancy, as he had just been chosen to stand on an MDC Alliance ticket in last year’s elections.
“This has nothing to do with politics, it’s about accountability,” Phiri insisted.
“The police did not help much and we later discovered that Sibindi had also given some money to the chairperson.”
The chairperson was identified as NaLucy.
He said another burial society official identified as Jacob Manyange had failed to account for US$4 000 and R2 500.
Phiri said Manyange had been given three months to hold a meeting, where he was to brief members of society about the missing funds, but had not done so.
Orpah Sibanda, a member of the burial society, said they wanted officials to account for the missing funds.
They expect members to be refunded their contributions.
“When we make follow-ups with those involved, we are told varying stories including claims that the money was lost after Royal Bank closed down,” she said.
Royal Bank directors surrendered the financial institution’s licence in 2012 after it failed to recapitalise.
The bank had re-opened in February 2011.
It had been closed by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in 2003 but it is not clear when the burial society opened an account with Royal Bank.
“According to the statement that Nyatsanga gave to the police, there was US$150 at Royal Bank, but it is not clear what happened to the money,” Sibanda said.
Meanwhile, Sithole rubbished the allegations, saying those accusing him of embezzling the burial society’s money were trying to besmirch him after he outmanoeuvred them on the political front.
Sithole said some of the people were disappointed by the outcome of the recent MDC congress, where he was elected as the party’s provincial chairperson.
“The burial society was my brainchild when I was still the ward 7 councillor,” he said.
“Makokoba is a poor community, where people would go for up to two weeks trying to mobilise resources to bury their loved ones.
“In most cases, the people would approach me to help raise money for burials or go around with begging bowls.”
Sithole said they employed the “zibuthe” or organise yourselves’ concept, where there were no subscription or joining fees.
Those who took part in the initiative would make payments that would cover at least eight funerals at a time.
“There was no joining fee because this was our own version of uzibuthe and no one ever paid a subscription fee,” the legislator said. “I just served as an advisor since the burial society was my brainchild.”
Sithole said beneficiaries got as much as US$800 to cover funeral costs.
He said Khupe’s donation was meant to help the burial society to construct a funeral parlour to serve the community.
“All the donations were kept by the treasurer,” Sithole added.
The MP said the burial society resolved to stop banking money after they realised that a huge chunk of it was going towards bank charges.
Sithole said the treasurer was given the responsibility to keep the money on behalf of members, but it later emerged that the funds were being abused.
“I was informed that she was now using the money to capitalise her business and for throwing parties,” he said.
“I assigned (one)Gombedza and Manyange to investigate the allegations, which were proven to be true.”
The matter was reported to the police and Sibindi reportedly handed herself over to the police after two weeks in hiding.
“These people are from Zanu PF and they just want to tarnish my image,” he said.
“I can prove that Phiri is one of the people who was stealing money, which he was using to buy drugs that he sells to our children in the community.”
Sithole said if he had committed any crime, he would have been arrested for the offence.
The MP was in 2016 suspended as ward 7 councillor by former Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere alongside former deputy mayor Gift Banda and other councillors over corruption involving land deals.
Sibindi could not be reached for comment as she was said to be now living in South Africa, while Manyange claimed the dispute over the burial society funds had since been resolved.
He said the society’s funds were eroded by inflation. Manyange claimed that although the burial society had collapsed, plans were still afoot to construct the funeral parlour.
He claimed the society still had US$4000 in its coffers but contracted on Sithole on where the money was being kept.
Manyange said the society’s funds were still being held by an unnamed bank.
The money cannot be shared as demanded by former members because no one of them paid subscriptions, he added.
Bulawayo spokesperson Inspector Abednico Ncube first said he needed time to familiarise himself with the case before he could comment on the allegations raised by members of the burial society.
He later said he could not comment as he fallen ill before referring questions to his deputy Assistant Inspector Nomalanga Msebele.
Msebele, however, said she was not able to comment on the matter.