Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Local big shots behind the Newslink scandal unmasked

The Botswana government is sitting on information that a prominent businessmen with close links to the Botswana cabinet and a high ranking Botswana Development Corporation (BDC) official worked with South African Defence Force and agents of the apartheid regime to set up Newslink Africa in Gaborone – a confidential report passed to the Sunday Standard has revealed.

The explosive report, which was presented at a time Batswana were clamouring for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) come here, is believed to be part of the reason why government refused to let the TRC to come to Botswana.

The report is a supporting document for a claim for damages and compensation against former minister Pik Botha and SADF filed with the South African government of national unity by a Botswana investor who was “defrauded” by BDC, Pik Botha and the SADF when they set up Newslink Africa.

“The situation arose in 1987/88 when the South African government launched a project called “Operation Grist” whose main purpose was to establish a newspaper called Newslink Africa as a covert, highly secret government project whose aim was to counter ANC propaganda against South Africa in the neighbouring countries,” stated the report.

It further states that the project was initiated by Pik Botha, then minister of Foreign Affairs who roped the Botswana businessman (name withheld) into “Operation Grist.” To evade a political storm that was brewing, Pik Botha stopped consorting with the Botswana businessman personally and, instead, used agents to go between the Botswana businessmen and the big shots behind “Operation Grist.”

“On 11 May 1988, Mr Botha sent one Abel James Rudman to go to Botswana and meet” the Botswana businessman “who would help him form or buy a company to publish the proposed newspaper, Newslink Africa, and also to acquire all the necessary equipment and printing licences,” states the report.

It further emerges that “Mr Rudman faced two serious problems in his mission. If he came into Botswana as a foreign investor, the law required him to form a partnership with the Botswana Development Corporation. This meant that his credentials would have to be thoroughly checked by the police before his application could be approved. This was out of the question, given the clandestine nature of Operation Grist.”

To get around the problem, Rudman got the Botswana businessman to form a company (name withheld) in which they would be partners. The company “would serve as a smoke screen behind which Operation Grist was to operate”, states the report.

But even then there was still a problem. If the newly formed company tried to apply for a printing licence the three main printing companies would oppose the application, particularly because it was obvious that the company was owned by South African interests. (The Botswana businessman with close links to cabinet knew nothing about printing.)

“At this stage, Rudman was instructed by his Operation Grist seniors to target existing companies with the necessary printing licences and equipment for acquisition by any means necessary,” states the report.

At the time, there were three main printing companies in Botswana with the capacity and the necessary licences to handle a project of the size of the proposed Newslink Africa.

They were Printing and Publishing Co, owned by Satar Dada, who was in the excecutive committee of the Botswana Democratic Party, so it was out of the question for a hostile take over by the South African Defence Force.

Then there was Gaborone Printing Works, owned by two friends, Patrick Moyo and Barnabas Modise, but was heavily subsidised by the Swedish government. At the time, Sweden was very hostile towards South Africa and could not have allowed Gaborone Printing Works to pass into the hands of a company controlled by South African interests.
The third was Botswana Printers, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of LM Publication (PTY) LTD, the company that staked a claim for damages against Pik Botha and SADF. At the time, Botswana Printers had embarked on a major expansion project using a loan from the Botswana Development Corporation.

“After arriving in Botswana in May 1988, Abel Rudman, who was assisted by elements of the SADF in setting up Operation Grist, got to know about the LM Publications expiation project and immediately targeted my company for acquisition.”

Backed by the large financial resources and intelligence network and expertise of the SADF, Operation Grist bribed one Mark Lewis, who was employed by Botswana Development Corporation as project Manager, to help them acquire the Botswana Printers operation. Mark Lewis’ brief was to scuttle the Botswana Printers operation and then ensure that it was acquired by Operation Grist in return for a generous sum of money. Part of the money was paid immediately with the balance payable when the keys of the Botswana Printers factory were handed over to Rudman.

“As it happened, half the loan of P1 million from BDC was disbursed during the first phase of the LM Publications expansion programme between August and December. The balance, that is to say, the working capital, was to be drawn over the period from February to July.

“Having obtained inside information about the manner in which the Botswana Development Corporation operated and about future plans and programmes of the Botswana Printers operation, SADF intelligence operators instructed Mr Lewis to ensure that the working capital loan that had been approved by the BDC was not disbursed. As project Manager, Lewis ensured through various tricks that Botswana Printers was not able to draw the money.

“ As a result, Botswana Printers found it virtually impossible to operate the expanded programme. The company could not pay the workers and was unable to get basic supplies like paper, chemicals, lubricants, ink, etc.

“As part of this ploy Lewis had taken a long leave from February. When he returned he told BDC that the difficulties we had experienced during his absence on leave had been caused by mismanagement. We tried to protest vehemently against this unwarranted treatment, but, as we got to know afterwards, our letters never went beyond Lewis’ desk.

“ In the light of all this, I decided to liquidate LM Publications to avoid further losses. Mr Lewis then advised that Botswana Printers should not be liquidated, but should be sold as a going concern. I was persuaded to accept this arrangement because I would be able to form another company after liquidation. Within a week Lewis had found a buyer who turned to be SADF front man, Abel Rudman.

“In this way, the SADF took over all the assets of the Botswana Printers operation, including all the equipment and printing licences.”

The proposed Operation Grist newspaper, Newslink Africa, was then established and appeared on 31 August 1990. After a year the newspaper was closed down by the Botswana Government in September 1991 after rumours started circulating that the newspaper was an SADF project.

Not long after the closure of Newslink Africa, the Botswana Police were alerted through Interpol that BDC project manager Mark Lewis had suddenly accumulated large sums of money in accounts kept in Europe. At first, it was suspected that he was dealing in drugs.

Lewis was then called before senior BDC officials and questioned in the presence of police officers. In the end, Lewis confessed that he had received the money from the SADF Special Fund in return for shooting down the Botswana Printers operation to help establish the Operation Grist project. He was ordered to surrender the money and his services were terminated.

Incidentally, Mark Lewis kept the money in an account held in the Channel Islands. The money had been paid into his account by Strelley Investments Ltd, a company that had been formed by a South African attorney on the southmost island of Jersey. The same company paid for the acquisition of Botswana Printers assets for Operation Grist and also footed the bill for Newslink’s running expenses.

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.