Daily Maverick

From South Africa with love: Arron Banks, Brexit, the Russians and the SA connection

Leave.EU Brexit campaign co-founder Arron Banks (R) and political campaigner Andy Wigmore (L) leave after facing questions by members of the British Parliament, Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, at Portcullis House in London, Britain, 12 June 2018. Reports state that Arron Banks is facing questions about claims linking him to Russian officials and about their campaign group influence of Russia on the Brexit referendum result. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

An investigation by Britain’s Channel 4 News has uncovered papers filed in a civil action in the Northern Cape High Court alleging that Brexit “bad boy”and right-wing businessman, Arron Banks, allegedly raised capital from Russian investors for diamond mines he owns in Kimberley. Banks then rerouted the money to bankroll other projects, including the Leave.EU campaign. The findings have added a new spark to speculation of Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum.

Banks, who made the biggest ever financial donation in the history of British politics, is being investigated with regard to his Russian connections and the role this played in the result of Britain’s 2016 “Brexit” referendum. Apart from the Kimberley mines, one of Banks’ closest associates, James Pryor, is South African-born and acted as an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and FW De Klerk.

A search of Banks’ South African business interests indicates that he is a registered principal, with Pryor, IFP MP Eric James Lucas and Jonathan Ian Banks of New Rush Diamonds Pty Ltd, registered to an address in Kimberley. All four men are also listed as principals for Kophia Diamonds Pty Ltd, registered to an address in Pretoria.

Jonathan Ian Banks (born in the same year as Arron Banks, 1951) is listed by Bloomberg as “in-house counsel/In-House Lawyer for Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong. Mr Banks worked in private practice with Lovells, in both England and Hong Kong. He joined Group Direct Limited, later part of Brightside Group PLC as Group Legal Counsel in 2006, where he assisted with the flotation of Brightside and has also done considerable amounts of legal work for SRICL. He joined SRICL and Rock Group in 2013.”

He is also listed as a director of the Southern Rock Insurance Company which along with Eldon Insurance forms the bedrock of Arron Banks’ insurance empire which is now under scrutiny.

There has been ongoing speculation of possible Russian interference or manipulation in the Brexit vote. Banks, who is a close friend of Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has faced questions in the UK parliament with regard to the Leave.EU campaign, its relationship with Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of data by Leave.EU and other companies connected to Banks with regard to manufacturing fake news.

Leaked emails also indicated that Banks and his partner Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s press spokesperson, had had multiple meetings with Russian embassy officials prior to the Brexit vote.

Banks donated £12-million to the campaign which has sparked a determined effort to trace the origins or the conduits of the funding through Banks’ complicated and opaque business structures.

One of these conduits may have been revealed in the Kimberley court papers found during the Channel 4 investigation by Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Rugman.

Rugman said that the papers related to a civil action between Distribution Rocks, a diamond company owned by Banks and its partner firm Supermix. Supermix is being sued for failing to pay R7-million which Distribution Rocks – owned by an unnamed business associate of Banks – says it is owed.

Banks’ business associate alleges that the tycoon travelled to Russia in an attempt to trawl for investments for his struggling mines.

The Channel 4 report quotes from the affidavit in which Banks’ business partner states:

I was finally made aware in October [2015] that in truth, Banks had been dealing with Russians who contemplated investing in the mines…. I was informed by Banks that he had travelled to Russia and discussed with them the diamond opportunities as well as gold mining opportunities in Russia. He further indicated that he would be meeting with the Russians again during November [2015].”

The businessman reportedly claimed that Banks had raised the money for the mines but had instead redirected the funds into the Brexit campaign, among other interests.

Banks denied any of the charges and claims by his former business partner.

OpenDemocracy, a UK-based political website, has spent months investigating Banks’ miraculous rise from vacuum cleaner salesman to one of the the richest men in Britain.

Peter Geoghegan (no relation to Victoria of Bell Pottinger), investigations editor at OpenDemocracy, along with journalist Adam Ramsey, found “serious questions” about Banks’ claim and the extent of his wealth and value of his “business empire”.

The true value of Banks’s claimed ‘significant’ diamond discoveries in Lesotho is questionable, while his insurance business has been propped up by a £77-million cash injection from an unknown source, and people who specialise in using tax havens to protect the secrecy of wealthy clients were taking up seats on the board of one of his companies,” wrote Geoghegan and Ramsey.

Banks had often boasted of his mining interests in southern Africa including that he owned “several old De Beers mines”. He announced a “significant find” in Lesotho.

The area around the latest find has already produced some of the world’s most beautiful and clear stones,” Banks told an obscure website that, we discovered, happens to be run by a former Ukip candidate.

Judging by our initial exploration I am confident it won’t be long before we find similar large diamonds.”

OpenDemocracy investigations found that Banks’ Lesotho mines were a little less forthcoming in their shiny offerings.

We found that the area of the ‘significant find’ in Lesotho had produced only a few hundred pounds’ worth of diamonds in the two decades before Banks bought it. Keith Whitelock, a geologist and expert on Lesotho diamonds, told us that it was ‘geologically impossible’ to find commercial quantities of diamonds in the mine.”

In 2015 Banks had bragged that his “political consultancy”, Chartwell, had advised the Basotho National Party prior to elections in that country.

Said Open Democracy:

But when we dug into the relationship between Chartwell and the BNP, it turned out that it was rather different to most political consultancy gigs. Rather than the party paying Chartwell for its advice, we discovered that Banks was transferring money to the BNP: at least £65,000, a significant sum in one of the poorest and smallest countries in southern Africa, which has a GDP per capita of just $1,040 (£730).”

Some of the cash was deposited into a private account linked to BNP leader John Thesele Maseribane rather than the official party account. The BNP, said Open Democracy, was a useful ally for Banks. While it only had five seats it was part of the then ruling coalition.

Directors of Banks’s local mining company in Lesotho are also close to business associates of the family of BNP leader Maseribane.”

The interference in the affairs of a sovereign country reveal echoes of Bell Pottinger’s campaign for the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma’s son during at the peak of State Capture allegations.

This is a new breed of economic mercenaries who destabilise democracy not with guns or military hardware but using data, the internet and good old bribery and corruption.

In March 2018, Cambridge Analytica’s former director of research, Chris Wylie, told British lawmakers that the firm’s manipulation of data may have influenced the outcome of the Brexit referendum vote as well as the result of the US election which catapulted Donald Trump into the White House.

In May, the UK’s Electoral Commission fined Leave.EU £70 000 with regard to breaches of the UK’s electoral law. During an inquiry the commission had found that on 28 April 2016, “as part of its required pre-poll transaction reporting, Leave.EU reported receiving three regulated transactions (loans) from Mr Banks, totalling £6m. These were the only reported sources of funding for Leave.EU’s referendum campaign.”

However, the commission found that Leave.Eu had failed “without reasonable excuse to report these transactions correctly” and also that “without reasonable excuse these transactions were also incorrectly reported in Leave.EU’s referendum spending return”. DM

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