Charcoal Rot: Industry cheated out of millions

The mastermind behind the syndicate is allegedly running operations from a prison cell, and recently defrauded a company of N$20 000.

06 December 2021 | Crime

STAFF REPORTER







WINDHOEK

A newest victim of a syndicate that allegedly disappeared with the deposit money of South African buyers for Namibian charcoal and charcoal loads, forged forestry permits and defrauded the industry of millions is a well-known charcoal factory.

Namchar, a company based in Cape Town which manufactures and packs Namibian charcoal and briquettes, was scammed out of N$20 000 last week.

The company is just one of a long list of victims who say they’ve been cheated out of their money lately.

The alleged mastermind behind the syndicate is a certain Silvester Haodom of Outjo, who also allegedly does business under the pseudonyms Lazarus, General Haodom and Victor.

He apparently has several co-conspirators, which include charcoal buyers in South Africa.

Haodom reportedly has up to 27 cases of fraud against him, with several people telling Namibian Sun’s sister publication, Republikein, that he even tried to scam them from a jail cell. Apart from the fact that the syndicate apparently issues or falsifies permits, it operates under various names and uses several bank accounts.

Namchar

Namchar’s Lara Basson said in the latest incident, a certain Victor Shilongo from Outjo contacted her to say he had a load of coal. However, when the coal was meant to be loaded on Tuesday, the farm owner demanded a deposit and refused to let the truck leave.

Namchar had by then already paid N$20 000 to Shilongo, on whose name the permit was issued, but it never reached the rightful farm owner.

The farmer received a forged deposit slip from Shilongo, according to which Namchar allegedly paid N$57 000 into his account - an amount the company would never pay as a deposit.

Basson said the load of charcoal has now been unloaded at Otjiwarongo and the police have informed her that the lorry driver's passport has been confiscated, while officers are apparently investigating Haodom, "who is running the syndicate from prison".

Despite several attempts by Republikein to contact Haodom through calls, emails, text messages and WhatsApp messages, he could not be located.

Five cases

Marlise de Jager, a broker from Tsumeb who has been supplying Namibian charcoal to South African buyers since 2012, said she has been scammed out of a little less than N$290 000 over the past year, and has already opened five cases against Haodom and his co-conspirators.

The syndicate defrauded her of N$58 000, N$14 000, N$120 000, N$36 000 and then N$60 000 in five separate transactions, and she said she received threats when she told Haodom she was going to report him to the police.

She said the syndicate often plays the role of middleman, taking the buyer’s deposit, while the Namibian farmer never sees a cent.

"When they scam South Africans, they send photos of the truck that has apparently been loaded and make sure they do not show the registration mark. Then they [the buyers] pay the deposit and the syndicate disappears with the money.”

De Jager produced a wealth of evidence that included forged forestry permits as well as months of correspondence with Haodom and the alleged syndicate members.

He even tried to do business with her from prison, she said. While Republikein could not reach him on Tuesday and Wednesday, he contacted De Jager on the same day with the same cellphone number to say he was upset that she had spoken to the media about him.

He also previously informed her from prison that he would repay her. He said while he won’t admit that he stole the money, he is “only human”.

De Jager said Haodom approaches farmers under different pseudonyms because everyone has already been warned against him.

She also showed photos of harvesting and export permits for charcoal that had been forged by the syndicate - with farmers' names removed and a certain Lazarus’ name and details entered.

In recent times, permit fraud has often led to producers' farms being closed down when the agriculture ministry’s directorate of forestry discovered that permits had been tampered with.

De Jager claimed that the syndicate has a permit book in its possession, which also apparently bears real stamps from the directorate's various offices across the country. She discovered this after she started inquiring about the authenticity of the permits at various forestry offices.

Caught

Maans Steenkamp, a buyer and exporter of charcoal from Outjo, said the syndicate also scammed him out of a total of N$60 000.

He said Haodom works as a middleman and pretends to be the owner of the charcoal loads.

"He works under a lot of names. We pay the deposit for the coal, but the farmer never receives the money. The farmer then does not want to let the truck go and Haodom disappears with the money.”

In one such case, Steenkamp bought a load of coal from Tsumeb and paid a N$20 000 deposit for it.

"When the farmer did not want to let the truck leave, I told him ‘I paid you your deposit!’ and sent him the slip. He then said the bank account the money was paid into didn’t belong to him.”

Steenkamp and this farmer worked with the police to apprehend Haodom.

They finally managed to arrest him in Outjo’s informal settlement.

Steenkamp said Haodom goaded him and said they should throw him in jail, "because nothing ever happens to him there”. He was recently released on N$10 000 bail.

"That man has already stolen millions from the charcoal industry. He is like a ghost; he disappears and is released on bail every time.

"As soon as he receives the money, he e-wallets it to three or four different numbers,” Steenkamp said.

More victims

Charcoal producer Jan Vermeulen of Aranos is another of the syndicate's victims.

He was scammed out of a load of wood on 10 April, for which he was not paid. He refused to let the truck leave with his cargo until he received the deposit and withheld permits.

The truck left without the permits anyway, and Vermeulen opened a case with the police. Haodom was subsequently arrested.

The criminal mastermind owes Vermeulen N$40 000, and has apparently undertaken to repay him.

Vermeulen also contacted the South African buyer involved, who said he paid the deposit to Haodom.

Transporter Emile Korf of Mariental has been defrauded of N$24 000 by a South African buyer who allegedly previously worked with Haodom. He unloaded cargo in the vicinity of Johannesburg and, despite many promises, has not yet received his money.

He said Haodom and another person involved in the transaction were allegedly paid, but only he did not receive his money.

Leaked

In a leaked telephone conversation with a certain Lazarus in which an official tries to arrange a meeting with him, he can be heard saying: "You cannot stop me, this is bigger than all of us".

Lazarus then claimed he has information about illegal charcoal loads that have left the country, but cannot meet the official in Gobabis "because his time costs money".

The official offered to meet with him, and while he initially agreed to a time and place, he asked that no members of law enforcement should show up, only forestry officials.

He would then apparently provide them with evidence on how massive the charcoal scam is.

"I believe you have honest people in your offices. Do not try to save the country from me, save it from the South Africans," Lazarus said.

He, however, then changed his mind about the meeting again and said he would first send the damning evidence to them. "This will never end. You can make me retire, but Charcoal Rot will never stop; that's good money!”

He added that the government is getting the shortest end of the stick when it comes to charcoal exports, while farmers apparently earn between N$70 000 and N$80 000 per truck.

"This is where I come in, to share the wealth with the people of the land, where it belongs," Lazarus said.

Government's security systems are weak, he claimed, adding that someone will always be smarter than the system.

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