Township investors riot over lost savings

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The Independent Online

Up to 400 poor South Africans who lost all their savings in a "pyramid'' fraud clashed with police yesterday as they marched on President Thabo Mbeki's office chanting "I want my money back'' and demanding a pardon for the guru who said he was doing God's work by helping them to get rich.

Up to 400 poor South Africans who lost all their savings in a "pyramid'' fraud clashed with police yesterday as they marched on President Thabo Mbeki's office chanting "I want my money back'' and demanding a pardon for the guru who said he was doing God's work by helping them to get rich.

Wearing white caps and T-shirts with the words "Miracle 2000" printed in the colours of the rainbow, the "investors", who arrived from townships near Johannesburg, clashed with police using pepper sprays to prevent them storming the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

"The Scorpions took all our money. They should give it back," said one woman in reference to the élite police unit which stormed two houses belonging to Miracle 2000's leader, Sibusiso Radebe, last month and removed 20m rand (£2m) in cash, as well as computers and designer clothes. "The Scorpions are working for the whites who own the banks," shouted another woman, stripped to the waist.

Another of the mainly female protesters, most of them unemployed, said: "I lost thousands of rands. Each time, I put in more money because it was growing so fast. This is our traditional way of saving."

Radebe, 39, who claims to be a former policeman, is on bail pending his court appearance on fraud and theft charges at the end of this month. He was bailed three weeks ago by his supporters who raised whodelivered 1m rand in cash to Germiston magistrates' court near Johannesburg.

The protesters' spokesman, Veli Mpungose, denied Miracle 2000 was a pyramid scheme and said it had 152,000 members all over South Africa. "We are empowering the poor. We are helping to eradicate the poverty which Thabo Mbeki says causes Aids. That's why Sibusiso must be released - to help the poor and the hungry people of South Africa."

Germiston magistrates heard last month that participants in Miracle 2000, which started in January, paid an initial 300 rand registration fee and had to invest a minimum 350 rand. In a scheme similar to the pyramids whose collapse caused riots in Albania in 1997, they were promised a 200 per cent return after 42 days.

So popular was Miracle 2000 that Radebe's church near Johannesburg became overrun, the court heard, and at least one guest house opened in the area to accommodate the flock of investors. Meanwhile, Radebe was out shopping. The court heard he had bought 16 vehicles, including a Mercedes-Benz for his pastor and a BMW sports car for his wife, as well as two houses.

But Theresa Ude said she had put her five children through school since January thanks to Miracle 2000. She claimed her initial investment of £35 had grown to £6,000.

Few banks will lend money to poor blacks, forcing them to resort to legal loan sharks charging astronomical interest rates. In such a climate, Miracle 2000, endorsed by a pastor and claiming Christian values, was a tempting prospect.

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