A South Africa-based Taiwanese man, Jen-Chih “Robert” Huang, has emerged as the influential middleman in deals between Chinese companies and President Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Khulubuse Zuma.
However, it is not clear whether Huang has disclosed his 1998 murder conviction to the president’s family — though he was open about it when approached by the Mail & Guardian.
The mystery Chinese company touted to rescue Aurora Empowerment Systems — of which Khulubuse is a director — is the Shandong Gold Group, a state-owned entity from the Shandong province in China. Huang has played a central part in promoting the potential deal.
When a delegation from Shandong Gold visited South Africa last month it was hosted by Huang and his company, Mpisi Trading 74.
Aurora’s controversial leadership also includes the president’s lawyer, Michael Hulley, and Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa Mandela. The company has struggled to raise funds to take over the Pamodzi Gold mines, which were placed in liquidation more than a year ago.
Now Aurora is in negotiations with Shandong Gold for a $100-million capital injection that would buy the Chinese company about 65% of Aurora.
Huang was also instrumental in introducing the Chinese vehicle manufacturer, Dong Feng Motor Corporation, to Khulubuse, who at one point was described as the “chairman” of Mpisi. The Mpisi company website proclaims: “His father is the President of South Africa, Mr Zuma.”
Last year Dong Feng announced a joint venture with Khulubuse and Huang to distribute its products in South Africa and the rest of the continent.
But Huang’s alleged past involvement in Chinese criminal gangs and his 1998 conviction for the murder of a Taiwanese businessman, Ching-Ho Kao, raises red flags about the business connections of people so close to the president.
Huang became a reborn Christian in prison and assisted the police in solving a large number of crimes in the Chinese community, leading to a significant reduction in his effective 12-year sentence.
When he was released in 2003 he set about establishing Mpisi Trading and has built the company into a powerful import-export business, specialising in forwarding services for mineral exports from Southern Africa to China.
A former senior policeman, who knows Huang well but asked not to be named, said: “He’s a guy with integrity. He recognised his wrongdoing and changed. A lot of people have got their own hiccups with him, but he’s a good guy.”
However there are also questions about just how thorough-going Huang’s rehabilitation has been.
Several current and former law-enforcement enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told of concerns about the number of former South African Revenue Service employees Huang has gathered around himself — some of whom left Sars under a cloud.
- Vengetas Chetty, a co-director of Mpisi, who joined the company in 2007.
In 2003 Chetty received a correctional supervision sentence for corruption, with three colleagues from the customs and excise special investigations section in Randburg.
They pleaded guilty to receiving gifts and money from Roodepoort attorney Kirankamer Naik, which influenced their judgement in the execution of their duties at Sars.
- Zain Aboobaker, the former national group manager, anti-smuggling, for the Sars enforcement division. Aboobaker, who serves as a consultant to Huang, left Sars in 2008.Some sources suggest Aboobaker was unhappy with office politics at Sars and rivalry with Johann van Loggerenberg, the enforcement division’s investigations head.
There is talk of internal probes targeting Aboobaker, but others suggest this was a “legend” that allowed Aboobaker to go undercover on behalf of Sars.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding his departure, Aboobaker now appears unequivocally supportive of Huang, whom he describes as highly respected in the Chinese community.
Huang features as a start-up director — since resigned — of two of Aboobaker’s companies: Cuscon and Prudence Forwarding. Chetty is still listed as co-director in Prudence.
- Leonard Radebe, the former general manager of customs at Sars.In November 2008 Radebe, who had been tipped as a possible successor to Pravin Gordhan, resigned from Sars after it emerged he had become embroiled in a bogus deal to settle the long-running dispute between Sars and the controversial billionaire, Dave King.
In January 2009 he was a registered director and 20% shareholder of Symac Clothing, which appears on the Mpisi website as an associated company.
Radebe said he was unaware of Huang’s past murder rap: “I’m totally in the dark.”
He said he had linked up with Huang when the Taiwanese businessman was looking for premises in KwaZulu-Natal, where Radebe now lives.
