/ 20 November 2009

Rautenbach’s fast and furious ride to riches

Muller Conrad ”Billy” Rautenbach, born on September 23 1959, is a controversial Zimbabwean businessman who has parlayed his closeness to the Zanu-PF government into a personal fortune and an aura of untouchability — despite being a fugitive for a decade.

Rautenbach fled South Africa shortly after the then Investigating Directorate for Serious Economic Offences launched a raid in November 1999 on his Wheels of Africa (WOA) Group, which included Hyundai Motor Distributors.

Between December 1999 and January 2000 most of the South African and Botswana registered companies in the WOA Group were placed under liquidation, leaving debts in excess of R1-billion in South Africa and R900-million in Botswana.

Rautenbach was sought in connection with fraud relating to the manipulation of import tariffs and the siphoning-off of company cash to himself and others using fictitious invoices.

Eventually he reached an agreement earlier this year in which one of his companies pleaded guilty and tendered a R40-million fine, though he personally did not admit liability.

Rautenbach’s closeness to Zimbabwean political heavyweight Emmerson Mnangagwa led to his appointment, in November 1998, as chairperson and managing director of Gecamines, the state-owned mining company of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Zimbabwe had sent troops to the DRC to prop up then-president Laurent Kabila and various business ventures were set up to repay the Zimbaweans for their support.

Rautenbach was removed from this position after an audit by Ernst & Young, mainly because, as described in a later United Nations report ”some of Gecamines’s best cobalt-producing areas were transferred to a joint venture between Mr Rautenbach’s Ridgepoint Overseas Developments Ltd and the Central Mining Group, a Congolese company, controlled by Pierre-Victor Mpoyo, then minister of state”.

In 2000 the DRC government withdrew Rautenbach’s mining concessions, reportedly after he had failed to pay over the government’s share of the profits.

But the death of Laurent Kabila in January 2001 opened the door for Rautenbach to get back in. By April 2002 he had reached a settlement with the DRC government and had been reallocated several lucrative concessions, including half the Mukondo mine being run by his Zimbabwean compatriot and rival John Bredenkamp.

His popularity in Kinshasa has waxed and waned — he was deported in 2007 — but his ability to extract value from the country remains undiminished. He has made an estimated US$50-million from the recent sale of his shares in the United Kingdom company Camec into which he had folded many of his DRC and Zimbabwean mining interests.

Camec was key to his ongoing relationship with the Zimbabwean government. The company, through its purchase of Lefevre (an opaque British Virgin Islands company thought to be controlled by Rautenbach), got access to two platinum concessions in Zimbabwe that had been wrested away from their orginal owner, a division of Anglo Platinum by the Zimbabwe government.

In return Camec granted Lefevre a US$100-million loan ”to meet its obligations to the Zimbabwean government” — at a time, in April 2008, when the Mugabe regime was desperately short of cash.

Where other white farmers have faced dispossession, Rautenbach was granted access to a huge tract of land, the Nuanetsi Ranch, where his Zimbabwe Bio-Energy was to set up a huge cane-growing area to produce feedstock for ethanol production.

In the end resistance from local Zanu-PF barons forced the project to relocate to a different part of Zimbabwe. But when local farmers at Nuanetsi were reluctant to move, they were allegedly treated to Rautenbach’s blunt style of doing business. According to a British documentary screened earlier this year, one farmer told interviewers: ”He said ‘what part of fuck off do you not understand?”’