A cautionary take for South Africans doing business in Africa

Review: Muriel Hau Yoon 

Black Beach, by Daniel Janse van Rensburg and Tracey Pharoah (Penguin Random House SA)

This is by no means your average survival tale of some gung ho testosterone-loaded Rambo-type who endured months of gut-wrenching confinement in a hell-hole prison for some illicit arms deal or failed coup.

Rather, this is the true story of Daniel Janse van Rensburg from Hoekwil, near George – a regular, honest-to-goodness, South African husband, father and son, who gets swallowed up in a Machiavellian maelstrom when a legitimate business deal with a well-connected local tycoon in Equatorial Guinea goes horribly wrong.

It is the stuff of nightmares that can randomly hit any one of the thousands of South Africans currently navigating the high-risk-high-reward minefield of doing business in Africa – where corruption and the abuse of power come in 50 shades of grey.

It isn’t as though Janse van Rensburg is a newbie to the continent. Born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in 1966, he worked since 1994 in Angola, Namibia and later in West Africa, assisting multinationals to carve footholds in burgeoning African markets.

In 2013 he was working in Equatorial Guinea, one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. After centuries of slave trade, this former Spanish colony hit pay-dirt in the mid-1990s with the discovery of vast resources of minerals and offshore crude oil.

Billions of dollars poured into the country – most of which continues to be syphoned off by the country’s elite, with President Teodoro Obiang Nguema at the front of the queue.

With a net worth of $600 million, Obiang is today one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, with a portfolio of opulent properties across the globe, including in Cape Town.

He is also the longest serving president in the world and heads what Human Rights Watch terms as “the African state with one of the worst human rights records”.

Janse van Rensburg’s nightmare begins on a sunny day in October 2013, in the capital Malabo, on Bioko Island. He is finalising a new airline deal with Gabriel Angabi, whom he has known since 2001. A former mayor of Malabo, Angabi is also a brother-in-law to the President’s number-one wife.

Without warning or explanation, Angabi explodes into a vituperative rage and reneges on their signed and sealed contract, demanding the immediate return of $600 000. One can’t help wondering whether this mercurial behaviour has something to do with the local belief system which is fraught with voodoo and black magic – a fertile breeding ground for paranoia and witch hunts.

Or perhaps the seeds of distrust had already been scattered nine years earlier, when mercenaries Nick du Toit and Simon Mann were arrested and thrown into Black Beach prison in 2004 following a failed coup attempt against Obiang.

At the time, Janse van Rensburg was working in Malabo and was briefly detained but released after they discovered he had no ties to the soldiers of fortune.  However the plot soured relations between the political elite and foreign businessmen.

What came after that fateful day in October 2013, is an inexorable descent into a hell of unspeakable depravity. Janse van Rensburg is flung into Black Beach prison, also known as the “Auschwitz of Africa”. There he survives cerebral malaria, gang assaults and police brutality. As the only “blanco” in the prison, he is targeted by thugs and thieves. Angabi is clearly hell-bent on breaking his spirit and inflicting as much sadistic torture as possible without killing him.

What makes the story extraordinary is that Janse van Rensburg resolutely refuses to plead guilty to any wrong-doing and is prepared to endure what ends up being 491 days of sheer hell in order to prove his innocence and integrity, despite several opportunities to be smuggled out of captivity.

The story is sensitively recounted by Tracey Pharoah, a seasoned marketing guru who spent the past three years with Janse van Rensburg, reconstructing a chronological narrative out of his jumble of memories and tiptoeing through a graveyard of deep psychological trauma in order to gather enough strands to weave an epic tale of resilience and indefatigable faith, without ripping open barely healed wounds.

To add colour and texture to Janse van Rensburg’s experiences, Pharoah, who has never been to Malabo, visited social media pages to vividly flesh out the physical details of the various locations.

Their book debut reads like a Wilbur Smith novel.

Janse van Rensburg’s story also begs the question as to what degree of protection South Africans can expect to receive from the SA government in any foreign state.

The book describes how South African diplomatic staff were simply pushed aside when presidential henchmen physically yanked Janse van Rensburg off the aircraft back to South Africa, despite his being armed with a free pass from their Minister of Justice stating that he had no pending criminal charges against him and was free to leave the country.

They withhold his passport and there is no documentation of his admittance to prison. The first contact he has with the South African embassy is when an employee comes to take his fingerprints “in case they need to identify his body at the morgue”.

In June 2014, Janse van Rensburg’s plight is even escalated to then President Jacob Zuma who happens to be in Malabo for an African Union summit.  Not surprisingly, that avails zippo.

In the end, were it not for the intervention of a feisty new South African ambassador, Janse van Rensburg would still be languishing in the festering pit of human detritus and human rights atrocities.

In 2016, he successfully sued Obiang in the Western Cape High Court for wrongful imprisonment and was awarded R39,8 million in a landmark case that has made it to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

Although not a single franc has been paid as yet, the judicial sale of Obiang’s multimillion-rand homes in Clifton and Bishopscourt are in progress.

One thought on “A cautionary take for South Africans doing business in Africa

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *