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EXCLUSIVE: Woman ’smuggled’ by defence minister speaks - I fled for my life

Johannesburg - The young Burundian woman who is at the centre of claims that she was "smuggled" into the country by defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula in a state-owned jet has spoken out about how the incident was part of her plan to flee from her abusive father.


Michelle Wege, 23, who is now at the centre of a probe surrounding how she entered the country two years ago, told reporters in an exclusive interview that she fled Burundi fearing for her life.

Michelle came out in defence of the minister, who she calls "mommy", denying media claims that she entered South Africa illegally and challenging authorities to investigate the matter.

The young woman alleges that she was physically abused by her father, Laurent Wege, from a young age.

She said their relationship broke down in January 2014 when he changed his mind about her studying in South Africa. Michelle said she had also refused to enter into an illegal business venture with him.

"So I decided I am not staying here and doing illegal stuff or involved in anything. I have my own future to worry about. I cannot fail in life before it even starts. So I am going school," Michelle said.

Several attempts to contact Laurent. He has not responded to several phone calls and emails. But in an interview with the Sunday Times last year, Laurent denied the abuse claims and said his daughter was due to marry the minister’s son Chumani, who was killed in 2015.

The Sunday Times also reported that Mapisa-Nqakula used an air force jet to rescue Michelle from detention in Kinshasa, where she was arrested for travelling using fraudulent documents.

Michelle was nabbed at the airport in Kinshasa, after she failed to respond to officials in the local languages, including French. She had previously studied in the US.

The newspaper reported that the illegal documents were allegedly organised by Mapisa-Nqakula’s sister Nosithembele Mapisa, who was the deputy ambassador in Burundi at the time.

Mapisa-Nqakula has denied the claims. According to her, she had travelled to Kinshasa for an official visit with her Congolese counterpart ahead of an African Union summit to discuss the deployment of soldiers to the east of the country.

She has refused to comment on the latest claims by Michelle and said she welcomes any investigation into the matter. The minister said she has the "utmost trust in the laws of this country".

Mapisa back at work

Mapisa-Nqakula’s spokesperson Joy Peter told reporters: "As you may be well aware, this matter is the subject of a police investigation, following the announcement by the Democratic Alliance after the initial Sunday Times report that they’ve opened a police case in this regard last year."

"The minister had put it on public record that she’ll co-operate with this investigation fully. Therefore, the minister welcomes any form of investigation into the matter and has the utmost trust in the law of this country," Peter said.

Mapisa, who was suspended for more than a year over the saga, has since returned to work in Pretoria without facing a disciplinary inquiry. However, a lower-level Burundi official has since been fired after he wrote a letter to the labour minister claiming that due process was not followed.

Sources close to the controversy claim that Mapisa in her report alleges that she feared for Michelle’s life and had met with United Nations Refugee Agency and officials at the DRC’s embassy to assist Michelle.

Mapisa has refused to comment on the incident, saying she had submitted her full report to international relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in 2014.

"I submitted the full report to minister at Dirco in 2014. My name has been out there, falsely accused but I cannot talk because I am an official at Dirco," Mapisa, who Michelle calls "aunt", said.

’Well-connected’ father
Michelle said she became part of the family when she befriended Mapisa’s children in Burundi.

She then met the minister when she travelled with the family to her Johannesburg home for holidays. She now lives in the minister’s Bruma house, east of Johannesburg.

Michelle said Mapisa-Nqakula pays for her education and upkeep.

"She has given me the love of a mother; the protection of a mother; the guidance of life in general. I lost my mom at young age," Michelle said.
She admits to travelling to Congo using illegal documents, saying she was afraid her "well-connected" father would have alerted authorities and would have found her if she used her authentic documents. She denies that the minister and her sister were involved.

"I did have help from people but it had nothing to do with the minister, her sister or anyone connected to South Africa. They helped me in Congo, I had tried everyone including the UN. My plan was if I got arrested by police, I will tell my story and say I am running away," Michelle said.

Request for permission
After she was held at the airport she was kept at the Kinshasa detention centre for ten days. Michelle said officials did not believe her story and instead accused her of being a drug or diamond mule. She said they threatened to cut off her dreadlocks because they believed she had hidden contraband in them.

Mapisa-Nqakula last year told News24 she had written to South African officials to allow Michelle, who was coming to South Africa as her guest, to travel to South Africa.

"If I was doing anything illegal, why would I put it on paper?" Mapisa-Nqakula said.

Michelle said her father had planned for her to study in South Africa in 2014 but on the eve of her departure from Bujumbura in Burundi, he changed his mind because she refused to be part of a business deal.

She claims her father was also angry because she had disclosed the abuse.

"I told him you can beat me, you can kick me you can do whatever you want, I am used to it. There is nothing worse you can do, but I am not going to do this….I am going to school."

’I know the power he has’
She said things came to a head at the airport in Bujumbura, first with the airline refusing to issue a boarding pass despite her having a valid ticket, passport and visa.

Michelle said her father appeared at the airport with a senior airport security official who ignored her pleas to be allowed to leave the country.

She said she left the airport and hid in Bujumbura with friends for a few days as she plotted her "escape".

"I know the power he has... maybe that is why he wanted that control over me because I know him the best no matter what. I know his next moves, I know everything," Michelle said.

Laurent has been described as a businessman with close ties to Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Michelle said growing up she believed that the physical abuse was "normal" and that her father beat her because he was stressed out.

Relationship ’no one’s business’
She said he was a single parent who had between two to three jobs and had protected his family from genocide in Burundi.

"Even though I was going through the abuse, he wouldn’t go one day without saying he loves me...I know he loves me and he told me every day."

Michelle has, however, refused to disclose the nature of her relationship with Mapisa-Nqakula’s late son Chumani.

"I feel like I could give answers to anything regarding that but I don’t feel that I need to. I don’t think it is anyone’s business.

"Those people who are close to us know the relationship I had with him. But fact is he is not here to speak up on his behalf, why do I need to speak about something where the other person involved cannot speak? I don’t want to do that. It has nothing to do with how I got here," she insisted.

Chumani was stabbed to death, allegedly by his friend Carlos Higuera, in Bezuidenhout Valley, Johannesburg, in October 2015.

Jimirasire

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