HARARE – When the United States embassy in Harare received a bunch of visa applications, most of them from prospective students, something gave officers cause to take a closer look at some of the academic certificates.
Some 40 visa applications were reviewed, among them 30 beneficiaries of scholarships from the Graca Machel Trust, according to their supporting documents.
They had letters signed by Hopewell Chino’ono from the Trust, confirming that they had been “granted up to US$40,000 per year for four years” to pursue studies with various American colleges.
When the embassy sent a routine request to the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec) to confirm the authenticity of the O’ Level and A’ Level certificates in front of them – even they could not have anticipated the response. Thirty of the 40 applicants had submitted fake certificates.
The embassy called in the police. The applicants were invited to come for their visa interviews, and those who turned up were quickly arrested – but most did not pitch up. Police are on their trail.
A key question the embassy and investigators are trying to answer is this: is the Graca Machel Trust and Hopewell Chino’ono involved in an elaborate fake certificates and visa scam?
The Graca Machel Trust released a statement to ZimLive, following our enquiries on Tuesday, strongly dissociating the organisation from what it called a “scam”.
“The Graça Machel Trust has learnt with great disappointment of an alleged Graça Machel scholarship fund that has been run in Zimbabwe with letters signed by a Hopewell Chino’ono. The scam is being perpetrated by individuals that have misappropriated the name and logo of Mrs Graça Machel and the Graça Machel Trust to unsuspecting victims. We would like to inform members of the public, and stakeholders that this is not a Graça Machel Trust led initiative and we are investigating the source of the fraud,” the statement said.
The Trust also stated that their scholarships were only open to “women from rural or disadvantaged backgrounds”, whereas some of the visa applications filed with the embassy were from men.
Further, the Trust said beneficiaries of their scholarship programmes study predominantly at South African universities “and thus the links with American universities implied in the letter is incorrect.”
Hopewell Chino’ono was not an employee of the Trust, the statement added, and “has never been in the employ of, nor has he conducted business or been affiliated with the Trust, and thus does not have a mandate to speak on behalf of the Trust or to issue such letters or demand payment from individuals to facilitate them receiving Graça Machel scholarships.”
“The Trust embarks on a rigorous selection process that includes verification of qualifications submitted in the applications we receive; hence we have never admitted any individual who holds fraudulent qualifications,” it added.
Chino’ono, before we had opportunity to place questions before him, tweeted a picture of the letter purportedly signed by him that we had shared with the Graca Machel Trust during our enquiries. He denied that the signature on the letters was his.
“I’m disappointed at the lengths that people can go to without regard of the damage that their actions will have on someone’s identity,” he tweeted on Thursday, saying he had been alerted to the “con trick used by someone using my name” by a South African journalist.
He said he was “dealing with it… the police are now involved”.
Nicky Dlamini, the Zimsec public relations manager, said they were alarmed to learn that there was an individual or a group of people involved in manufacturing fake certificates.
“It’s worrisome if people are going to get into certain occupations with fraudulent certificates,” she said. “No-one would want to be treated by a doctor who doesn’t know what paracetamol is for. So, I think we need to look at it seriously, it is not about O’ and A’ Level only, it is about the nation as a whole to say, what are we as a nation going to do about it?”
Ken Wetzel, the US embassy spokesman, said: “We don’t comment on individual visa issues. We also don’t comment on fraud.”