Sibongile Mani has been sentenced to 5 years in prison for theft
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Sibongile Mani, and The Hypocrisy Of The South African Legal System

The former student has been sentenced to five years in prison on the grounds of 'theft' — for a systemic error, she had no part in creating.

Last week, former Walter Sisulu University student Sibongile Mani was sentenced to five years in prison for 'stealing' R800 000 of the R14 Million that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) mistakenly debited into her account in 2017. Yes — a South African governing body credited a student's account with R14 million instead of the R1,400 that she was eligible for, and now she's going to prison for theft.

The matter has split South Africans, as many argued their opinions, condemnation, or support for Mani online. The opinion that one could argue is the most sensible, is that Sibongile Mani was a 22-year-old student who grew up, like many South Africans, living a life that barely met her basic, satisfactory needs. When faced with what you could only consider a fucking miracle, she got ahead of herself. As human beings have a habit of doing. We should also not forget that she had no part in obtaining the millions and that Mani being a hiccup in a larger scheme is not necessarily off-brand for South African governing bodies.

And after countless court delays (including the shady resignation of former NSFAS CEO Steven Zwane in 2018 when told he would have to appear before the court as a witness), Mani was prosecuted for theft and essentially, not reporting the error immediately.

Corruption and ”miss managed funds” are stories South Africans are used to. Countless government officials have been caught stealing money from their sectors, each other, and the country at large, and the usual resolution does not resemble true justice in the slightest. From former president Jacob Zuma's unbelievably brazen sticky fingers and inappropriate relationships with the billionaire Gupta family, to corruption within the South African Broadcasting Corporate, South African Airways, Eskom (South Africa's lead electricity producers), and far too many other examples. South Africans know and understand corruption, theft, and greed at the expense of the livelihood of others -- and Sibongile Mani does not belong in that category.

How on Earth does a company simply lose track of R14 million? There has been little to no conversation about how and why the error was made. Times Lives, one of South Africa's leading news providers, published a story titled, "Sympathy for Mani Is Proof Of How Low SA Morality Has Sunk". At the same time, the City Press's Mondli Makanya referred to Mani as a "greedy and dishonest adult who made a conscious decision to steal from her peers."

Not an inquiry on how a government-run organization worth R30 billion could go over three months without noticing R14 million missing. Instead, an attack on South Africans who empathize with a then 22-year-old student who was caught up in the shock of sudden fortune chose to spend it on her friends, alcohol, and life that very few could even dream of. Now, no argument is being made over whether Mani is innocent or not. More so that the average South African would think that R14 million in their account is a long-awaited answered prayer from a merciful higher being.

If this was the story of a cunning, well-equipped student who embezzled millions under the noses of the super-human, intelligent bursar's office -- then, by all means, put the bad guy away. However, one could argue that Mani was a glitch in a much larger scheme that would make the CEO of a company resign when asked to go to court to rectify a crime against his organization. Or, maybe, NSFAS needs to allocate more time off for their employees, because, once again, how do you lose track of R14 million? Mani is a student who, when faced with astounding circumstances, made a choice that would not benefit her in the long term -- that's it, really. To frame the circumstances and subsequent response from people who kinda get it as, 'morally corrupt', is frankly dramatic and detached from the realities of many South Africans.

Mani was found guilty of theft on 7 February 2022 and has been ordered to repay the R818 000 she used. She is currently on extended bail, as her appeal will be heard on 11 April 2022. No statements have been made on Mani’s behalf, however, support for the former Walter Sisulu University student has poured in from very different parts of South Africa. Businessman Malcolm X pledged R500 000 towards Mani's hefty bill and urged others to assist where possible, while #CountryMen social movement founder Tumi Sole urged his Twitter followers to connect him to Mani’s family, as he had a collective of attorneys and advocates who wished to offer their services. Others offered emotional support and offered their sympathy as they recognize the hypocrisy of painting Mani as a cold-hearted thief, while the real ones continue to rule in peace.

Twitter users quickly voiced their opinions on Mani's debacle