Thursday, November 27, 2008

The arms dealer who could bring down Zuma

Police raid addresses owned by tycoon implicated in controversial sale of aircraft to South Africa

A dramatic raid on addresses in South Africa linked to a controversial international arms dealer yesterday cast fresh doubt on would-be president Jacob Zuma's political future.

South Africa's renowned financial crimes unit, the Scorpions, swooped on properties owned by John Bredenkamp, a businessman, erstwhile political ally of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and a man involved in a controversial arms deal that has already seen Mr Zuma's financial adviser imprisoned.

Mr Bredenkamp is accused of improperly profiting from a deal to sell fighter aircraft to South Africa. Mr Zuma is due to face his country's Supreme Court in the next 48 hours in connection with the same case, the outcome of which could decide the South African presidency.

It is alleged that a British arms manufacturer offered inducements to secure a major contract for its partially owned Swedish partner Saab to supply fighter jets to South Africa.

The controversial raid by an elite police unit used by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in his attempts to discredit Mr Zuma – a unit facing disbandment under a Zuma government – has significantly raised the political stakes in a case that is tipped to determine who leads Africa's largest economy after elections next year. No independent evidence has been produced to support the claims against Mr Zuma.

It also marks the return to centre stage of the colourful and controversial Mr Bredenkamp, who on Tuesday was hit by financial sanctions after being named by the US as a key backer of the Mugabe regime. The former captain of Rhodesia's rugby team is thought to have acquired his first fortune by helping the international pariah regime of Ian Smith evade UN sanctions following its unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. His second fortune was made after independence, when he built up the largest tobacco company outside of the US. He ran his businesses from Harare and had a good relationship with the Mugabe government he had previously worked to prevent taking office.

The South African-born businessman, who has held Zimbabwean and Dutch passports as well as enjoying British citizenship, was once rated among the 100 richest men in the UK. He has since fallen out with Mr Mugabe and is now resident in Britain after having his Zimbabwean passport revoked. Fana Hlongwane, once a senior aide to the late former South African defence minister Joe Modise, was also raided in Johannesburg over the same alleged kick-back scandal yesterday morning.

The raid on Mr Bredenkamp's premises marks the culmination of a long-running investigation into sales of aircraft to South Africa by the British company BAE Systems. It was not clear whether the Scorpions had obtained any information that would help them in the investigations of the activities of Mr Bredenkamp. His lawyer, Ian Small-Smith, confirmed that the raid on his client, who owns a number of properties in Britain and has secured indefinite residency, would not affect his intention to remain in the UK. "It's a long, long story," said Mr Small-Smith, who initially agreed to comment further on the case but was then unavailable to do so.

The Scorpions, who were last year asked by the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) for help in investigating the suspect arms deal, declined to comment further on the purpose and outcome of the South African raids. The alleged BAE payments to Mr Bredenkamp are said to have been made between 2003 and 2005 by Red Diamond Trading, a BAE subsidiary registered in the British Virgin Islands. The monies moved from a Lloyds TSB account into one owned by Kayswell Services, a company also registered in the British Virgin Islands of which Mr Bredenkamp was listed as a beneficiary. Red Diamond was liquidated on 30 May last year, just before the firm announced that Lord Woolf, a former chief justice, was due to begin an investigation into its observance of anti-corruption rules.

The once-close relationship between Mr Mugabe and Mr Bredenkamp appears to have been broken after the former rugby star was accused of supporting a plot to replace the 83-year-old president with his long-time ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The disclosure of the plot saw Mr Bredenkamp jailed in Zimbabwe for four days on charges that he had violated citizenship laws by owning two passports, one Zimbabwean and the other South African.

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