Zim tycoons stay rich by keeping heads close

By Time of article published Apr 7, 2001

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By Basildon Peta

Harare - Zimbabwe's two fabulously wealthy business tycoons, John Bredenkamp and Billy Rautenbach, seem to share one thing in common - a penchant for adventurous enterprises, often in war zones, and an unabashed willingness to exploit political connections with the power of the day.

Bredenkamp, 63, whose wealth is valued at £400-million (about R4,6-billion) is ranked as the 55th richest man in Britain, where he has extensive business interests apart from those in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa.

He hogged the international limelight last year after a report in an intelligence magazine, Africa Confidential, linked him to the brokerage of arms including helicopters and fighter planes from Bulgaria and elsewhere to the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bredenkamp has just entered a joint venture with Congo's state mining corporation, Gecamines, to exploit the country's mineral wealth.

Rautenbach was head of Gecamines from 1998 until last year.

Mining industry sources believe that Rautenbach is playing some role in Bredenkamp's new enterprise with Gecamines, though Bredenkamp has denied this through his spokesperson in Harare, Collin Blythe-Wood, who said Bredenkamp had never worked with Rautenbach and had no business dealings with him.

What is certain is that Bredenkamp has effectively eclipsed Rautenbach as leader of Zimbabwe's investments in the DRC since the latter fell out of favour with the late President Laurent Kabila, who accused him of siphoning off too much of Gecamines' profits.

"There can be no doubt that Rautenbach used to be the key link for Zimbabwean business in Congo. No one can dispute that this role has now been assumed by Bredenkamp," said a senior Zimbabwean government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Blythe-Wood said Bredenkamp would over time invest $50-million in his joint venture with Gecamines, named Kababankola Mining Company (KMC). He will control KMC through a majority 80 percent stake by his firm, Tremalt Limited.

The tycoon's partners in Tremalt Limited are Blythe-Wood himself, who will be managing director of KMC, and another businessman, Gary Webster.

Gecamines will be represented in KMC by Jean-Louis Nkulu, Trudon Katende and Marcel Yabili.

Bredenkamp's KMC has been granted rights to export 200 tons of cobalt a month. Blythe-Wood said the Congo government would receive 68 percent of the profits generated by KMC.

Asked how the joint venture would operate profitably when doling out a higher percentage of its profits to the Congo government, Blythe-Wood said the nature of the investment was such that it would operate profitably.

He also rejected charges that his firm had any political links, saying the project was purely a business investment.

Bredenkamp has made investments in Zimbabwe worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the tourism, oil and farming sectors, and created thousands of jobs.

In the past month he has been linked to a faction of the Commercial Farmers' Union led by Nick Swanepoel, which is seeking a negotiated settlement with the government over Zimbabwe's unresolved land question.

Bredenkamp owns a large estate in Mazowe, which was designated for acquisition by the Zimbabwe government but was later delisted. He, like Rautenbach, has been linked to influential politicians. Reports say Bredenkamp made his fortune during Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) period from Britain between 1965 and 1980.

He is said to have assisted the Smith government in busting sanctions imposed on Rhodesia after the declaration of UDI in exchange for lucrative tobacco contracts.

The reclusive Bredenkamp, in the only interview he has given to the press, admitted his role in sanctions-busting during UDI but said there was nothing clandestine about it.

"Yes, I was requested by the government of the day to help source supplies and equipment for the beleaguered country and yes, I did so. This has been openly acknowledged," he said in the interview, which was published recently by the privately owned Zimbabwe Independent newspaper.

Reports have also linked Bredenkamp to arms sales in Iran and Iraq, but he vehemently denied the charges.

"For many years I have not been involved in the arms business at all. What newsmen have done is extract controversial stories from old articles and then sensationalise them," he said.

Bredenkamp said it was interesting that he had never been questioned by any government in all the countries he had visited over any shady business deals.

"Perhaps rumours and innuendo are not of interest to such people."

Blythe-Wood has also emphatically rejected any allegations linking his boss to arms dealing. In Zimbabwe, Bredenkamp has expressed his open support for President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF government.

Bredenkamp told the Zimbabwe Independent that his vast business interests and extensive travel experience had made him a friend of politicians and he had no regrets about it.

He said he sincerely believed that it was in the "best interests of Zimbabwe for Zanu-PF to win the presidential elections next year".

Bredenkamp said he had become a victim of persecution because of his beliefs. He said people who had made allegations against him did not have the courage to stand up for their convictions.

But such is the level of distaste for what some believe to his activities that parents at his former school, Prince Edward, opposed a move to have the school's computer centre named after him, despite the fact that he had bankrolled it to the tune of more than R1-million.

"I never asked the school to name the centre after me. I am not going to lose any sleep over the fact that a few parents cannot reconcile wider benefits of generosity with their narrow-minded and selfish points of view."

Bredenkamp was born in South Africa in 1940 and moved to Zimbabwe as a child. He was educated at Zimbabwean schools but says he was more interested in sports than academic matters.

He received all his training in business with a tobacco company called Gallahers until 1965, when the company closed because of UDI. He was then seconded to a firm called Tobacco Corporation and travelled frequently to Zambia to buy tobacco.

In 1967 he transferred to Holland to work for a subsidiary of Gallahers called Niemeyers. He became a director of the company and was in charge of its worldwide purchases of all kinds of tobacco. After 10 years with Niemeyers, he left to start his own tobacco firm, Casalee, in Belgium in 1976. The firm grew rapidly and spread its wings through Europe, Africa, America and Asia. In 1993, Bredenkamp sold Casalee to US firm Universal Leaf for $100-million.

After selling Casalee Breden-kamp turned his attention to tourism, oil, sports equipment manufacture and other interests.

In Zimbabwe he won a major tender to supply fuel to the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe. He also supplies fuel to Zambia, Malawi and Congo. - Foreign Service

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