Hennie van Vuuren of the non-profit research group Open Secrets says the South African Reserve Bank appears intent on protecting the records of suspected apartheid-era financial transactions.
Open Secrets is involved in the ongoing legal battle between the Reserve Bank and the South African History Archive (Saha), which is to be heard before the Supreme Court of Appeal in early March.
Saha is seeking Reserve Bank records on eight individuals who are alleged to have been involved in various financial crimes in South Africa during apartheid. In 2018, the archive applied for access to this information at the Johannesburg high court, but lost the case. It was ordered to pay a R2.7 million cost order, which it is now appealing.
The eight individuals the Reserve Bank seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect are connected to the mafia, chemical weapons and gunrunning, assassinations, smuggling and worse. The question is, why does the Reserve Bank want to protect these men?
Mafia bankers and the pizza connection
Vito Palazzolo was an Italian banker who lived in South Africa for many decades from the mid-1980s. In 1985, a Swiss criminal court sentenced Palazzolo to jail time for money laundering after profits from mafia-controlled heroin sales were deposited into bank accounts he controlled. This was linked to the famous Pizza Connection heroin trafficking ring run by the Italian mafia, a connection Palazzolo has consistently denied.
In December 1986, he escaped and fled to South Africa using a fake passport. He was welcomed by friends in South Africa’s National Party in the then Ciskei homeland. He was eventually arrested and returned to jail in Switzerland. After being released from jail, he returned to South Africa in 1989, settling in the Western Cape.
In 2006, an Italian court connected him to the Sicilian mafia and sentenced him in absentia to nine years in jail, but attempts by the Italian government to get Palazzolo extradited were unsuccessful.
Interpol eventually arrested him in March 2012 in Bangkok, Thailand, and extradited him the following year to serve his nine-year prison sentence.
Leaked documents in 2016, which formed part of the Panama Papers cache, shone a light on Palazzolo’s use of a Panama-based law firm to shield seven companies from tax authorities in Italy, South Africa and Namibia.
The Panama Papers also showed that Palazzolo had a business connection with Zacharias Nujoma, the youngest son of former Namibian president Sam Nujoma.
At the age of 71, Palazzolo was released from prison on probation in early 2019.
Israel and South Africa’s nuclear weapons programme
Two more of the eight men ostensibly being protected by the Reserve Bank are former South African army brigadier Jan Blaauw and former apartheid government minister Fanie Botha, although both have died.
Blaauw is alleged to have set himself up as a go-between in the arms trade business in violation of the United Nations’ arms embargo. Botha was a key state driver of South Africa’s cooperation with Israel on nuclear capabilities, directing the top secret export of large amounts of uranium and tritium to Israel. In return, South Africa was given technical assistance to build its own nuclear weapons.
They are both reported to have been involved in meetings to discuss uranium sales with Israel in the 1970s. The two were also involved in a scandal over a diamond concession on the west coast of South Africa.
Chemical weapons, spies and front companies
Another on the list is Wouter Basson, dubbed “Doctor Death” by South African media for his role in apartheid South Africa’s top secret chemical and biological weapons programme, code-named Project Coast.
Apartheid-era spy Craig Williamson and Giovanni Mario Ricci, his Italian business partner in the Seychelles-based company GMR, are two more of the eight. Williamson was involved in bombings, burglaries, kidnappings, assassinations and propaganda for the state.
In 1986, Williamson became managing director of a South African subsidiary of Ricci’s GMR empire and helped set up a risk consultancy company called Longreach, which acted as an affiliate of GMR but was secretly owned by the South African military.
Robert Hill is a South African businessman who fled the country in 1988 to avoid alleged foreign exchange fraud charges amounting to R170 million. It has been reported that he was facing more than 500 individual fraud charges, some of which related to an alleged financial scam that involved the forgery of Eskom bonds.
The last of the eight is Paul Ekon, a millionaire miner who has been reported to have close ties to former ANC party leaders, including Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. He was once accused of allegedly smuggling millions of rands worth of gold out of the country, but was never charged.
Ekon’s name popped up again in the leaked fundraising emails about President Cyril Ramaphosa’s CR17 ANC presidential campaign.