The Moti Files: How businessman Zunaid Moti cosied up to the Mnangagwa regime
A trove of leaked internal documents has laid bare the close ties between controversial South African businessman Zunaid Moti and Zimbabwe’s highest-ranking politicians, bringing to light evidence of dubious multimillion-dollar transactions, a sustained effort to accumulate political influence, and apparent attempts to capture parts of Zimbabwe’s crumbling state.
Zunaid Moti is the owner of the Moti Group – a conglomerate with a diverse international portfolio including mining, property development and aviation.
The documents show he has enjoyed a close personal relationship with Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and its vice president, General Constantine Chiwenga, and repeatedly leaned on them when he needed help in business and personal matters.
Moti has rejected any suggestion that he or the Moti Group’s major chrome mining venture in Zimbabwe, African Chrome Fields (ACF), received undue or improper benefits because of their relationship with Zimbabwe’s government. He also denied that he, ACF or the Moti Group were involved in any form of capture of the Zimbabwean state, and claimed ACF conducts itself like any other international investor in Zimbabwe.
After being arrested in Germany in 2018 on a seemingly manufactured Interpol “red notice” in connection with a business deal gone awry, Moti turned to Mnangagwa and Chiwenga for help. His letters from prison reveal a man who, in his hour of desperation, was remarkably loose-lipped about his business dealings as he sought to urgently shuffle money around the world to pay for his defence and lobby for his release.
The letters also portray a boss who micromanaged the affairs of his sprawling business empire, especially ACF which enjoyed favourable concessions from the Zimbabwean state.
The Moti Group’s involvement with Zimbabwe’s political elite stretches back several years. In 2014 it gained a significant foothold in Zimbabwe with its acquisition of ACF.
Then, in November 2017, during the coup that ousted long-time ruler Robert Mugabe and brought his deputy, Mnangagwa, to power, ACF forged an alliance with another controversial and politically connected businessman.
Zimbabwean fuel tycoon and Zanu-PF benefactor Kudakwashe ‘Kuda’ Tagwirei, bought 30% of the chrome company for a formidable $120-million.
ACF became a conduit through which millions of dollars of this cash flowed into a diffuse money-moving operation that shifted cash into a myriad of entities in Zimbabwe – and possibly onwards to the South African side of the border.
The Moti Group describes these on-payments as investments and “loans”, made simply in order to try to protect the value of the sale proceeds from depreciating.
(Details of this extraordinary money-moving enterprise, enlisting well-known “informal” financial operators, will be revealed in Part Two of the Moti Files.)
Cash also flowed to various obscure companies, some of which appear to be linked to prominent Zimbabwean politicians, including Mnangagwa and his second in command, Chiwenga.
Neither Mnangagwa nor Chiwenga responded to requests for comment. The Moti Group denied that they made any payments to politicians.
See: Spincash Machine: Payments to the President’s Farm and Vice President’s Associate Followed a $120-Million Chrome Deal published by the Sentry, with whom amaBhungane is collaborating on this story.
Whether the deal and the payments were initially linked to Zanu-PF power struggles and the coup – either as a way of funding the coup or a means of externalising funds for those on the losing side facing indefinite exile – remains conjecture. The timing could be purely coincidental, as the Moti Group claims.
Moti denied “involvement in, or any other dealings related to or associated with the ‘coup’” and said that linking him and the Moti Group to the coup was part of “a nonsensical and false narrative aimed only at causing me reputational harm”.
Nevertheless, the documents offer glimpses of Moti’s unbridled ambition at work in, for instance, sweeping plans to rope the Zimbabwean government into state-backed ventures to centralise mining in the country and create a state-backed pharmaceutical company.
Though these particular plans ultimately faltered, others were successful.
The sheer extent of questionable business practices that the documents suggest, which lead right up to the most senior political post in Zimbabwe, go some way to explaining the Moti Group’s frantic attempts to plug the leak.
The Group has accused a former employee, Clinton van Niekerk, of having “stolen” the confidential information.
Van Niekerk was arrested at Durban’s King Shaka International Airport on 25 January as he was about to leave the country.
