Pandora Papers: Inside Zimbabwean tycoon Billy Rautenbach’s offshore family trust
In 2013, one of Zimbabwe’s richest men and arguably one of the most controversial business figures in southern Africa, Muller Conrad “Billy” Rautenbach, donated multimillion-dollar financial investments in his coal and ethanol businesses to his wife.
This restructuring was explained by the need to “compensate” her for her role in building the family’s wealth.
It would kick off a process in which Jenny Lynn Rautenbach, who also uses her maiden name, Noon, would take the lead in establishing a complex offshore family trust fund meant to preserve and grow the family’s assets for generations to come.
With the assistance of Singapore-based trust specialist Asiaciti and other advisers, by 2015 Noon was the settlor of the family’s Bonsai Business Trust which owned a non-tradeable family investment fund listed on the Singapore Exchange (SGX). The main assets of the fund were intercompany loans (at punitive interest rates) repayable by Rautenbach’s businesses in Zimbabwe.
But a closer look suggests that the donation was just a formality and Rautenbach, who was under United States sanctions at the time, was still in control.
As one administrator clarified in an email, Noon was a “very indirect passive investor into the fund [and who does not even have direct profit entitlement or any kind of investment say]”.
The donation had the effect of distancing Rautenbach at a time when he was still under sanctions – and positioning the family to suck maximum benefit from the Zimbabwe operations should they ever be profitable enough to service the loans.
Records of the Rautenbach marriage settlement and family trust fund are amongst a batch of 1,8 million files leaked from Asiaciti’s computer servers.
The data provides a partial window into Rautenbach’s more recent business exploits – including details about the significant financial losses sustained by his company Green Fuel, a $300-million ethanol joint venture company with the Zimbabwean government that has been described as “his greatest achievement”.
The files form part of the Pandora Papers, an anonymous leak of more than 11,9 million documents from the databases of 14 corporate service providers that set up and manage shell companies and trusts in tax havens around the globe.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is leading the investigation and has shared these files with over 600 journalists across the world in the biggest journalistic collaboration in history. The leaked documents mainly consist of Word and PDF files, images and email conversations from 1996 to 2020, and in some instances as far back as the ’70s.
amaBhungane analysed a number of company documents and a trail of email communication beginning in 2013 when the Rautenbach trust fund structure was constituted.
Detailed questions were sent to Green Fuel and to Rautenbach’s personal assistant, but received no response.
Asiaciti explained in its email response that it worked with clients across the world and its services were “subject to stringent regulation by the relevant authorities in each jurisdiction in which we operate”. (See their detailed response below.)
Fifteen years in southern and central Africa
Rautenbach’s controversial reputation flows from allegations that he used his proximity to government leaders to gain favourable access to business opportunities.
The compliance and risk documents seen by amaBhungane show that Asiaciti consistently rated the family’s trust fund structure as “high risk” – primarily due to Rautenbach’s status as a politically exposed person (PEP), his influence in Zimbabwe, the negative reports around his businesses and the substantial debt exposure the fund had to his businesses.
He spent the period between 1999 and 2009 as a fugitive from South Africa after he fled the country when he was charged with corruption and customs tax fraud. His company, SA Botswana Hauliers (Sabot) would later pay a fine of R40-million but Rautenbach never admitted any personal liability and charges against him were withdrawn as part of the 2009 settlement.
Rautenbach’s controversial ties to leaders of former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF regime eventually landed him on the United States and European Union sanctions list in 2008.
The US called him one of Mugabe’s “cronies” and accused him of providing “support to senior regime officials during Zimbabwe’s intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”.