“Symac is a factory, basically. We want to get into supply contracts for uniforms, tablecloths and so on. But it’s in the start-up phase — nothing serious at the moment.”
Radebe resigned from Sars when King attempted to use meetings he had held with Radebe as a basis for arguing that Sars had agreed to a R300-million settlement of tax claims against King amounting to more than R2-billion.
At the time Radebe said that he “did meet with Mr King informally after being taken to him by some of his associates under a fake pretext”.
Radebe said he had been introduced to King by former bodyguard Jacques Nel, whom he had met years before when he was head of Sars in KwaZulu-Natal.
Nel has since been linked to convicted drug dealer Glenn Agliotti, but Radebe said he severed all contact with Nel towards the end of 2008, when the meetings with King blew up into a scandal.
Radebe said he was innocent of any wrongdoing and now regretted resigning, citing the damage caused to his career and income.
Sars will not comment on Huang’s affairs, but several sources familiar with the import-export industry confirm that he attracted the attention of customs authorities, not least because he had gathered around him a group of people who “know the system”.
Aboobaker, for one, counters that he has been consulted by Huang
to ensure Mpisi is fully compliant with the law. But Aboobaker, responding on behalf of Huang who is in Taiwan, declined to answer detailed questions.
“Mr Huang is currently travelling abroad and I have not had the opportunity of discussing your questions with him,” he said, though he acknowledged that Huang had also received the emailed questions.
“That said, Mr Huang and I have spoken freely to you in the past. There can be no objection to the truth being published if it is genuinely in the public interest. I, however, do not want conjecture, speculation and insinuation, which is unfair.
“In my view many of these questions are of a personal nature or loaded. Frankly, I do not see that you are entitled to an explanation. Our failure to do so must not be construed as an admission, and you will have to make sure that anything published is correct and not designed to cause harm to our reputations.”
When the M&G spoke to Huang late last year, he spoke openly about his murder conviction.
Khulubuse Zuma could not be reached for comment.
Chinese get the beauty treatment
Not much is known about the executives of the Shandong Gold Group, except that their South African hosts clearly believe that they enjoy being greeted by a clutch of young women in very short skirts.
Pictures posted on the Mpisi Trading website show Khulubuse Zuma posing at OR Tambo airport with a welcoming committee who probably know very little about the kind of gold-digging that goes on under the earth.
The girls are also shown on the margins of a picture of Mpisi boss Robert Huang posing with the unidentified Shandong delegation, which arrived in South Africa on December 3 last year.
The Shandong executives held talks with Mpisi and with the liquidators of Pamodzi Gold. They are negotiating to buy a majority stake in Aurora Empowerment Systems, whose bid for the Pamodzi gold mines is being kept alive by liquidators, despite Aurora failing to come up with funding for more than a year.
Established in 1996, the Shandong Gold Group is a state-owned enterprise directly affiliated with the Shandong provincial government. It is also supported by the central state government. It is the number three gold producer in China and operates five main mining bases.
A subsidiary, the Shandong Gold Mining Company, is listed on the Shanghai stock exchange.
The group has recently prioritised international expansion and entered joint venture agreements with companies in Canada and Argentina.
The liquidators have gone to great lengths to keep the identity of the company secret, asking that a December 15 application for an extension of the provisional liquidation be held in camera.
The court granted an extension until February 28, despite objections by trade unions which have become cynical about Aurora’s promises.
Shandong, which is accustomed to operating in the highly regimented Chinese environment, faces a potential culture shock in taking on a South African mine.
Its company website is adorned with a picture of smiling miners in immaculate overalls — and a running quote reminds readers: ‘It is while you are patiently toiling at the little tasks of work that the meaning and shape of great whole [emerges].”
Hopefully the desperate workers at the Orkney and Grootvlei mines will be comforted by that thought.
Brutal murder — and then redemption
On March 27 1996 a prominent Taiwanese businessman, Ching-Ho Kao, disappeared from a Chinese restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg. His white Mercedes was found abandoned in Pretoria the next day.