This sparked a legal showdown in which Moti’s former business partner-turned-rival, Frederick “Frikkie” Lutzkie, who had taken Van Niekerk under his wing, intervened with his legal team to secure Van Niekerk’s release.
Two days later a court set aside Van Niekerk’s arrest and he was released from custody in Johannesburg, where he had been taken under questionable circumstances and in defiance of a court order (see amaBhungane’s original report here).
The Moti Group has not given up on making an example of Van Niekerk and is seeking a court order setting aside the order for Van Niekerk’s release, though their former employee is now said to be in witness protection.
In a written response to amaBhungane sent via his lawyers, Moti maintains that the documents were “stolen” and that, by extension, amaBhungane is “knowingly perpetuating unlawful conduct”.
He warned, “Insofar as the matter is currently being investigated by the SAPS, I have instructed [my lawyers] to inform the SAPS of your involvement for purposes of potential further investigation and/or charges.”
Moti has cast doubt on the authenticity of the documents, saying that “any document you are in possession of cannot be relied on and could have been altered in any way” and “should be viewed as a possible forgery”.
Concerning his and the Moti Group’s ties to Zimbabwean political elites, Moti said that this was the “norm” in Zimbabwe.
“The commercial operating environment in Zimbabwe is such that all international investors have access to various officials and ministers as a norm, and the fact that ACF’s representatives interacted with politicians was not untoward and is standard practice in the country.”
Moti rejected any suggestion that he or ACF received undue or improper benefits because of their relationship with Zimbabwe’s government.
“ACF is an investor in Zimbabwe who is utilising the various programmes implemented by the government of Zimbabwe in order to invest in the country and gain some economic concessions by investing within the programmes. By investing as mentioned herein above, is not illegal nor is ACF doing [anything] untoward. It is certainly not capturing the state of Zimbabwe.”
See Moti’s full response here.
The leaked documents show how the Moti Group was teed up to benefit from a drive by the Zimbabwean regime to claw back mining rights from existing holders.
In March 2015, Zimbabwe’s long-time autocratic leader, Robert Mugabe, visited ACF’s mine in central Zimbabwe where the company had plans to set up a smelting plant using “groundbreaking” technology.
Mugabe told those in attendance, “When we first heard about this new technology by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, I thought maybe he just wanted me to come over to his former constituency. Today I’ve witnessed for myself this sophisticated technology that can smelt chrome in less than two minutes.”
Roughly a year later, the Moti Group struck a deal with a company called Rusununguko Nkululeko Holdings (RNH) to set up a joint venture to tap into the country’s rich chrome reserves.
RNH is owned by Zimbabwe’s military, which has been implicated in widely publicised human rights violations and has carved out lucrative niches for itself amid Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy.
In terms of the joint venture agreement, ACF would do the actual mining and processing of ore, while RNH would acquire the mineral concessions to mine and pave the way for ACF by obtaining permits and clearing regulatory hurdles.
At this early stage, the hand of then Vice President Mnangagwa was already detectable in the Moti Group’s Zimbabwean venture.
A clause of the agreement referred potential disputes to “mediation” by the “Principals”, namely “Honourable ED Mnangagwa on behalf of [the Republic of Zimbabwe]” and Moti on behalf of his group of companies.
Mnangagwa’s son, Emmerson Mnangagwa Junior, was also given a role.
He was brought on board as a “consultant” for ACF the month after the joint venture deal was signed, and was hired to provide services such as “liaising with the Company’s stakeholders, including the Government of the Republic of Zimbabwe” and “planning and implementing an appropriate communication strategy for the company”.
For this, the younger Mnangagwa would be paid $5,000 per month, later doubled to $10,000.
An unsigned trust deed shows that the Moti Group planned to help Mnangagwa set up a trust for his and his family’s benefit, although Moti says Mnangagwa Junior “asked the company secretary working for the Moti Group at the time to advise on a draft trust deed” and the deed was never finalised.
Neither Emmerson Junior nor President Mnangagwa responded to requests for comment.
