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Author: Barry Sergeant
When Brett Kebble was gunned down in his luxury sedan last September, police initially suspected he was the victim of a botched hijacking. But within 24 hours of the death of this controversial mining magnate, no one believed that his death at the age of 41 was anything but a Mafia-style ‘hit’.
In the weeks that followed, sensational headlines laid bare Kebble’s flamboyant lifestyle and unorthodox business deals, feeding frenzied speculation about who killed him, and why.
In life, Kebble’s image was that of an altruistic billionaire: patron of the arts, champion of black economic empowerment, urbane raconteur and generous host. In death, he was exposed as one of South Africa’s most cunning corporate confidence tricksters, a manipulative deal-maker who ran the major companies under his control as if they were his personal piggy bank.
In this book, award-winning journalist Barry Sergeant investigates how Kebble maintained a R5-million-a-month lifestyle, despite zero visible income, and how he concealed hundreds of millions of rands of corporate debt. The book exposes many of Kebble’s dark secrets for the first time, and explores his relationships with some of South Africa’s ‘new elite’. An explosive read.
Barry Sergeant is a journalist who has worked as an investment banker, focusing on mining and resources. He became a recognised specialist in West African resources, partially triggering his first encounter with Brett Kebble, in 1996. His journalism has been recognised on numerous occasions, not least as the unanimous-choice winner of the Valley Trust Award for Courageous Journalism, in 2004. In February 2006 he received the Rotary Club’s prestigious Paul Harris Award, for his reporting of the Brett Kebble saga.
Sunday Times (Neil Pendock)
Personal Finance (Ronnie Morris)
Mining Weekly (Nicola Mawson)
PART I: Catch me if you can
PART II: Shangri-La
PART III: The sting
PART IV: Days of thunder
PART V: Killing a billion
PART VI: The slush funds
PART VII: Desperado
Directorates and administration of companies under Kebble control
As swiftly and silently as he had appeared, the mystery man melted intothe darkness. Behind him, the silver sedan’s powerful motor continued to purr, incongruous testimony to German engineering.
The car’s nose was scrunched against the railings that had offered the only bulwark against a headlong plunge onto South Africa’s busiest highway, several metres below. The headlights pierced the black void through the metal slats. The unnatural angle at which the crippled vehicle had mounted the kerbstones would instinctively prompt a passer-by to call paramedics, the police, anyone schooled in dealing with what must surely have been an accident.
But the cellphone call made from the overpass by the mystery man was not to summon help. He knew all too well that there was nothing random about the extremely large and lifeless body slumped behind the steering wheel of the car with Cape Town registration plates. As he pressed the number of someone awaiting his call in Pretoria, he alone knew the full and shocking truth.
Moments before, in a most deliberate act, a hired gun had spewed seven 9-mm bullets through the open window on the driver’s side. A lesser quarry would have died instantly, but in macabre defiance of all natural law, this one had somehow managed to propel the Mercedes S-600 some 500 metres down the deserted, tree-lined street before surrendering to his fate.
As the car drifted across the thankfully empty right-hand lane, rolled onto the kerb and came to a halt, as the lifeblood literally drained from the holes in his upper body, the driver’s three assassins got the hell away from their carefully chosen kill zone.
Some of the vagrants sleeping rough at the nearby garden refuse dump might have seen their VW Polo leave. One hobo might even have watched as the mystery man came out of nowhere to review their handiwork. None of them would have understood why it mattered that the man who had just been murdered at the age of 41 was Brett Kebble.
There was a chill in the air, and later that night, it would rain. Weather-wise, the day had been about as perfect as only early spring on the Highveld can be. But for Kebble, as one newspaper would later report, Tuesday 27 September 2005 was the day on which the perfect storm that had been building for months made landfall in his personal domain.
Of the 14 years since Kebble insinuated himself into South Africa’s take-no-prisoners mining sector as the ‘golden boy’, none had been as shitty as what the country’s new black elite referred to as twenty-oh-five. He and his father Roger had lost their last chance to get charges of fraud, conspiracy and insider trading dropped and would now have to go to trial. The National Prosecuting Authority had offered a plea bargain, but insisted that Kebble would have to serve jail time, though this might be no more than 90 days, so he had turned them down. He was only marginally more terrified of spending a single hour in one of South Africa’s prisons than he was of staying overnight in any African state north of the Limpopo.
