14 July 2024 | 12:24 AM

#MotiFiles: Moti and the money men PART 2

Key Takeaways

  • Controversial businessman Zunaid Moti, aided by an operator known as “Joe Dollars”, moved hundreds of millions of rands through his South African group.
  • These appears to be facilitated by sham loans, a suspect mega-investment and mysterious accounts at VBS Mutual Bank.

This article was produced with the assistance of The Sentry.

In Part One of this investigation we showed how Moti’s Zimbabwean mining operation African Chrome Fields (ACF) became the centre of an immense R2-billion money moving operation.

The purpose was seemingly in part to spirit capital out of Zimbabwe – possibly illicitly – while in South Africa, money allegedly linked to this scheme was received through another equally perplexing system.

A key intermediary was allegedly a well-known Moti associate from the underground financial world, a man widely known as “Joe Dollars”.

It was purportedly at his command that millions were channelled through the notorious VBS Mutual Bank and other means into Moti company coffers under the guise of suspicious “property development loans”, later converted into an implausible investment in supposed “ground-breaking” metallurgical technology.

As we will see, these explanations for the money flows struggle to withstand scrutiny, not least because Moti’s supposed partners in these deals deny they ever happened.

An improbable property deal

At the same time the Zimbabwean money-moving system took off, a total of 13 different property companies in the Moti Group in South Africa, one after the other, signed nearly identical loan agreements with a South African entity called Ultra Trading 014.

Crucially, it would however not be Ultra Trading providing the money but rather unidentified third parties for whom Ultra Trading’s representatives would stand as apparently no-questions-asked “guarantors”.

The loans were on easy terms. There is no mention of interest being charged and there also seems to be no real consequence to a default on Moti’s end.

Meanwhile, the guarantors agreed to “meet the demands and make payment to any third party that may lay claim against the Borrower”.

The two generous guarantors who signed off on the Ultra Trading loans were Yusuf Suliman Ismail and Imraan Mia Ismael.

Masses of “transfers of funds on behalf of Ultra Trading 014” started flowing immediately.

In December 2017 alone at least R80,7-million was injected into Moti Inc. according to partial records in the #MotiLeaks.

Suspiciously, payments in terms of these loans were broken up in small chunks as reflected in a multitude of transfer statements signed by Ismail and Ismael. For instance, up to 32 separate payments would be made on a single day.

This seems to be at odds with how large loans for a property development would be disbursed.

Over the course of the following six months Ultra Trading paid (or made third parties pay) at the very least R335-million to the Moti property companies through these piecemeal transfers.

A tally of all the debts is contained in the #MotiFiles:

At this point is it worth asking: who is Ultra Trading, who are the mysterious third parties providing the money – and where is the cash coming from?

The Dollar brothers

Although he denies it, knowledgeable and independent sources as well as documentary evidence indicate that Yusuf Ismail, one of the two Ultra signatories on the loans, is in fact a prolific operator in South Africa and Zimbabwe’s “informal” financial sector known as “Joe Dollars”.

One indication from the #MotiFiles that Ismail is the owner of the colourful moniker comes from Moti’s copious prison letters from late 2018. In one letter Moti talked about using “Joe Dollars” to move money in a scheme which closely resembled an actual agreement later entered into with Ismail’s company Ismail Property Holdings.

Ismail is also the brother of another well-known operator who goes by the name “Mo Dollars”.

In correspondence contained in the #MotiFiles related to an inquiry into the tax affairs of a Moti associate, Mark Lifman, Mo Dollars cropped up in a letter sent by Moti’s lawyers to Sars.

The moniker is so well established that even SARS, in formal correspondence, has called the elder Ismail brother “Mo Dollar”.

Documents from the #MotiFiles leak show that Mo also knows Moti. Another document shows Moti apparently knew Yusuf “Joe Dollars” Ismail as far back as 2011.

In response to questions Moti said he cannot “recall specifically when I first met Yusuf or Mohamed Ismail, or what the context of such a meeting was. It was a long time ago”.

He added that he has not “personally conducted any other business with them”.

In late 2017 and 2018 Moti’s property companies were however, as we saw above, doing extremely brisk business with the younger Dollar brother.

Mystery money

So, if Ultra Trading was merely the conduit, where was the money from?

