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Should the public be outraged by student activist’s five-year prison sentence for theft?

The East London Regional Court recently handed down a five-year prison sentence for theft to Sibongile Mani.

In 2017, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (“NSFAS”) erroneously transferred ZAR14-million into Ms Mani’s account, a student at Walter Sisulu University. Following the transfer into Ms Mani’s account, she embarked on a spending spree and spent ZAR818 000, while only being entitled to R1 400. She had apparently spent ZAR20 000 within four hours of the funds being erroneously paid into her account.

Apparently, the ZAR818 000 was used to purchase microphones, frying pans, hairdryers, steam irons, whisky, hair straighteners, furniture, designer wear, luxury accessories and groceries. Reports suggest that she also hosted a lavish party for her friends and even flew some of them to the Durban July horse racing event.

The law is clear. If a person receives money mistakenly transferred into their account and uses that money, knowing that the money is not due to them, that person is guilty of theft.

The Supreme Court of Appeal, in Nissan South Africa (Pty) Limited v Marnitz NO, held that when there is no meeting of minds in respect of the payment into an account, there is no valid transfer of funds. The consequence of this is that if the recipient uses the funds, it amounts to misappropriation and fraud.

Based on the above, if an accountholder utilises funds in their account, to which they have no entitlement, the accountholder may be convicted of theft and face jail time as a result of their actions. This is also what the East London Regional Court found in Ms Mani’s case.

Ms Mani has received sympathy from student organisations, trade unions, political leaders and various people active on social media. The SA Union of Students is reported to have said that justice was not served and Ms Mani did not break into a vault and steal ZAR14-million. Even NSFAS is reported to have issued a statement suggesting that the criminal charges against Ms Mani were unfortunate.

There appears to be a belief that Ms Mani is young and therefore she should not have been criminally charged.

The court pointed out that the money that was erroneously paid into Ms Mani’s account does not appear to have been used to pay for her studies, or those of other students. Neither does it appear that the bulk of the money spent by Ms Mani related to life’s necessities.

If one has regard to the fact that NSFAS does not have an unlimited pool of money and the money that is available is not sufficient to cover the needs of many poor students, the sentence handed to Ms Mani is not necessarily unduly harsh. In the fight against corruption and theft in South Africa, it is important that those found guilty of misappropriation and fraud receive appropriate sentences.  

Aslam Moosajee

Dispute Resolution | Executive

Shenaaz Munga

Dispute Resolution | Senior Associate