Call to sanction and freeze assets of ‘Gold Mafia’ plundering our nation – Yusuf Abramjee

To curb the flow of gold and oil-funded resources to Vladimir Putin’s war chest, the UK government has targeted individuals, companies, and organisations that are aiding in funding Putin’s operations. They have added 29 new names to their sanction list, including Howard ‘Howie’ Baker, an alleged key player in what Al Jazeera has termed the Southern African Gold Mafia. Baker owns the Rappa gold refinery near Johannesburg, which is licensed by the South African authorities and is currently under investigation by the South African Revenue Service. In an interview with BizNews, Yusuf Abramjee from Tax Justice South Africa said that the UK government’s move is another indication of the weight of evidence amassing against the ‘Gold Leaf Mafia.’  Abramjee questioned why seven months after Al Jazeera’s revealing documentary, none of the identified players had been prosecuted in South Africa. He urged the government to take action against organised criminal gangs in South Africa and suggested that as an initial step, the South African assets of those implicated in the Gold Mafia should be frozen immediately. – Linda van Tilburg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:08 – Introductions
  • 00:59 – Yusuf Abramjee on the Gold Mafia money laundering network 
  • 04:11 – The Authorities are not acting
  • 05:31 – Is there progress on getting off the greylist
  • 08:45 – The difficulty of extraditing the Guptas
  • 11:26 – Would it be better to go after their tax transgressions instead of trying to criminally prosecute them
  • 13:34 – On the minister that was held at gunpoint
  • 15:02 – Conclusions

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Edited excerpts from the Interview

Underbelly of smuggling exposed 7 months ago, where are the sanctions, and arrests?

The Al Jazeera documentary focused on the mass smuggling of gold from Zimbabwe to various parts of the world, including the UAE. It also largely focused on money laundering and how certain politicians were allegedly involved. The illicit tobacco trade, specifically around Simon Rudland, a Zimbabwean national with links not only in South Africa but in many parts of the world, was also highlighted.

In the three-part documentary, they provided proof, presented documents, and exposed the underbelly of these syndicates operating out of South Africa and Zimbabwe. They even highlighted and exposed, thanks to a whistleblower, how billions of rands were being laundered out of South Africa, specifically to the Far East and to the UAE in Dubai. These funds were allegedly the proceeds of the illicit tobacco trade and gold smuggling.

This documentary caused massive ructions in Zimbabwe and other countries.  Just the other day, someone very close to the president of Zimbabwe was arrested and now faces criminal prosecution. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa recently assured parliament that investigations were ongoing. The South African Reserve Bank, SARS, and the police were all involved, and he said that action would be taken.

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Simon Rudland, who owns a number of gold companies, has close links with Howard Baker, a sanctioned individual who is also a Zimbabwean. Baker owns or is a partner in a company called Rappa Refinery in South Africa. The UK government, among other countries, has now sanctioned him. Interestingly, in this documentary, several South African bank officials were also implicated.

Officials from SASFIN Bank were allegedly aiding and abetting, taking bribes. In fact, they have recordings of whistleblowers stating how these bank officials were accepting bribes so that billions of rands could leave South Africa. Just this week, SASFIN announced that 11 criminal charges against some of the officials and former officials have been opened with the South African police service. We, as Tax Justice, have been very vocal about the problems of the illicit trade and money laundering.

We are delighted that SASFIN is finally taking action. There were also officials from ABSA and FNB that were implicated. Those banks haven’t come forward with any action yet. But there needs to be tangible action. We say the time has now come, not only for these people to be sanctioned and for charges to be opened, but they also need to be arrested, charged, and convicted.

It’s no secret that South Africa is soft on money laundering

Well, it’s no secret that South Africa has been very soft on money laundering. We know that the regulator, the international regulator, just a few months ago, great-listed South Africa because we didn’t have all the measures in place to deal with money laundering and because of the daring way in which this money has been laundered over a period of time tells you a lot about our law enforcement agencies. They were ignoring it or they were fast asleep or both.

I think that is where the problem lies. The South African government needed and needs to take decisive action. And no wonder our economy is in a dump. So we’re losing an estimated R40 billion rand a year, only because of the illicit tobacco trade. We know the smuggling of cigarettes from Zimbabwe to South Africa to our poorest borders has been a problem and we know that other items, whether it’s alcohol, fuel, or gold, are being smuggled and the black market is thriving. Counterfeit goods for example are being openly sold, as you know, on our streets in many of our cities and towns in South Africa.

Treasury talks about progress on South Africa’s greylisting, but we need to see action

We all know that politicians are good at talking. However, as South Africans, we are weary of words without action. We need to see tangible actions. The National Prosecuting Authority needs to step up its game. They need to ensure that these individuals are charged and convicted. It’s not enough to arrest the runners. A self-confessed money launderer, who goes by the name ‘Mo Dollars’ and was featured in an Al Jazeera documentary, is heavily implicated. Despite leaving South Africa and allegedly living a luxurious life in Dubai, UAE, he needs to be held accountable. We know of others who have also been implicated and are still enjoying their freedom.

