John Bredenkamp, the Zimbabwean tycoon linked to £20m of payments made by BAE Systems, has ridden political upheaval to become one of his country’s richest international businessmen.
by Michael Peel, William Wallis and Christopher Thompson in London
Over a four-decade career that has taken him from Harare’s tobacco auction floors to Downing Street, he has shown himself an opportunist whose business dealings have come under attack from the United Nations and non-governmental groups.
After flourishing under the white minority regime of Ian Smith, he later allied himself to President Robert Mugabe’s post-independence government and built up substantial British assets, including residences in Berkshire and London’s Mayfair.
Patrick Smith, editor of Africa Confidential, the London-based newsletter, said: “On a continent where businessmen progress through a combination of hard-nosed pragmatism and personal networks, Bredenkamp is in the premier league.”
Mr Bredenkamp’s history has come under the spotlight again following the emergence of documents showing he is a beneficiary of Kayswell Services, an offshore company paid at least £20m ($40m, €25m) by BAE between 2003 and 2005.
Mr Bredenkamp, who was born in 1940, began his career when he took a tobacco auction house job found for him by one of his teachers at Prince Edward, a top Harare state school.
By the late 1960s, he was captaining the Rhodesian rugby team and busting tobacco export sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the Smith government’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965.
Mr Bredenkamp later expanded into oil procurement and dabbled in sports management. His spokesman said his clients included Nick Price, the Zimbabwean golfer, and Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion.
Mr Bredenkamp’s new line of business took him to a Downing Street reception in the mid-1990s with John Major, the cricket-loving UK prime minister at the time.
One of Mr Bredenkamp’s most controversial business ventures was mining in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. UN investigators concluded in 2002 that some of his business interests had illegally exploited mineral resources, although he denied the allegation.
Mr Bredenkamp’s main business venture today is Breco, an international private equity group set up after he sold his Casalee tobacco company for $100m in 1993. He also has longstanding – if opaque – links with the arms industry in southern Africa, although he says he has always complied with arms sanctions imposed against Zimbabwe by the European Union in 2002.
He was a business partner of Billy Rautenbach, a fellow white Zimbabwean wanted by South African police, before the two fell out over a mining deal in the DRC.
Mr Bredenkamp was detained for several days last year in Harare’s notorious central prison over alleged passport irregularities, a case his spokesperson said was later dismissed.
It was another exotic twist in a career governed by a pragmatism exemplified by the aphorism on the Breco website that “in Africa, it is essential to work with change, not against it”.
It is a mantra that has helped Mr Bredenkamp make money, at the expense of inviting criticism about the ever-shifting business and political relationships he has exploited to do so.