Owen Gagare/Lionel Faull
A TRUSTED ally of President Robert Mugabe has been on an R185-million (US$22,62 million) mansion-buying spree in South Africa during the past year, acquiring prime real estate on the Durban north coast and in one of the plushest areas of Sandton, Johannesburg.
Shadowy multi-millionaire Robert Mhlanga, chairman of Mbada Diamonds, one of the biggest mining companies operating in the controversial Marange diamond fields in south-eastern Zimbabwe, has bought a string of properties, showing he is loaded.
Mbada recently said it had realised US$600 million in turnover from diamonds over the past three years.
Mhlanga’s acquisitions have raised eyebrows, not least because he appears content to pay way above the market prices, even up to six times the going rates.
Speculation is rife Mhlanga represents the Mugabe family’s interests in Marange and has been buying properties on their behalf, although his link and role as a possible proxy for them could not be established.
Lazelle Paola, a lawyer who has spoken on Mhlanga’s behalf, has denied any business connection between Mhlanga and Mugabe’s family, butsaid she was not authorised to answer any other questions.
Despite lawyers insisting this week Mhlanga “has no business or other relationship” with Mugabe, he is a former Air Vice-Marshal at the Air Force of Zimbabwe and was implicated in the 2002 Ben Menashe sting operation against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Before he retired, his commander-in-chief was Mugabe.
Mhlanga prefers to keep a low profile, however, and calls himself by the title Dr.
News broke in the South African media in May that Mhlanga had purchased a R200 million (US$24,5 million) mansion on a hillside overlooking the prestigious Zimbali golf estate in Ballito, KwaZulu-Natal, last year.
One report said the mansion is “complete with two man-made lakes, bullet-proof windows, a helipad and an underground bunker beneath a security building”.
However, investigations have confirmed Mhlanga actually paid R100 million (US$12,25 million) for the property in September 2011. He also bought an adjoining property for R1,2 million (US$146 715) in 2002.
In addition to the Ballito property, deed searches have revealed four further properties bought by Mhlanga in the past 18 months.
On one day in January 2011 alone, Mhlanga bought three properties for a combined R60 million (US$7,34 million), including a penthouse suite in Umhlanga Rocks, Durban, and a pair of mansions almost opposite one another in Hyde Park, Sandton.
He followed up these purchases in August 2011 by buying a sprawling property — again on the Umhlanga beachfront — for R25 million (US$3,06 million).
The paperwork for all five properties has since been finalised at deeds offices in their respective jurisdictions, the most recent of which — the Ballito estate — was completed in May this year.
However, questions were sent to the Sandton offices of Mhlanga’s company, Liparm, which did not respond. Mhlanga’s personal assistant, who refused to give her name, asked for contact details which were provided on Monday and again Wednesday this week, she did not get back to us.
Attempts to interview staff at Liparm failed when access was denied. Security staff said it could take up to six months to secure an interview with Mhlanga, now a cagey diamond tycoon.
Mhlanga’s modus operandi is to buy a shelf company with an obscure name — Formate Proprietary, for example — or an obscure name followed by a mysterious string of numbers such as Lexshell 549.
However, Mhlanga is traceable as the sole director of these companies and, through the company names, to records of property sales at deeds offices.
Curiously, the deed searches and deed of transfer documents obtained show that Mhlanga paid up to six times more for each property than when it changed hands between previous owners.
Two of the five properties’ previous owners were contacted for explanation. The others could not be reached despite numerous attempts.
Both owners of the properties whose prices increased six-fold explained that they had made improvements to the property. But whereas one owner “demolished and rebuilt”, the other said he had done an “upgrade”.
Property analysts say the housing market has been “flat” for years. According to the FNB House Price Index, nominal house prices have risen cumulatively by 15% since February 2008.
Brian Nathan, a well-known Umhlanga businessman involved in the marketing and distribution of alcohol and tobacco in Africa and the Indian Ocean islands, said he had bought the Umhlanga beachfront property “some 12 years ago, for just under R4-million (US$489 000)”.
“The house was demolished and rebuilt; so obviously, the market value has increased. The property market has also improved over the last 12 years,” he said.
Mhlanga’s shelf company paid R25 million (US$3,06 million) for Nathan’s property.
An Umhlanga Rocks-based estate agent corroborated Nathan’s account, saying he had improved the property and put it on the market for “R30 to R35 million”.
But the agent expressed surprise at the R31 million (US$3,8 million) Mhlanga paid for an apartment at the Oyster Schelles complex on the famous Oyster Box Hotel premises in Durban.
She said the most expensive apartments are the penthouses in each apartment building, whose asking price was between R10 million (US$1,22 million) and R15 million (US$1,83 million) “absolutely tops”.
Asked whether any apartment in the complex was worth R31 million, the agent said: “Absolutely impossible … never, ever.”
A real estate analyst said if Mhlanga was buying property at well above the going rate, he was not expecting to make a return on his investment.
“If you’re buying property to rent or let it out, there’s a 7-8% return you would want to get back on your investment per year,” the analyst said. “But if you’re paying five to six times above market rates, then you’re only going to get a 1% return on your investment. It doesn’t make financial sense; you must be doing it for other reasons.”
Sources in Harare yesterday told the Zimbabwe Independent such tendencies were associated with money-laundering although there is no evidence Mhlanga was doing that.
The South African Mail & Guardian traced all of his dozen South African shelf companies to a single address in Sandton’s business district.
Contacted for comment, Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba, said: “What is the link between Robert Mhlanga and Robert Mugabe except that they share the same (first) name?
“I find it strange that any Zimbabwean who makes money must be in association with Robert Mugabe. Is it being implied that Zimbabweans are not entrepreneurial enough?”
Mhlanga’s murky world of diamonds
THE Marange diamond trade is dominated by shadowy companies with links to senior state security service chiefs and former securocrats.
The two main players are Anjin Investments, a joint venture between the Chinese and Zimbabwe military, and Mbada Diamonds, owned by government and Mhlanga and his business partners.
The Independent recently probed and exposed the involvement of the army in Anjin through a network of front companies such Matt Bronze and Glass Finish. A report by Global Witness shows the CIO is involved in Sino-Zimbabwe operations.
Last week, the Independent showed RussZim Mining and RussChrome Mining are both partnerships between Russia’s state-owned Centre for Business Co-operation with Foreign Countries and companies linked to Zimbabwe Defence Industries. Mhlanga’s involvement in the murky world of diamonds began in 2009 when Grandwell Holdings, a Mauritian-registered company in which he is sole director, got concessions in the Marange where underworld networks operate.