The fact that the UK government is taking action is commendable. For instance, Baker has been targeted by UK authorities for his role in a UAE-based network that allegedly channelled approximately $300 million, or about R6 billion in gold revenue, into Russia.

We are aware of the political dynamics between Russia, the UK, and other governments. 

We hope that the FBI and other international law enforcement agencies will also take action to ensure these individuals are held accountable. Thousands of trucks involved in smuggling enter South Africa every year. The drivers of these trucks, the runners, are arrested, but the kingpins escape justice. It’s disheartening that factories involved in illicit trade and money laundering operate openly in Johannesburg and other major cities, despite the government’s knowledge of their activities. These factories should have been shut down long ago, and the kingpins should have been held accountable.

The New Tobacco Control Bill will fuel the illicit trade 

The government is now discussing a new Tobacco Control Bill, which aims to regulate the tobacco trade and introduce plain packaging, among other things. This raises the question of where the government’s priorities lie. Such measures could potentially fuel the illicit trade and enrich criminals, as we are aware of the tricks being used. If you visit any corner cafe or spaza shop in South Africa, you can buy a pack of 20 cigarettes for R5, R6, or up to R8, even though the minimum collectable tax is around R23 or so. What does this tell us? It indicates that these criminals are making millions of rands. How can a pack of cigarettes be produced for under R23 and sold for R6? One can only imagine the poor quality of the contents of these cigarette packs. Aside from the quality issue, it’s alarming how much money is going into the pockets of these criminals.”

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If the government is committed to fighting money laundering, smugglers would have been arrested long ago

Where are our extradition agreements? How long does it take to bring these people to book? These are the problems that we’ve been having for a long time, and we know investigations can take many, many years. The Reserve Bank is involved. The South African Revenue Service is involved. The police service is involved. The Hawks are possibly involved. But you know, months later, after this documentary, and after the brazen showcasing of these criminals on Al Jazeera, we really have to ask the question, how long does it take to identify the key role players, the kingpins, and how long will it take for them to be arrested and to appear in court? Really, if anyone is protecting them, we need to know how. Are they getting political protection is a question that is often asked. 

These questions are quite relevant because if South Africa and our government are committed to fighting money laundering, these criminals should have been arrested long ago. We had whistleblower after whistleblower explaining exactly how they operate, boxes and boxes of money, how they took it to SASfin, how they even took it from Zimbabwe into Emirates flights, how they even took the gold into Emirates flights coming into the UAE. So really we have a major problem, not only in South Africa with the smuggling, but in our neighbouring countries, specifically Zimbabwe, and the alleged kingpin, the man behind it all, is Simon Rudland. He’s been implicated, his name has come over and over again, and he’s the owner of Goldleaf Tobacco, the same company that had been implicated in money laundering in the Al Jazeera documentary.

The same company, by the way, that several years ago brought legal action against me and sued me for R40 million damages because they claimed that I said they were involved in the illicit trade. They lost the urgent application in the North Gauteng High Court, and they never brought it on the roll. We challenged them, we wanted to see them in court, and they never brought it on the roll, and the cases fell away because they know we’re happy to back it up with hard evidence that they’re involved in the illicit trade, they’re involved in wrongdoing, and I think the Al Jazeera documentary was once again an indication that our claims were absolutely 100% correct.

Brazen Attack on Transport Minister Underscores Criminals’ Indiscriminate Boldness

Well, the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, says that the attack on the Minister of Transport, Sindisiwe Chikunga, is a declaration of war. But why does it take a minister to be robbed before we declare war? What about you and I, ordinary citizens who are victims of crime each and every day? Yet, it again shows that these criminals do not differentiate; they do not discriminate between rich and poor, ministers or ordinary citizens. They are daring, they are brazen, they attack people on the highways and byways, in the dark, in broad daylight.

Cash-in-transit robberies are happening daily. These robbers are making millions of rands, and yet, while the police are trying and, with all due respect, making some inroads, it’s not enough. I don’t think it should take a minister to be attacked or robbed before we see some action. We know in Cape Town, for example, just this week an American tourist was shot and wounded in Nyanga. We know that a German tourist was robbed, and that sends a bad image to countries across the world, questioning what we are doing to safeguard our country.

It’s most certainly affecting investment, it’s affecting our economy, and more so, it’s affecting the morale and psyche of ordinary South Africans, because people are living in fear. We’re living behind walls, we have to watch our backs, and the question is, for how long are we going to live with this high crime rate and the mass organised crime levels that we have in South Africa?

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