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Free State man stuck in SA embassy in Abu Dhabi for six years in diplomatic limbo

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For the last six years Tsolo has lived in the South African embassy on the veranda that has been covered and converted into a room.

A general view of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. File picture: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

JOHANNESBURG – Tripe with dumplings ladled onto the plate by the loving hand of Mapitso Tsolo or maybe another of her delicacies served cold with pap, as only she knows how to prepare.

These are dishes of the heart that Sello Tsolo dreams of tucking into if he was at home this Christmas.

But this Christmas, like the nine before, is likely to find Tsolo a long way from his family in the Free State and a meal cooked by his wife Mapitso.

For Tsolo remains a man in diplomatic limbo stuck in the South African embassy in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A travel ban, that has no expiry date, bars his return.

So, for the last six years Tsolo has lived in the South African embassy on the veranda that has been covered and converted into a room.

“I have some good Samaritans who have really helped one survive, particularly the Cornerstone International church, after they learnt about our plight,” he told the Saturday Star via Zoom.

They provide food and companionship.

When Tsolo arrived in the UAE on 27 June, 2013, he was expecting to be away from home a week, maybe two at most.

What he didn’t know as he stepped off the plane was that he would become the victim of an alleged fraudster, a legal system that made no sense to him and a country that appears hell-bent in keeping him from leaving.

Back then Tsolo was the project manager of the Setsoto Integrated Dairy Project that had been set up by the Setsoto Local Municipality, in the Free State as an empowerment initiative.

The problem was that they were short of funds but there seemed to be a solution when Amit Lamba, an Indian national living in the UAE allegedly agreed to fund the dairy to the amount of R675 million on condition that he obtained a 60% shareholding in the project.

But there were conditions, Lamba allegedly wanted the company registered in the UAE.

Also in an apparent gesture of good faith, Tsolo said that Lamba offered him share issues.

As part of the agreement, Tsolo was asked while in Ajman, in the UAE to sign documents that were written in Arabic. He would later find out that the documents pertained to an acknowledgement of debt, where he owed Lamba R2 million.

He was prevented from leaving the UAE after a travel ban was placed on him. Tsolo was to spend 24 months in prison and even after his release the authorities refused to allow him to leave. He wasn’t alone. Two other South Africans, Tjoko Khambule and Jannie van der Walt were also allegedly scammed by Lamba. Both were also living in the South African embassy and prevented from leaving. Van der Walt has recently moved to another residence.

Tsolo said he met Indian nationals in prison who claimed to be also victims of the alleged scamster.

South African authorities have tried to intervene but there is one apparent stumbling block in that this is a civic issue.

“They say that they can’t interfere in the laws of the country,” explains Tsolo.

In September a delegation from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation visited to see what could be done to remedy the situation.

Other avenues are also being tried.

“We are making submissions to the UN’s Human Rights Council because we are being held against our will and our human rights are being violated.”

Meanwhile back home family and friends are doing all they can. A prayer meeting is to be held on December 8, while an online petition has been launched and addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

And while this all happens Tsolo is forced to continue to watch his family go on without him, from a makeshift room, thousands of kilometres away.

His daughter was nine when he left South Africa, she is now 18. Tsolo’s mother died in 2019, he was unable to bury her.

Now as South Africa slips into yet another festive season, Tsolo remains optimistic, he might even be home for Christmas, in time to eat the food that only his wife knows how to prepare.

“I remain optimistic that this journey will end, I don’t want to call it an ordeal, it is a journey and it will end well.”

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