The collapse of Tollgate, the Cape- based conglomerate of which Julian Askin was chair and principal shareholder, and the subsequent examination into its failure have produced one of the most torrid, unpleasant and seamy corporate chapters in South Africa’s history.
Formerly a South African resident, Askin mixed a career as a journalist with occasional stockbroking. He formed a business relationship with Hugo Bierman and the two men subsequently carved appreciable fortunes out of the London-listed Thompson T-line, which was the subject of a takeover by Ladbrokes.
A consortium stitched together by Askin took control of Tollgate in late 1989/early 1990. It did so, says Askin, against the background of wide-ranging discussions with Trust Bank, then Tollgate’s banker. Askin insists Trust Bank was always aware of his plans for Tollgate.
Askin is adamant that Trust Bank never revealed its own financial problems, including that it had been forced to seek assistance from the Reserve Bank. He said in November 1995 that had he known of the “lifeboat” at the time, “I would have walked away from the Tollgate deal”.
When efforts to restructure Tollgate failed, Askin says he learned that Absa (the successor to Bankorp, of which Trust Bank was a subsidiary) intended to liquidate Tollgate. Its decision, claims Askin, was based on the fact that writing off Tollgate as a bad debt would cause it no financial damage because it would recover the losses from the lifeboat provided by the Reserve Bank.
With Tollgate in liquidation, its liquidators first sought a Section 417 commission of inquiry and then applied for Askin’s sequestration. Later they charged him with fraud and theft of more than R60-million. Askin fled, convinced, he said, he would never find justice in South Africa.
Askin was later arrested by the Italian authorities and jailed while fighting an extradition request from South Africa. He avoided extradition twice, the second time only because his wife, Susy, secured the assistance of former British security agents.
Since then Askin has devoted himself to clearing his name, while probing every aspect of Absa’s operations and those of its chair, Danie Cronje.
Askin told the Mail & Guardian this week that the response and bearing of the three British appeal court judges appeared unfavourable. Askin is asking that his case against Absa, Cronje and others should be allowed to proceed in the United Kingdom.
He has already secured the agreement of the British courts on the matter of jurisdiction. However, a UK judge told Askin a year ago that South Africa is the most logical venue for such a case to be heard.
The appeal launched this week seeks to reverse that decision by demonstrating that Askin’s life would be in jeopardy if he returns to South Africa and by suggesting that a fair trial would be unlikely.