In Part One of this investigation, we revealed how Moti’s African Chrome Fields disbursed around R1,7-billion he had received from well-connected Zimbabwean fuel tycoon Kudakwashe Tagwirei into a multitude of opaque companies north of the border.

There is reason to suspect that some of this money flowed to South Africa under the auspices of the “property loans” guaranteed by Joe Dollars.

While the Ultra Trading loan agreements in the leak show “third parties” would be putting up the supposed loans, nothing in the leak identifies these parties. Other sources, however, provide clues.

One key link is the doomed VBS Mutual Bank.

We recently also revealed how three accounts at the VBS had been used as an apparently enormous hawala system circumventing Zimbabwe’s exchange controls.

Read about this astonishing episode in the saga of VBS Mutual Bank here.

Hawala is a way to transmit money without any currency actually moving. Hawala provides anonymity in its transactions, as official records aren’t kept and the source of money can’t be tracked.

This VBS hawala was allegedly set up by the Macmillan family whose pre-eminent member Ewan implicated himself in alleged money laundering during interviews with undercover journalists from Al Jazeera.

As we saw in Part One, several payments to Moti through VBS Mutual Bank carried the reference “Ultra trading 014”.

Many of these payments can be linked directly to the Joe Dollars deals.

The #MotiFiles leak contains a multitude of “transfer of funds” statements. These provide dates and values for payments made to Moti’s companies by third parties “on behalf of” Ultra Trading.

These often correspond perfectly with payments captured in VBS records. In other words, Joe Dollars payments captured in the #MotiFiles are precisely mirrored in independently acquired VBS records.

The fact that these payments seemingly came through an illicit VBS hawala system raises numerous questions, including about possible breaches of Zimbabwe’s capital controls.

However, showing that at least some of the Joe Dollars money came through VBS only peels back one layer of the onion.

Most of the money that made its way to Moti “on behalf of” Ultra Trading (Joe Dollars) did not go via VBS but through other mostly unknown channels.

One of these involves another well-known party implicated in South Africa’s money laundering industry but amaBhungane cannot reveal who without compromising sources.

But irrespective of how the money arrived, once the money got to Moti, what happened to it?

Project Z-Steel

Up to this point we have seen the Moti Group receive tens of millions of dollars in Zimbabwe and distribute it through a suspicious loan arrangement with a Zimbabwean partner – only to see hundreds of millions of rands appear in South Africa under the guise of “property loans” moving into the Moti Group, including through suspicious channels like VBS.

On 21 June 2018 all of the Ultra Trading property loans to the Moti property companies were however abruptly simultaneously cancelled.

The outstanding balance of R355-million was, according to a Subscription and Shareholders Agreement, converted into shares in another Moti company called Afrique Chroma.

According to this agreement Ultra Trading had to pay in another R271-million in order to get a 40% share in this company, which was presented as a development company for a supposedly ground-breaking aluminothermic chrome refining process, code-named Project Z-Steel.

The total investment was R606-million (the cancelled loans and the additional payment) which meant that Afrique – which owned the aluminothermic process – was being valued at an astonishing R1,5-billion.

Moti claims that the property loans were for legitimate developments, but that Ultra Trading decided to rather embark on this new venture.

“Ultra Trading 014 originally advanced various loans to the Moti Group in order to develop various properties. Subsequently the parties agreed not to proceed with the developments and Ultra Trading 014 opted to invest in Afrique Chroma by way of a shares subscription. Afrique Chroma had specialised technology that can process chrome without the need for electrical currents, this industrial know-how was of very high value to Ultra Trading 014.”

This seems open to doubt, even discounting the suspicious nature of the payments coming from “third parties”, including via VBS.

Genuine innovation or expensive gimmick?

Moti has been promoting his supposedly unique aluminothermic technology for years. It has in fact acquired an almost mythical stature, becoming the basis of several appeals for concessions in Zimbabwe.

In 2015 the “theft” of this technology was one of the criminal complaints Moti levelled against his Russian nemesis Alibek lssaev – a battle that would eventually lead to Moti getting outmanoeuvred and stuck in a German prison for five months in late 2018 and early 2019.

In 2015 he used the technology as the basis of an application for National Project Status for ACF – a designation that comes with a number of regulatory concessions.

As far back as 2016 he used concern for this allegedly invaluable technology to petition the government of Zimbabwe for a special diplomatic passport, according to a letter dated 20 January that year contained in the #MotiFiles. Allegedly he was being summonsed to an unidentified enquiry where he would have to divulge details of the technology.