In April that year police in the Free State were called in when a farmer near Koppies found a body in the veld. The man had been shot several times in the head and his body had been set alight. Later detectives linked the two incidents.
A man identified as having met Kao at the restaurant, Richard Jin-Wei, worked for Robert Huang — who is today a business partner of Khulubuse Zuma.
Jin-Wei was arrested in connection with the murder of Kao and Huang paid his R10 000 bail. But evidence was skimpy and charges were withdrawn.
Jin-Wei fled to Australia, but later evidence showed he remained in contact with Huang. He moved again, to China, where he was picked up by the Chinese security police and agreed to become a state witness.
According to a news report at the time, the breakthrough in the case came in November 1996 when two men were arrested for trying to pay a R7 000 bribe to have the Kao murder docket disappear.
It appears one of those arrested, Francis Chen, spilled the beans and two days later Huang and his accomplices were arrested.
The trial began in the Bloemfontein High Court in November 1997.
In the dock were Huang, then 37; another Taiwanese man, Chien-Feng Li; Chen Jan Chin, a Chinese man; Charles Alfred Zeelie and Farryl Graham Miller, respectively a former policeman and reservist. Zeelie and Miller were later acquitted.
The trial was not without incident and the case was conducted under high security conditions because police believed the accused were part of a Chinese crime network.
The court heard evidence of concerns about a jailbreak while the accused were awaiting-trial prisoners at Kroonstad prison, as well as claims that warders there had accepted gifts from some of the accused.
Three Taiwanese interpreters withdrew their services before the trial got properly under way.
According to court reports the indictment claimed the motive for the murder was that Kao’s family owed Huang money.
The prosecution believed that Huang, through his business interests, had become involved in the local Chinese mafia. However, the defence challenged evidence about this, saying it was prejudicial to the accused and was irrelevant to the murder charge, an objection upheld by Judge CB Cillié.
Jin-Wei, who had been brought from China two days before the start of the trial, was the main state witness.
The evidence was that Kao had been kidnapped and taken to Huang’s old house in Edenvale, where Huang and others arrived later. Kao was then taken to Huang’s new home in Paulshof.
The court found that Kao was already half-naked and injured when he left Edenvale and that it was outrageous for Huang to claim not to have noticed this.
From Paulshof the group travelled in two vehicles to Koppies and just off the N1 Kao was taken into the veld and killed.
In his ruling in August 1998 Cillié said Huang and Li — whom he described as the two “big bosses” — gave evidence that amounted to “infamous lies” and insulted the court’s intelligence. They were each sentenced to an effective 12-year prison term.
In prison, however, Huang says he turned his life around.
A 2003 high court judgement, in an application for remission of sentence launched by Huang and Li, noted: “Both applicants gave assistance to the South African Police during their imprisonment that enabled the police to achieve significant success in a large number of cases.”
Based on this they applied to the regional commissioner of correctional services for a special remission of sentence. This was supported by correctional services officials who requested a remission of between six years and 34 months.
Huang had already received a remission of 15 months.
The court found that the Act permitted only a further two-year remission to be granted to a prisoner who had delivered highly commendable service.
Huang’s former police “handler”, Purie van Rooyen, also provided an affidavit in support of Huang in an earlier application in which the latter claimed his release on parole was being delayed “in an attempt to force me to testify against Mr [Tatolo] Setlai”.
Setlai was the Grootvlei prison manager who blew the whistle on corruption at the prison and himself became a target of investigation in 2003. Van Rooyen said he was told by investigators that Huang’s parole would be more easily processed if he was prepared to testify against Setlai.
Van Rooyen said that Huang declined to make a statement since he had no knowledge of anything to testify about against Setlai.
He noted: “I am convinced that the department of correctional services had granted the parole of the applicant and the date was set for it but, because of the problems between Mr [Willem] Damons [a senior correctional services official] and Mr Setlai, whose revelations gave impetus to the Jali Commission, they [the department] wanted to victimise him because he didn’t want to testify against Mr Setlai.”
Van Rooyen, who is now a senior manager of Protea Coin security, is still on friendly terms with Huang.