/ 13 March 2009

The arms dealer who flies Zuma

Ivor Ichikowitz, the arms and oil broker who laid on his company jet to ferry Nelson Mandela to a Jacob Zuma election rally in Transkei, has made a career from turning political connections into profit.

Last December Ichikowitz flew Zuma in the luxuriously converted Boeing 727 to Lebanon and Kazakhstan for what the Mail & Guardian understands were African National Congress (ANC) fundraising and business meetings.

Ichikowitz confirmed he provided that flight gratis, but said he went along to test recent upgrades to the jet and did not attend the meetings.

At its commercial charter rate, $14 000 an hour, a return trip to Kazakhstan would have cost upwards of R5-million.

An M&G probe of Ichikowitz’s relations with the ANC and prominent Zuma backers indicates a man who has made it his business to get close to key power-brokers.

They include:

  • Mathews Phosa, who shared a number of company directorships with Ichikowitz before his elevation to ANC treasurer;
  • Moeletsi Mbeki, brother of the former president, who opened doors for Ichikowitz into Africa;
  • Sandi Majali, former Thabo Mbeki acolyte and business frontman for the ANC and Kgalema Motlanthe in ill-fated oil trades with Saddam Hussein;
  • Robert Gumede, owner of IT company GijimaAST and a prominent Zuma backer;
  • Pik Botha, former National Party politician and long-time friend of the Ichikowitz family, who provided an entrée to African leaders including former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo.

Ichikowitz (42) made a fortune selling surplus South African armoured vehicles into Africa and the Middle East, and seems to have manoeuvred his way into Zuma’s inner circle.

He was prominent among public donors to the ANC at a Zuma fundraiser organised by Gumede in October last year, pledging R6-million.

He told the M&G the business community should ”transparently and voluntarily provide both the financial and skills resources political parties need to participate in the democratic process”.

He denies direct or indirect business dealings with any political party. But his best-known entanglement with ANC funding occurred via his association with Majali and his Imvume group.

Ichikowitz, who also represents controversial commodities trader Glencore, partnered Majali in his 2001 bid to supply Iraqi crude to South Africa under the controversial oil-for-food programme allowing limited trade with Saddam’s Iraq.

In 2005 the M&G revealed Majali, with official ANC backing, intended setting up an oil trading operation intended to benefit the ANC and Saddam’s Ba’ath party.

Ichikowitz was also Majali’s partner in a contract to supply PetroSA condensate for its Mossel Bay refinery.

The M&G exposed how Majali diverted R11-million of state oil money to the ANC before the 2004 election, but Oilgate also strained relations between the partners as Majali’s actions created a cash-flow crisis for Ichikowitz’s company.

Ichikowitz told the M&G he was unaware of the link between Majali’s company and the ANC and is no longer in business with Majali.

Moeletsi Mbeki, a key strategist for the Congress of the People, now appears to distance himself from close association with Ichikowitz. He said they were now in only one business together, a cattle feedlot enterprise.

Company records show a number of past African joint ventures, including the agency for Mahindra vehicle sales in South Africa.

Ichikowitz said they had been friends ”for many years” and went into business together about six years ago.

He said he had been friends with Gumede since about 1989 ”and [we] worked together in our family business before he started his own businesses”.

”We have no active business together and remain family friends.”

Phosa once served on the boards of several companies with Ichikowitz, notably Vuka Fleet Management and Vuka Municipal Services, joint ventures between Phosa’s Vuka group and TFM, the truck body manufacturer hived off from the armoured vehicle company now owned by BAE-Systems.

Ichikowitz said Phosa had been ”a family friend since his return from exile in the 1990s … I have no interest in Mathews’s businesses, nor he in mine.”

Ichikowitz may have slipped easily from the Mbeki era into the post-Polokwane ANC, but he has also taken advantage of family political connections stretching back to apartheid.

A source close to the family said former apartheid foreign minister Pik Botha was introduced to the Ichikowitzes by the late John Pearce, then the Johannesburg council’s security head.

Pearce, embedded in the apartheid security establishment, was fired in 1991 following revelations about military intelligence dirty-tricks operations.

Botha, whom Ichikowitz describes as ”a long-standing friend”, has been an informal adviser to Ichikowitz and was also said to have promoted Ichikowitz’s other main business: selling reconditioned surplus South African military equipment into Africa and the Middle East.

Here too, Ichikowitz appears to have benefited from his ANC associations, with a defence department investigation into his trading activities suppressed before it could produce results.


M&G Newspaper