Convicted: Sheryl Cwele.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele were briefed by intelligence bosses on the embarrassing high-profile drug trafficking case involving the minister’s wife, Sheryl, long before her arrest.

The Sunday Independent has established that a group of intelligence chiefs, led by former National Intelligence Co-ordinating Committee co-ordinator Silumko Sokupa, told Motlanthe, when he was caretaker president in 2009, that Sheryl was being investigated for drug-dealing.

The top spy team also comprised former crime intelligence boss Mulangi Mphego and former National Intelligence Agency (NIA) director-general Manala Manzini.

The intelligence bigwigs are believed to have felt that the case would embarrass the country and erode the credibility of the spy outfits, given the suspect was the wife of a sitting intelligence minister.

Cwele was appointed Intelligence Minister by Motlanthe in 2008, and in May 2009 Zuma reappointed him to head the renamed Ministry of State Security.

He has maintained he was estranged from his wife during the period of the investigations. But this was contradicted by reports that he’d spent the 2009 December holidays with her in Mozambique. Sheryl’s lawyer, Mvuseni Ngubane, told the Pietermaritzburg High court last February, during her bail application hearing, that the couple had not been estranged since 2005, as claimed by the State in opposing bail. Ngubane said Cwele and his wife had spent the December holiday together in Mozambique.

It has also emerged that after details surfaced in March 2009 that Sheryl was linked to a drug trafficking underworld, Cwele told Motlanthe he’d been told his wife was being pursued by police. A top official in the Presidency told The Sunday Independent this week that after the story that Sheryl was involved in drugs broke into the public domain, Cwele went to see Motlanthe.

“The minister did tell the president that there was a criminal investigation into his wife… He felt that he needed to talk to the president,” the official said. “But he didn’t expect the president to help.”

The Sunday Independent understands Cwele had been briefed by Manzini about his wife. Mphego had authorised the tapping of Sheryl’s phone as part of a probe into Nigerian drug dealer Frank Nabolisa.

Sheryl and Nabolisa were sentenced to 12 years for drug trafficking by the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Friday. They have since indicated they would appeal against their convictions and sentences.

It is understood that a team of intelligence officers investigating Sheryl and Nabolisa and later handed over the intercepted conversations between the two to embattled crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli.

Mdluli used the taped conversations in his plea to President Jacob Zuma late last year to help him fend off what he called a plot by senior intelligence officers to oust him.

In a top-secret letter to Zuma in November, copied to Cwele, Mdluli said, “These senior loyal members were also active with the interceptions on Minister Cwele’s wife”. Mdluli was “irregularly” appointed by a ministerial committee on which Cwele sat.

Motlanthe’s spokesman Thabo Masebe could not confirm whether the deputy president had met with intelligence chiefs on the matter, and said the contents of such meetings were confidential. “The security chiefs do brief the president on regular occasions… In their meetings they don’t talk about individuals, they talk matters of national security,” he said. Cwele’s spokesman Brian Dube said the minister would not comment on his wife’s matter, as it was still before the courts.

Sources in the intelligence community said the conviction of Cwele’s wife had caused the country embarrassment. “This matter was very serious. It relates to a number of aspects that the intelligence community is mandated and entrusted to guard,” an intelligence official said. It was of such importance the head of state had to be informed.

The official said at first Nabolisa’s phone had been tapped, but officials soon discovered links to Sheryl.

Nabolisa and Sheryl, a high ranking municipal official on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, were arrested last January.

Mphego and Sokupa refused to comment. - George Matlala