Moti told us, “At the time that ACF launched its operations in Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe… was the President. ACF was new to the Zimbabwean landscape and operating environment and believed someone like [Mnangagwa Junior] could add great value in assisting with introductions to key stakeholders’ relations.
“It is concerning that you appear to create the insinuation that Junior was excluded from seeking employment simply because of the office held by his father. This is nonsensical.”
Moti also denied that there was anything improper in Mnangagwa Senior representing one of the parties in mediation between RNH and ACF.
In the wake of the joint venture agreement and after hiring the then-vice president’s son, the benefits to the Moti Group began to flow.
In May 2015 ACF applied for “National Project Status”, which it received later that same year, allowing the company tax exemptions on the import of capital goods.
The month after ACF submitted its application, Mnangagwa went to Cabinet with a proposal to lift an export ban on chrome ore that had been in place since 2011, according to a copy of Mnangagwa’s Cabinet memo contained in the Moti files. The lifting of the ban was announced days later.
Over the next couple of years, other benefits followed.
A letter signed by Moti, for instance, suggests that ACF was allowed to import chemicals duty-free. This allowance may have flowed from the company’s National Project status, which Moti points out was designed to attract investment and was enjoyed by other well-known companies.
In another example, ACF was permitted to “set-off” amounts owed to other Moti Group companies across the border in South Africa against its revenue – something Moti says was just to “facilitate ease of cashflow for operational purposes in the context of severe liquidity challenges”.
Moti kept up his efforts to extract favours from Mnangagwa. In a January 2016 letter, Moti sought the vice president’s assistance in getting the Finance Ministry to exempt ACF from fuel import duties.
In return, Moti pledged to “provide the Midlands Zanu PF Government with 10 000 litres of fuel per month, which fuel can be utilised by the Police and Army Forces in and around the area”.
Mnangagwa comes from the Midlands and it is his political stronghold.
In his letter promising fuel to the army and police, Moti went further, requesting Mnangagwa’s assistance in a matter involving a Moti Group executive’s luxury vehicle which had been impounded over a dispute with Zimra, the Zimbabwean Revenue Authority. Moti urged that the employee be “alleviated of this rather disturbing position he finds himself in with the assistance of yourself [Mnangagwa] and Zimra”.
Moti even threw in a request for Mnangagwa’s assistance in helping him obtain a diplomatic passport, ostensibly so that he would be immune from having to make disclosures at a South African inquiry related to supposedly sensitive mineral processing technology that ACF was using in Zimbabwe. It is unclear what inquiry Moti was referring to.
Moti told amaBhungane: “I did not, and do not hold a diplomatic passport from any country”, though he did not deny having requested one. He described his offer to provide fuel to the Zimbabwean police and armed forces as a “philanthropic” gesture to “support local government in the area in which ACF operates”.
Moti maintained that ACF acquired its various concessions legitimately through proper institutional processes, saying “ACF always applied for concessions through the relevant ministry, fully motivated and reasoned”.
“These applications went through vigorous review by various departments before being granted and were not unique to ACF, but are granted if justified, to many foreign investors in the country, in line with prevailing legislation at the time.”
He added that “some concessions were granted, and others were not”.
However, the documents amaBhungane has reviewed cast doubt on Moti’s claim to have always gone through proper channels, and point to direct and personal appeals to senior politicians – Mnangagwa in particular.
Many such requests, especially the more outlandish ones, were ignored or otherwise went unfulfilled, but by 2016, the vice president had become a key interlocutor in ACF’s relations with the Zimbabwean state, and ACF was not shy about its links to Zimbabwean political elites and the ruling Zanu-PF.
One 2016 overview document boasted about ACF’s “relationship with the Presidency” and the “interaction and support from related and associated Ministries and Parastatals”.
The same document noted that ACF’s joint venture with the Ministry of Defence gave the company “access to all claims currently owned by larger players”.
2016 saw further requests from the Moti Group for Mnangagwa’s intervention.
An April letter from Moti Group executive, Ashruf Kaka, to the vice president is typical of the Group’s routine interactions with Mnangagwa.