Besides, a guilty plea would bar him from serving as a company director. And then there was the bloody tax probe. The SA Revenue Service had been sniffing around since 2000, when some or other snoop discovered that Brett hadn’t filed a personal tax return since 1993. His stable of consultants had managed to keep SARS at bay for months, but by April 2006, they would be aggressively going after at least R250 million that Brett and Roger between them owed in back taxes.
There had been unusually high emotional demands, too. Relationships within the family were tense, but it was the black economic empowerment (BEE) brigade that had been neediest of late. Deals that ought to have been closed months before were jammed up, others were stalled somewhere along the pipeline, yet the players still expected their monthly sweeteners, and more. Not long before, Kebble had forked out R600 000 to a Nigerian druglord to settle a cocaine debt run up by one of his ‘celebrity’ black empowerment patsies.
His own stockbroking account was in the red to the tune of R80 million; a clutch of his favourite toy boy Vaughn’s fellow escorts – both male and female – had resorted to blackmail; he’d had to place some of his best-loved properties in both the Cape and Sandton on the market; the Gulfstream and the Learjet were grounded; the fleet of Ferraris and other luxury vehicles was shrinking by the day.
None of this, though, had been as stressful as the bruising showdown from which Kebble had emerged on 30 August not only jobless, but effectively penniless. To be sure, it was deeply humiliating to have been forced out as chief executive of JCI, Randgold & Exploration and Western Areas amid a scramble to locate more than 14 million missing shares and the rest of almost R2 billion that he had siphoned off various company accounts.
But the consummate crisis was that he could no longer dip into the corporate piggy bank that had funded not only his personal profligacy for more than a decade, but had also financed the flamboyant lifestyles of those he had made rich and almost famous.
The cash cows had been milked dry. Trading of both Randgold & Exploration and JCI shares was suspended by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on 1 August, triggering the boardroom end game that culminated in Kebble being booted out. On 21 September, the international ramifi cations of the nascent scandal had come into sharp focus when the US Nasdaq took the grave step of delisting Randgold & Exploration.
For weeks, even as he mustered his considerable charm, charisma and media cheerleaders to spin catastrophe into a coup de maître, Kebble had been a truly desperate and frightened man.
It wasn’t that he was unduly concerned about the death threats. There had been so many, for so long, that they had almost become routine, and besides, killers with genuine intent rarely warned their victims. Nevertheless, he had hired Clinton Nassif of Central National Security Services in 2004 to ramp up existing precautions, and when the situation warranted, he’d even called on Calla Botha, former rugger-bugger and erstwhile member of the apartheid government’s innocuously named hit squad, the Civil Cooperation Bureau.
After all, someone had shot Stephen Mildenhall, chief investment officer at Allan Gray, outside his Cape Town home in August, and Allan Gray was the single biggest institutional shareholder in JCI, Randgold & Exploration and Western Areas. No one had linked the shooting to the firm’s involvement in Kebble-led companies, but a little extra protection couldn’t hurt. With that in mind, Kebble had recently revisited his life insurance policies and increased them to a whopping R80 million.
The irony was that while his unassuming wife Ingrid and their children, Matthew, Andrew, Hannah and sweet little Lily, stood to inherit a fortune, life as they knew it depended on Kebble finding R5 million, fast. For more than a dozen years, he had cunningly fooled investors, family, friend and foe alike with a slew of bogus transactions involving billions, yet not worth the paper they were written on.
But he had never figured out the cash conundrum. There had been assets aplenty and shares by the million, but hard cash was the chimera Kebble never vanquished. No matter how much or how often he stole from the more than 80 companies under his control, regardless of the type and volume of contraband he moved, irrespective of the political patronage he sought and paid for, Brett Kebble’s cash anorexia was incurable.
A frugal man might have stashed several hundred krugerrands or a velvet pouch of uncut diamonds somewhere safe for the proverbial rainy day. But Kebble had got away with grand larceny and grotesque looting for so long that rational thought had been subsumed by hubris. Since being sacked, he had called on every business associate and underworld operator still willing to give him the time of day, all but begging them for help to raise the five measly million he needed just to meet his immediate obligations. They were impervious to his pleas; there was nothing left to grift and his doggerel verse was falling on deaf ears.