In response to questions Moti said: “I did not, and do not hold a diplomatic passport from any country. I am also not aware of the so-called inquiry you are referring to.”

Moti has recently placed paid-for articles about the technology in several South African newspapers and had at least one large ceremonial launch for it in Zimbabwe, already back in 2018.

The aluminothermic process is actually an old and generic technology. Fine aluminium granules are mixed with processed ore and ignited, thereby acting as a reducing agent to separate out the desired metal. It was invented in 1898.

The aluminium combustion avoids the need for an electric furnace, making the process suitable for Zimbabwe, where there are electricity shortages, but its commercial viability is extremely tenuous without a nearly-free supply of normally costly aluminium, according to metallurgists consulted by amaBhungane.  

Moti’s claim to having a “revolutionary” piece of IP in hand relates only to the specific “recipe” of reactants to be used in the plant to optimally interact with the specific ore ACF needs to process.

Our sources say this claim is highly unlikely.

Even if they are wrong, is it worth R1,5-billion as Ultra Trading’s “investment” would suggest?

Documents in the #MotiFiles show the actual estimated cost of the revolutionary plant in Zimbabwe was expected to be in the region of $1-milion, as captured in a 2015 environmental impact assessment.

The files also include a budget breakdown from late 2017, not very long before the Ultra Trading deal, where the construction of the plant is pegged at around R25-million.

An argument can be made that the cost of the plant is immaterial because the value lies in the process and its income going forward.

Even on this basis the valuation is a massive stretch. According to one contemporaneous 2018 document Moti’s partner in ACF, Zimbabwean mogul Kudakwashe Tagwirei was going to pay $5,4-million (R70-million) for 30% of the project – a fraction of what Ultra Trading was supposedly paying.

This makes it appear that the “investment” may have been simply a cover to eliminate the iffy loans on paper and move some more money into the Moti group on the side.

Implausible deniability

The biggest problem with Moti’s claims is however this: despite Moti’s assurances Ultra Trading’s Imraan Ismael and his partner Joe Dollars (Yusuf Ismail) deny any of this ever happened.

Asked about the property loans signed by his client, Ismail’s lawyer Ian Levitt responded in writing that “our client has no knowledge hereof and is thus unable to answer the question”.

Asked about the investment in Afrique Chroma where Ismail is given as the guarantor and contact person for Ultra, Levitt similarly replied on his behalf: “Our client has no knowledge hereof and is thus unable to answer the question”.

And it continues. Asked about his relationship with his co-signatory on all the documents Imraan Ismael, Ismail’s lawyer simply claimed “no relationship”.

Asked about Moti’s R18,5-million debt to Yusuf Ismail Property Holdings, he once again has “no knowledge” of it.

It is the same with Imraan Ismael. Contacted by phone by amaBhungane’s partner The Sentry and asked about the various deals, he claimed not to know his partner Yusuf and not to know about Afrique Chroma. He ultimately declared that “no, I don’t even know these people”.

Moti attempted to counter this by claiming that “you are either purposefully misquoting a conversation with Ismael or have gotten hold of the wrong person altogether”.

Moti continued that “Ismael confirmed in writing to us that he knows us, and that our agreements stand”. As proof he provided a screenshot of a curt email where Ismael does indeed say that “I agree with you that they are making absurd allegations and are incorrectly quoting me”.

But all Moti could seemingly coax out of his partner is a generic reference to unspecified transactions.

“As far as our transactions are concerned the agreements stand and all our dealings should remain private. I would appreciate if you could also respect that privacy during this media witch hunt,” said Ismael to Moti.

This email was sent two days after amaBhungane sent questions to Ismael but Ismael himself elected not to respond to us.

Ismael’s equivocation and Joe Dollars’ outright denials are astounding. Both men’s signatures appear on all thirteen Ultra Trading loans as well as all the transfer statements related to these loans. They are parties to the Afrique deal and Ismael even signed off on a “due diligence” letter for said deal.

There are only two possible conclusions: either Joe Dollars and his partner are running for cover – or, arguably less likely, they have been the victims of a massively elaborate attempt to pin dodgy dealings on them with copious forged documents.

Either way it is clear that Moti has some explaining to do.

There is more to this story, so watch this space.

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AmaBhungane and Daily Maverick reporters

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