The letter referred to a prior meeting between the two men on 31 March 2016 and called for the vice president’s “urgent intervention, assistance and direction” in obtaining approval for a fuel rebate and assistance with VAT refunds.
Kaka proposed that if Zimra were unable to pay VAT rebates, “we humbly request that we receive a dispensation aligned with the National Project Status such that we are not required to pay VAT”.
In response to detailed questions, Kaka denied any impropriety in his relationship with the office of the Presidency and said that the mining and finance ministries formed part of Mnangagwa’s portfolio as vice president at the time. (See his full response here.)
Kaka told amaBhungane: “As ACF had [National Project status], it was [Mnangagwa’s] function to streamline all regulatory processes for ease of business where companies invested [foreign direct investment, or FDI]. This was aimed at troubleshooting difficulties experienced by foreign investors such that foreign investment in Zimbabwe was encouraged. This applied to all foreign direct investors who brought in FDI and was not exclusive to ACF.”
Moti said that “numerous countries, including Zimbabwe and South Africa, offer various incentives to investors to attract foreign direct investment, promote economic growth and create jobs”. National Project status, he added, was one such incentive that was granted to many other companies.
According to Kaka, the diesel rebate was a means of incentivising foreign investment, which did not amount to a “concession”. It was “granted by the Ministry of Transport by proclamation to mining operations in remote areas where electricity supply is virtually nonexistent”.
Kaka said that the request concerning VAT was due to Zimra’s “inability to make payment of VAT refunds due to ACF”.
“In essence, there was compliance by ACF in its payment of VAT and non-compliance by the Zimbabwean Government to process and pay refunds. As ACF had [National Project status], we requested that there be a set-off to enable efficient and effective cash flow for both Zimra and ACF…
“More importantly, this request was refused, which demonstrates a clear and unequivocal application of discretion used, which did not always favour ACF.”
Chiwenga, then head of the Zimbabwean armed forces, was not spared requests for help either.
A June 2017 memo to Chiwenga, prepared by Kaka, proposed that Chiwenga push for a prisoner swap with the UAE in order to secure the extradition of one of Moti’s enemies resident in the UAE.
Kaka and the Moti Group requested that an “exchange be arranged between UAE and Zimbabwe”, where the latter would hand over a certain UAE citizen detained in Zimbabwe in return for the UAE extraditing Moti’s long-standing rival, Russian businessman Alibek Issaev, to Zimbabwe – a “fair exchange”, as the document put it.
Kaka, in response, told amaBhungane that “I was informed by the office of the prosecutor in Zimbabwe that a UAE citizen was detained in Zimbabwe for some or other offence and that the UAE government were seeking his release.”
On Kaka’s version, the office of the prosecutor requested Kaka to “engage and present to VP Chiwenga (together with them) a request for a possible prisoner exchange”.
“This request was presented and after consultation that VP Chiwenga had with the department of justice, home affairs and other departments, the request was declined…”
ACF’s operations in Chirumhanzu-Zibagwe soon became enmeshed in the local Zanu-PF patronage machine. The Midlands district is Mnangagwa’s former constituency and the area his wife Auxilia represented as a member of parliament from 2015 to 2018.
In February 2017, ACF representatives sat down for a meeting with local Zanu-PF figures at the “ACF lapa”. Also at the meeting that day was an irate Auxilia Mnangagwa who “did not greet or acknowledge” the ACF team because of a failure to return a call to confirm the meeting.
The events of that day are described in an 11 February 2017 email from ACF’s chief technical officer, John Drummond, to Kaka.
According to the email, the meeting discussed an employment scheme at ACF involving the government and regional Zanu-PF office, in terms of which job seekers would register with the Department of Labour and receive a “coupon” proving their registration.
“The entire exercise was to ensure that only Zanu-PF members and pro-MP Mnangagwa supporters get jobs,” Drummond noted.
Keeping the local Zanu-PF and Mrs Mnangagwa onside appears to have paid off for ACF. Drummond stated in his email that “we had to provide the names of the workers committee, and MP Mnangagwa interrogated them and told them not to strike”.
Kaka told amaBhungane that he did not recall the email, but that “I have a recollection
Source – AmaBhungane