On the two occasions when Fana Hlongwane has revealed himself to South Africans – at the arms deal commission and the state capture commission – he has worn dapper blue suits and shirts. Otherwise, there is very little that is known about the notoriously elusive “businessman” and “fixer” who has existed in the shadows of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy, allegedly linked to some of the biggest corruption scandals to affect the country. This is all while rumours and allegations of vertiginous consultancy fees from multinational arms manufacturers, luxury homes, politically connected wheeling and dealing, and wild parties have swirled around him.
The commission of inquiry into South Africa’s multibillion-rand arms procurement deal in the late 1990s famously “could not find” Hlongwane for protracted periods to serve him with a subpoena to appear before it.
When journalists went looking for him, things became surreal. A call to his cellphone by the Mail & Guardian newspaper in 2013 was answered by someone who claimed they were not Hlongwane. When asked by the newspaper if Hlongwane had gone into hiding because the arms deal commission was looking for him, the man, who did not identify himself, answered: “Fana Hlongwane is right here with me, but he is talking to someone. Fana Hlongwane is sitting in the bright sunlight and I can see his face very clearly. He is not wearing any disguise.
“I can see him before me and I can assure you Fana Hlongwane is not in hiding. If anybody says they could not find him, it must just be because of laziness,” he added.
Hlongwane, the special adviser to former defence minister Joe Modise, eventually did appear before commission head Judge Willie Seriti in 2014, but gave nothing away. He also made an application to the commission, which was subsequently dropped, to stop the media from taking photographs of him during his appearance because of the alleged danger it posed to himself, his family and his businesses.
The ongoing Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture chaired by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo appeared to have better luck in locating Hlongwane and on Wednesday 4 December, he appeared before Zondo wearing a wide-lapelled, double-breasted white jacket with blue pinstripes and an expensive looking blue shirt.
Again, he gave extremely little away in testimony hanging heavily on insinuation and a mild irritation at the inconvenience of being subpoenaed because, he maintained, he was a “peripheral figure” in the chain of events in 2015 that led to former president Jacob Zuma replacing then finance minister Nhlanhla Nene with Des van Rooyen. Bowing to pressure within and outside the ANC, Zuma replaced Van Rooyen with Pravin Gordhan a few days later. These moves saw the rand plummet and billions wiped off the stock exchange.
At issue before the commission was an October 2015 meeting between Zuma’s son, Duduzane, Hlongwane and former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas. The latter had testified earlier at the commission that at this meeting, the trio were joined by Ajay Gupta, one of the brothers accused of collaborating with Zuma to allegedly pillage state departments and state-owned enterprises through the appointment of lackeys willing to channel money to their families and others.
Jonas alleged that Gupta informed him that the president was intent on replacing Nene because he “could not work with him” and was considering promoting the deputy minister to replace him.
Allegations of blackmail
Jonas described what appeared to be a screening interview by Gupta as to his pliability for the job. He was allegedly offered R600 million in cash if he agreed to take up the position. He also threatened that his political career would be destroyed if he went public with details of their meeting.
According to Jonas, Hlongwane and Duduzane Zuma said little during the half-hour meeting. But Zuma’s testimony before the commission earlier this year painted a different picture.
Zuma told the commission that the meeting had been called to deal with rumours, allegedly circulated by Jonas, that Hlongwane was blackmailing the then deputy finance minister.
On Wednesday 4 December, Hlongwane corroborated Zuma’s testimony and explained how he had asked for the meeting to be moved from the Park Hyatt in Rosebank to a more “private” venue, which led to them congregating at the Gupta residence in Saxonwold despite Zuma having a house nearby.
Hlongwane, who admitted to being a good “friend and comrade” of Jonas until that point, described the meeting as “tense” because the “issue that was being raised was of such a serious nature”.
Back to the door
According to Hlongwane, Jonas apparently told them that he had “no recollection” of spreading such rumours to anyone and not much else appeared to happen at the meeting. An inconclusive end, despite Hlongwane telling the commission that he had hoped to “deal decisively” with the matter.
Hlongwane told the commission that he could not be certain if Gupta had joined the meeting as people were coming in and going out of the room and he had his back to the door.
Pressed by Zondo to respond to how Hlongwane was still, four years later, none the wiser as to the source of the rumours, first brought to the latter’s attention by Zuma, the smooth operator said: “I could not be in Duduzane Zuma’s mind or force him to tell me [who the source was]. He may have had sources that he might not want to disclose.”
Zondo told Hlongwane there was something “a little strange about the fact that a whole meeting is convened in circumstances where there is hardly any detail about this rumour that Mr Duduzane Zuma tells you about … there are no sources [revealed] and when Mr Mcebisi Jonas says he has no recollection of the allegations, that’s the end of it?”
Hlongwane agreed that it was indeed “strange” before contorting around a series of non-answers like a gymnast on the balance beam.
Above his pay grade
His testimony then concluded on a surreal note as Hlongwane pleaded poverty – claiming that attending the hearings “is not the cheapest thing… this is above my pay grade” – as the reason why he had not sought to cross-examine Jonas during his two appearances before the commission.
This is from someone who, according to Swiss Leaks, a project by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), “became an HSBC [bank] client in 2001 and was the beneficial owner of the client account Leynier Finance SA that had five bank accounts linked to it.”
The ICIJ explains that Leynier Finance SA was registered in the British Virgin Islands and that the “account held as much as $887 905 in 2006-2007”. The leaks also linked him “to 20 more bank accounts that together held as much as $12.7 million in 2006-2007”.
While Hlongwane has never been charged, he is alleged to have been a conduit for R280͏ million to be channelled from British Aerospace Systems to various people linked with the arms deal, which eventually saw the defence conglomerate score a R30 billion deal to provide Hawk jet trainers and Gripen fighters for the South African state. According to a Mail & Guardian investigation in 2008, Hlongwane was investigated by the British Serious Fraud Office regarding his role in the arms deal.
Hlongwane later joined the board of state arms manufacturer Denel and worked as a consultant for British Aerospace.
British newspaper The Guardian alleged in 2016 that he was one of several middlemen in Africa paid by Rolls Royce, which also operates in the arms sector, to massage deals on the continent.
While Hlongwane has gone to excruciating levels to maintain his privacy and anonymity, he has little control over social media. There is a Fana Hlongwane Twitter account going by the handle @fashionhlongwan, which has 75 followers and appears to retweet mainly Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh.
There are photographs of Hlongwane at the Seriti commission used as profile pictures on this Twitter account, and a gnawing existential question in his biography: “Am i Fana Hlongwane or am I Criminal Mastermind? Find out next time on Dragon Ball Z? [sic].”