Selebi's friend, the fraud

Glenn Agliotti, the man the national police chief says is his “friend, finish and klaar” is larger than life, charismatic and caring. He is also a fraudster who keeps popping up in proximity to contraband.

Last week, the Mail & Guardian highlighted Agliotti’s association with National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi and slain mining magnate Brett Kebble. He has largely evaded the public eye—but became briefly visible in 1998 when tried in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on fraud charges totalling about R18-million.

Agliotti was acquitted of substituting sand for cobalt shipments to Europe and the United States. But the M&G has established he was later held liable, on a balance of probabilities, in a private arbitration.

A different kind of fraud is known only to those privy to his private life: for the better part of a year, Agliotti lived the life of a bigamist, juggling two wives in two homes, both in Johannesburg.

Norbert Glenn Agliotti was born in Johannesburg in November 1956. His uncle, Joseph Agliotti, achieved notoriety in the late 1960s in one of the National Party regime’s biggest scandals: he bought land that was to become part of Johannesburg International airport (then Jan Smuts) at a reported R5-million, later selling it to the state for a reported R95-million.

By the mid-1980s, the young Agliotti displayed trappings of serious wealth, driving thoroughbred sports cars—and sometimes a Rolls Royce—and boasting of a yacht in the Mediterranean. Apart from working at a family printing business, Agliotti dabbled in import-export and trade financing. Some question whether the wealth was his own, or even existed.

Certainly, people who know him say he often had large amounts of hard cash on hand.

Agliotti’s greatest gift was people. Despite being overweight, sporting golf shirts and a “sensible” haircut, he had an “astonishing” ability to remember names and personal details. He was “charismatic, gentle and caring” and plied those around him with gifts.

Even then, he counted powerful friends in the business world, among them Caxton chief Terry Moolman.

But those who knew him then say Agliotti also had a troubling side, including the use of “gangster” language and his professed reverence for a Mafia don.

On October 10 1987, Agliotti “married” one Charlene in an elaborate and expensive wedding ceremony at the Hazyview resort of Casa do Sol. But there was already another Mrs Agliotti of some years’ standing, Vivien, who shared his home in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. Charlene went to live with him in a separate home in Kempton Park.

Former acquaintances say the charade lasted for almost a year, until both spouses discovered the truth about their husband’s frequent “business trips”.

In law, Agliotti was no bigamist, as the legal formalities of his marriage to Charlene were never completed. Agliotti, through his lawyer, this week denied that “any wedding as stated ... took place”. The M&G has obtained a photograph of the occasion.

In 1997, working with Congolese nationals, Agliotti arranged for refined cobalt to be shipped to buyers in the United Kingdom and the US. John Hess, the American buyer, and an agent for British buyer Ken Higson inspected the cargo at a Rennies bonded warehouse in Johannesburg.

The Congolese, supposedly owners of the cobalt, claimed to be associated with the regime of Mobutu sese Seko. This was apparently used to explain unusual aspects of the transaction.

Hess told the M&G this week: “There were lots of delays, though I couldn’t quite understand the reason. There was some story about the Zairians watching to see this [cargo] didn’t get out ... It all sounded somewhat fishy.”

The result was that “72 tons of cobalt”—which on inspection turned out to be sand—were delivered to Higson in Antwerp, and the same quantity of sand to Hess in the US.

Insurers Lloyds refused to pay, and fraud charges were pressed against Agliotti and three Congolese citizens. They stood trial in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court in 1998. One of Agliotti’s co-accused died and the others fled the country. Agliotti was acquitted.

Hess, however, pursued the matter through private arbitration, a binding civil procedure presided over by respected silk Arnold Subel.

Subel found for Hess in February 2000, ordering Agliotti and the freighting company he was associated with, Trans-Atlantic, to pay his losses. Although Hess had not yet paid for the cargo when he discovered its contents, he had made significant upfront payments for shipments and other fees.

Hess said this week he had still not been paid the outstanding amount—about R1-million—by Agliotti or Trans-Atlantic. He added: “I’ve no doubt Agliotti was the mastermind.”

Subel’s findings tend to support Hess. He accepted on a balance of probabilities that Agliotti had arranged for Hess’s consignment of sand to be loaded at a warehouse in Johannesburg.

Responding to questions, Agliotti’s lawyer this week pointed to the acquittal in the criminal case. She also claimed the arbitration proceedings were directed at Trans-Atlantic, “of which our client was neither a director nor a shareholder”.

The M&G has documentary proof that the arbitration was directed at both Trans-Atlantic and Agliotti. Subel’s findings and award were against both parties.

Selebi last week confirmed knowing Agliotti since 1992 or 1994. One source said the two had met in the context of Agliotti’s visits to the African National Congress headquarters before 1994, where he had offered to pay for Selebi’s ill child to be hospitalised.

Selebi became commissioner in January 2000, shortly before the arbitration award against Agliotti. The police commissioner did not comment this week because he was in France for a meeting of Interpol, which he heads. But he told the M&G last week that he “did not know anything” about Agliotti’s alleged involvement in contraband activity.

Since the cobalt scam, he has neither been charged nor convicted. However, the M&G is aware that Agliotti has been the subject of other investigations by specialised crime-fighting units. A warehouse of one of his companies, Monster Marketing, has been used by Exclusive Tobacco, which is at the sharp end of a massive revenue investigation. Agliotti’s lawyer referred a query on this to Exclusive.

Agliotti has also been cited in proximity to another revenue investigation, this time targeting Brother Tobacco, a Bronkhorstspruit business. And Agliotti’s lawyer confirmed this week that her client was “a friend” of Billy Rautenbach, the ex-Hyundai king who is a fugitive from South African justice.

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans Brümmer

Stefaans is an old hand at investigations. A politics and journalism graduate, he cut his reporting teeth at the Cape Argus in the tumultuous early 1990s; then joined the Mail & Guardian as democracy dawned in April 1994. For the next 16 years (a late-1990s diversion into television and freelancing apart), the M&G was his journalistic home and launch pad for award-winning investigations focusing on the nexus between politics and money. Stefaans has co-authored exposés including Oilgate, the Selebi affair, Chancellor House and significant breaks in the arms deal scandal. Stefaans and Sam Sole co-founded amaBhungane in 2010. He divides his time between the demands of media bureaucracy (which he detests), coaching members of the amaBhungane team, and his first love, digging for dung.
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