shocking case of embezzlement came to a close on Friday as Hildegard Antoinette Steenkamp, a former accountant at Medtronic (Pty) Ltd, was sentenced to an effective 50 years in prison by the Johannesburg Commercial Crimes Court in Palm Ridge. The 50-year-old woman had been found guilty of an astonishing 336 charges related to the theft of R537 million ($28 million)over a 13-year period.
Steenkamp’s elaborate plan involved making fraudulent Value Added Tax (VAT) claims from the South African Revenue Service in an attempt to cover up her theft. The court heard that she operated alone, despite her claims that her late husband, Mathys Steenkamp, had forced her into the criminal activities.
In delivering the sentence, Magistrate Phillip Venter expressed his shock at the magnitude of the theft, stating that it was the highest amount seen by the court in cases involving an individual perpetrator. He emphasized that Steenkamp had meticulously executed a well-thought-out criminal plan, engaging in transactions larger than the average salary of a middle-class person and even exceeding pension amounts received upon retirement.
Venter highlighted a concerning trend in commercial crime courts, noting an increase in criminals with profiles similar to Steenkamp’s—individuals in positions of trust, such as accountants or bookkeepers, who exploit their access to commit financial crimes.
The magistrate explained, “It’s the profile of the most trusted individual, in a position of trust, like an accountant or bookkeeper. They usually never take leave, and someone who never allows anyone access to their system would go to the length of taking their laptops with them while they are on holiday so that they can continue working. They are usually caught in the moment of forced absence from work.”
Steenkamp’s defense argued against a direct imprisonment term, citing poor living conditions and overcrowding in prisons. However, Venter dismissed these arguments, stating, “A considerable long-term imprisonment is the only appropriate sentence. The court can’t be regarding the issue of overcrowding in prisons.”
The imposed sentence was double what the State had requested. During closing arguments, State advocate Tilas Chabalala had proposed a 25-year imprisonment term due to the severity of the crimes committed.
Steenkamp’s fraudulent activities were revealed when forensic investigators discovered that she funded a lavish lifestyle, including gambling, jewelry purchases, and frequent international travel, with the stolen funds. She resigned from Medtronic in 2017 and handed herself over to the authorities in 2018. Steenkamp pleaded guilty earlier this year, and her sentence serves as a stark reminder of the severe consequences for those who abuse positions of trust for personal gain.