'The height of hypocrisy'

Two leading congressional inquisitors into former US president Bill Clinton’s pardon of sanctions-buster Marc Rich also worked against the embargo

Josey Ballenger

The role played by fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich in supplying oil to South Africa’s apartheid government, violating international sanctions, has been buried in the furore over the pardon he was granted in January by former United States president Bill Clinton.

Ironically, two leading congressional inquisitors into the pardon Republicans representative Dan Burton of Indiana and Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah also worked against US sanctions imposed on South Africa in the 1980s.

Yet Burton, chair of the House government reform committee, cited Rich’s South Africa sanctions-busting activities in the litany of charges against him. Burton asked former White House counsel Beth Nolan at a March 1 hearing: Was Clinton “aware that Mr Rich was violating the embargo of South Africa or that he was trading with Cuba during the Cuban embargo? Did you tell the president any of that?” He then listed those sanction-busting activities among six known violations by Rich of the Trading with the Enemies Act.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Burton and Republican Senator Jesse Helms worked with the International Freedom Foundation, a Washington-based organisation in part clandestinely funded by the South African military to prop up overseas support for apartheid.

The goal of the anti-communist group was to gather intelligence on, and discredit, the then-banned African National Congress. Burton and Hatch voted against key 1986 legislation banning trade and investment with South Africa, even when most of their party moved across the floor to support it.

Billionaire Rich, who fled to Switzerland in 1983 to escape tax evasion and other US criminal charges, was South Africa’s biggest supplier of oil (and traded other commodities with the country), contravening US, European Community and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoes and amassing millions of dollars in profit in the process.

Both Burton and Hatch, who is current chair of the Senate judiciary committee, have railed against Clinton for his pardon of Rich. Their hearings were probing for evidence of a possible quid pro quo for million-dollar-plus donations to Democrats by Rich’s former wife, New York songwriter and socialite Denise Rich. Although the hearings have ended, committee staff members say their investigations are ongoing.

“How ironic,” said representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, when informed of Burton’s record on South Africa. “I do think that since he investigates everybody, he should be looked into.”

“It is the height of hypocrisy that Orrin Hatch or Dan Burton would be opposed to anyone breaking sanctions against South Africa,” said Salih Booker, who was the Democratic professional staff member of the House foreign affairs subcommittee on Africa in the mid-1980s. He is now executive director of the Africa Policy Information Centre, a non-profit advocacy organisation in Washington.

“Dan Burton called the freedom movement of the ANC a ‘terrorist’ organisation and spent most of the time attacking their leadership, notably Nelson Mandela,” Booker said, noting that Burton was the ranking Republican on the Africa subcommittee at the time. “He never had a word against the white supremacists who ruled; he never met with those fighting for freedom, unlike others on the committee, Republicans and Democrats alike.”

Calls seeking comment from the offices of Burton and Hatch, and from the House government reform committee, were not returned at the time of going to press.

Even after many of his Republican peers decided to support US trade and investment sanctions against South Africa, Burton remained a stalwart against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986. So did Hatch. That Bill which became law by garnering a two-thirds majority to override president Ronald Reagan’s veto outlawed petroleum product exports and imports of South African coal, uranium, iron, steel, textiles, sugar and other agricultural products, and prohibited new investment in South Africa.

The role of apartheid military intelligence in the International Freedom Foundation surfaced in 1995 when former South African spy Craig Williamson revealed that the former Pretoria regime spent up to $1,5-million a year until 1992 to underwrite “Operation Babushka”, as the foundation was known. Its Washington headquarters passed on information about the ANC to a British-based company created by Williamson that was a South African government front.

A member of the foundation’s international board of directors disclosed that at least half of the foundation’s money came from projects undertaken on behalf of South Africa’s military intelligence, New York’s Newsday reported in 1995 after a three-month investigation. And Colonel John Rolt, a South African army representative, confirmed that “the International Freedom Foundation was a former South African Defence Force project”.

Burton, Helms and other foundation participants, such as former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes, denied knowledge of the South African funding link. But Burton was an active participant. In 1987, for example, when Senator Edward Kennedy chaired a study of children in apartheid prisons, the foundation retaliated by sponsoring an investigation into the ANC’s treatment of children, The Observer of London reported.

“We participated in forums they sponsored,” a Burton aide told Newsday. “They were anti-communist, and we were happy to work with them to that extent.”

The International Freedom Foundation was created in 1985 by Jack Abramoff, a conservative lobbyist who once represented the late Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Abramoff and Duncan Sellars, who served as the foundation’s chair, were both Burton campaign contributors but denied knowing about the South African funding, according to media reports in 1995.

Abramoff said the foundation had been funded by hundreds of contributors in the US, Europe and Israel. Apartheid South Africa’s last president, FW de Klerk, cut off funding for covert “political” operations in 1992 and the foundation folded in 1994.

While Hatch was not known to be a foundation participant, he was a Reagan loyalist who insisted that harsh sanctions would hurt black workers as much as the white rulers the international community was targeting.

“Let’s do positive economic things, instead of punitive economic things,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation in July 1986. Hatch voted for a weaker Senate sanctions Bill that failed, and also offered a successful amendment providing $40-million to train black South Africans for leadership positions in a future majority government.

Meanwhile, Rich headed the list of oil suppliers to South Africa, according to the Shipping Research Bureau, an Amsterdam-based watchdog that monitored sanctions-busting commodities trading from 1980 to 1993.

Not only were security forces waging war against ANC supporters domestically, but the South African Defence Force was backing Unita in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique. South Africa also had troops in Namibia, then known as South West Africa, in defiance of United Nations resolutions calling for Namibian independence.

“Supporting apartheid was tantamount to prolonging human rights violations in South Africa and the region,” Richard Hengeveld, the former director of the Shipping Research Bureau, wrote in a document submitted to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997.

“The availability of liquid fuel in particular was not only a vital requirement to keep the apartheid economy moving, but also, in a literal sense, essential in order to enable the police and military to move into the townships, carry out invasions and bombings of neighbouring countries and continue the illegal occupation of Namibia,” he wrote.

Of 865 identified deliveries by tankers in excess of 50 000 tons from 1979 to 1993, the Shipping Research Bureau found that 149 shipments were linked to Rich; 26,2-million tons, or 15% of the total tonnage uncovered, were attributable to the businessman based in Zug, Switzerland, though “additional deliveries are most likely hidden under the name of front companies”.

An apartheid-era official from the Strategic Fuel Fund South Africa’s oil procurement agency confirmed in a recent interview that the former government traded directly with Rich, sometimes through front companies. The Strategic Fuel Fund considered Rich to be its most reliable supplier during the boycott, said the official, who asked not to be named.

Rich was indicted in 1983 on more than 50 counts of tax evasion, fraud, racketeering and trading with the enemy. The Justice Department charged that he evaded more than $48-million in taxes (the largest tax fraud case in US history), committed mail and wire fraud, profited from “daisy chain” oil sales, and brokered illegal oil deals with Iran during the US hostage crisis in 1979.

Rich’s companies paid $200-million in criminal fines and penalties in 1984 in connection with the case, but he was not tried as an individual.

Josey Ballenger is a writer for The Public i