The questions directed at a defiant former president PW Botha by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission last month could equally have been directed at Botha’s mysterious counsel, Pretoria attorney Ernst Penzhorn.
As a sort of legal agent-cum-fixer extraordinaire for the previous dispensation, entrusted with operations which still raise as many questions as ever, Penzhorn seems more likely to be able to give a full record of what steps were taken by Botha’s state security council to shore up the apartheid state than his 82- year-old client.
Penzhorn’s name first cropped up in the largely ineffective Harms commission of inquiry in 1990 into government hit squads as a possible front man for the former military intelligence (MI), when it came to light that a closed corporation he owned called Global Capital Investments had been used to launder money into a trust controlled by assassinated Swapo activist advocate Anton Lubowski.
He has subsequently also appeared on behalf of the Harare Five, charged with Civil Co- operation Bureau-type attacks on African National Congress members in exile, and former foreign minister Pik Botha has acknowledged that Penzhorn had been used by his department.
Penzhorn’s speciality, if his past record is anything to go by, is hardly criminal matters, but rather the art of smoke and mirrors, and the negotiation of the shifting sands of international realpolitik where countries have no friends, but only interests.
Nothing demonstrates this relationship more clearly than South Africa’s recent full diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China, perhaps the most unlikely of the apartheid regime’s secret allies. Penzhorn and Botha must have had to suppress a sardonic smirk — they had been actively co-operating, under the mantle of MI, with Beijing since early 1984 — and United Nations Security Council sanctions could do very little to disrupt this relationship.
Sources in the international intelligence community last week gave a tantalising glimpse into Penzhorn’s world, best exemplified by a little-known company called Bowett International, which well- placed sources said was set up to channel arms from China to Jonas Savimbi’s Unita movement in Angola.
Created in the wake of arms sanctions imposed in 1986, Bowett International was the product of an odd friendship between a high-flying Canadian Chinese, John KT Wang, and PW Botha. By then, the Unita army had started running short of guns and ammunition.
No one else would sell arms to anyone associated with apartheid South Africa. China, starved for hard currency — and no doubt hungry for the ivory that Savimbi was selling off by the ton — was only too willing to oblige.
According to its articles lodged with the registrar of companies, Bowett International was constituted on September 6 1987 by Penzhorn to “import and export on an international basis” and carry on business as an “import, export, financing and investment” agent.
Powers of attorney were also assigned to Jacob Egmont Knoll, Rene du Plessis, Gordon Keith Hay, Guy Neville Pudney and, significantly, one Daniel Barend Rudolph Badenhorst, better known as General “Witkop” Badenhorst, chief of staff of MI at the time.
Based in Momentum Park in Midrand, Bowett’s MD was Pieter Willem Botha Jr, assisted by a board of directors consisting of Johannes Marthinus Daniel Erasmus, Badenhorst’s second-in-charge, Admiral Willem du Plessis, Patrick Ross Dunkley and Penzhorn “as nominee”.
Later directors included Johan de Waal, currently manager of Nedcor Security, Joseph Henry Taylor and Stefanus Willem Daniel Otto, thought to have been either MI agents or Armscor employees. De Waal, as a former MI associate of Botha Jr, in 1991 was the general manager of Bowett International.
Botha Jr has often boasted before witnesses of the two years he lived in Beijing in 1986 as an MI operative, but for some reason could never return to China’s shores, preferring to send De Waal to deal with the Chinese arms industry’s marketing arms, Catick (aviation) and Citick (armament and ammunition, for example, Chinese versions of the AK-47 and landmines for Savimbi).
After Botha Snr was ousted by FW de Klerk, Bowett International’s prospects started declining, and witnesses said Botha Jr was “obsessed” with the prospect of his father facing a Nuremberg-style inquisition. With the state security council closed down by De Klerk, he decreed that Bowett International should diversify into other lines.
By mid 1991, De Waal undertook what appears to have been one of his last official missions to Beijing for negotiations with Citick and Catick, spending three months in Beijing.
Attempts to enter into agreements with other arms suppliers elsewhere in the world had failed, and when De Waal returned, the staff were notified by Botha Jr that Bowett International was to close down its operations following the “betrayal by De Klerk”.
With his father — who, as chair of the state security council, had sanctioned millions of rands in payments to Bowett International as middleman to the South African arms industry (for example, paying for the T-72 tank Tommy Sitholes smuggled in from Poland to Armscor for “research purposes”) — deposed, Botha Jr appears to have lost his usefulness to the international shareholders in the company.