And then, finally, one man tossed out a lifeline. True, he was a dangerous man, this Mr X, someone no right-thinking individual would dare to double-cross, but Kebble had been doing dirty business with him since 2002. It had started with cigarettes and cannabis, then run the gamut of organised crime on a global scale, involving Asian triads and the Irish mafia, London gangsters and African warlords with blood diamonds to go.
The deal had been slated to go down 24 hours earlier. Kebble had advanced his weekly Tuesday commute from Cape Town to Johannesburg for that very purpose, draining one of his last active bank accounts of R200000 on arrival. On Monday night, as he drove to their prearranged rendezvous, Kebble spoke to Mr X and learnt that there was a last-minute hitch – not serious enough to abort the transaction, but sufficiently important to warrant a delay.
In due course, cellphone records would show that Kebble was at or very near the Melrose Bird Sanctuary, between the Glenhove and Atholl Oaklands off-ramps on the highway from Johannesburg to Pretoria, when that conversation took place. On Tuesday 27 September, he lunched with financial journalist David Gleason, his friend of 28 years and unchallenged leader of the pro-Kebble media pack.
Around 7 p.m., as the polo ponies at the nearby Inanda Club were being bedded down for the night, spin doctor and Washington-trained lobbyist Dominic Ntsele arrived at Kebble’s home-away-from-home, the magnificent property set in splendid landscaped gardens behind sturdy walls at 65 Fifth Avenue, Illovo. They had originally planned to have breakfast together, but despite the fact that Kebble already had a dinner date, had opted for an early supper instead.
A cheerful blaze was crackling in the big fireplace in the main reception room, where the two men chatted briefly before sitting down to a simple meal of steak and salad. The hands on the expensive timepiece that graced the mantelpiece were nudging 8.30 when Ntsele took his leave. Shortly afterwards, his driver Joseph having been given the night off, Kebble eased himself behind the wheel of his Mercedes and gently rolled down the 50-metre driveway, past the manned guardhouse at the electronic gate and turned right into the quiet suburban street.
By South African standards, it was late to be setting off for dinner, but his host, Sello Rasethaba, chief executive of Matodzi Resources, Kebble’s BEE ‘flagship’, lived only a ten-minute drive away, traffic permitting.
Oddly, though, when Kebble’s butler Andrew Minnaar went off duty around 9 p.m., he was surprised to see his employer’s car parked just a little way down Fifth Avenue, the lights and engine both switched off. How long had he been there, and why, have yet to be revealed, but at some point within the next 30 minutes, Kebble was trundling slowly east along Melrose Street Extension, having spoken to Mr X again, the call relayed through the same cellphone mast as their conversations the night before.
Making his way past historic suburbs to Melrose, Kebble might have wondered idly whether Sello’s guests would include deceased ANC president Oliver Tambo’s film-maker son Dali, former Namibian premier Hage Geingob and the retired MPLA general who were all involved in trying to salvage the lucrative but troublesome Koketso diamond deal in Angola’s Lunda Norte province.
But as he approached the pretty little stone bridge over the stream running under Melrose Street, Kebble’s mind would have been focused on nothing but the package he would soon hold in his hands.
At the loneliest point of the leafy, fairly well-lit street, with the bird sanctuary on his left, Kebble brought the big Mercedes to a gentle halt and pressed the button to open the window to his right. Two men stepped out from their hiding place under one of the big bluegum trees on the left, close to where the park fence had been cut. They must have been waiting for a while.
Police later recovered at least ten Camel cigarette butts from the ground under the tree. A third man held vigil in the VW Polo, out of sight. Two members of the trio had arrived in South Africa very recently, after a circuitous journey that included Mozambique as the last leg.
The third was from Pretoria. But would anyone ever know who had paid for this evening’s deadly events? Was it, as some have speculated, Kebble himself? One of the men, holding a small box, sauntered towards Kebble’s car. There was nothing menacing about his approach, and even though it was a quiet road and a dark night in the world capital of violent crime, Kebble had no foreboding of danger. Mr X had briefed him well, and in a few minutes he could drive on to keep his dinner date.
Suddenly, with clinical precision and at the speed of lightning, there was a gun, and seven muzzle flashes cleaved the night at such close range that Kebble must have tasted sulphur in the instant before adrenalin flooded his mortally wounded body, allowing him to hit the accelerator.
By 9.30 p.m., it was over. Mr X had made sure of that before placing his call to Pretoria from the overpass. […]