Tony Yengeni ANC South Africa

Tony Sithembiso Yengeni has come a long way since his early years as a popular anti-apartheid struggle activist and street fighter.

The corpulent chief whip of the ruling African National Congress is well-known in parliament and political circles for his smart dressing. He sports designer suits from Cape Town's most exclusive boutiques, and his expensive tastes are reflected in his lifestyle.

What kind of man uses a wet bag repeatedly and listens to those cries and moans and takes each of those people close to their deaths?

Tony Yengeni
It was not always so. Born in Cape Town in 1954, Tony Yengeni grew up to become a supporter of the black consciousness movement under the leadership of Steve Biko before joining the outlawed ANC in 1976.

In the wake of the Soweto student uprising and the subsequent government crackdown on anti-apartheid organisations, Mr Yengeni went into temporary exile as a member of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.


He went for military training in ANC camps in Botswana, Zambia and Angola before studying for a social science diploma in Moscow.

Upon his return to Southern Africa, he became the regional secretary for the South African Council of Trade Unions, based in Lesotho.

 Tony Yengeni (Pic: Sunday Times of South Africa)
Luxury cars are now known as "Yengenis" 

He was appointed by the ANC as leader of its armed wing in the Western Cape, but almost as soon as he returned to the Cape he was arrested by the National Party government in 1987 and spent four years in prison while awaiting trial for terrorism.

During his detention, Yengeni was tortured by former anti-terrorist squad policeman Jeffrey Benzien, who subsequently boasted to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he had perfected his "wetbag" interrogatory torture method, guaranteed to produce results in under 30 minutes.

It was one of the most mesmerising moments of the Truth Commission hearings when Mr Benzien re-enacted this method, using his former victim, Tony Yengeni, for the benefit of the Commissioners and the public.


The "wetbag" method consisted of placing a wet canvas bag over the head of the detainee's head and then tightening the bag at their throat, threatening to suffocate them time and again until they confessed.

In his cross-questioning of Mr Benzien, Mr Yengeni asked: "What kind of man uses a wet bag repeatedly and listens to those cries and moans and takes each of those people close to their deaths - what kind of human being is that?"

Mr Benzien's mild response was: "I have asked myself that question. I have approached psychiatrists to have myself evaluated".

Not all of Mr Benzien's victims lived to tell the tale, or interrogate the man who had tortured and humiliated them.

Mr Yengeni was publicly furious when his torturer was granted amnesty by the Truth Commission.


Mr Yengeni was never successfully prosecuted by the apartheid state and was finally granted indemnity as part of the political transition process in 1991.

On his release from prison he became general secretary of the ANC in the Western Cape, and briefly engaged in the race to lead the party in the region before it was decided that the ANC's interests would be better served by a mixed-race or "coloured" leader, as the coloured population forms the majority in the province. He dropped out of the race.

Whatever happens there will be blood on the floor

Tony Yengeni

Tony Yengeni cultivated a militant leadership style, joining other ANC populists like Winnie Madikizela Mandela and ANC youth leader Peter Mokaba to whip up support for the ANC in the lead-up to the 1994 elections.

He was characterised as one of the ANC's young lions and after the elections was rewarded for his dedication and hard work with the influential position as chair of parliament's Joint Standing Committee for Defence - the body which plays a key role in decisions relating to South Africa's arms purchases.

'Fat cat'

He was also subsequently appointed the ANC's chief whip in parliament, a role he has relished, and has carried out diligently.

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When Tony Yengeni first started driving around Cape Town in 1998 in his state-of-the-art dark green Mercedes Benz ML320 4x4 with its tinted windows and plush beige upholstery, there was the usual ribald comment in the media about "fat cats on the gravy train".

Then rumours started circulating in parliament that Mr Yengeni had received the car as a gift.

It was not until opposition member of parliament Patricia de Lille raised queries about kick-backs and corruption linked to the government's controversial R43 billion ($5 billion) arms procurement deal in late 1999, that Mr Yengeni's name was mentioned for the first time.

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In March, South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper exposed how Tony Yengeni had received a generous discount on his Mercedes Benz from an arms manufacturing company which had benefited directly from the arms deal.

He initially refused to testify to parliament's Ethics Committee which requires members to disclose all assets, saying he was not legally obliged to do so.

He called the Sunday Times articles "hogwash" and told a press conference that he was not going to be subjected to a "witchunt" by the media. "Whatever happens there will be blood on the floor" he threatened, resorting to the language of the struggle.

 Yengeni is being charged with corruption, fraud, perjury and forgery
Yengeni is being charged with corruption, fraud, perjury and forgery

In a curious about-turn, in July this year, Yengeni took out a full-page advertisement in every South African Sunday newspaper, except the Sunday Times.

This was estimated to have cost the chief whip R250 000. In it, Mr Yengeni defends his vehicle purchase, calling the unjustified attacks on him "racist" and "McCarthyist".

But South Africa's townships, a luxury 4 wheel drive or a Mercedes is now referred to as a "Yengeni".

Now it is not the South African media that Tony Yengeni will be answering to, but South Africa's Commercial Criminal court on charges of corruption, fraud, statutory perjury and forgery.

Revealed: Yengeni's R6-million 'kickback' agreement

A raid on a German company has revealed a record of a deal signed by ANC heavyweight Tony Yengeni when he headed Parliament's defence committee.
 Tony Yengeni has made a career out of hawking his connections. (David Harrison, M&G)
ANC luminary Tony Yengeni signed a R6-million bribe agreement with an arms bidder when he headed Parliament's joint standing committee on defence in 1995, ­German detectives have reported.

The detectives said that they found a copy of the agreement when they raided ThyssenKrupp, the German engineering conglomerate which led the consortium that sold four patrol corvettes to South Africa for R6.9-billion.

Yengeni, a struggle stalwart and member of the ANC's national executive committee, this week refused to confirm or deny the allegation. "I've got nothing to say on all you're ­saying," he said.

The latest allegation significantly adds to evidence that the main contracts in the controversial arms deal were tainted by corruption, contradicting a 2001 finding by the multi-agency joint investigation team that subcontracts, at most, were affected.

Bribery is grounds for cancelling the multibillion-rand contracts for trainer and fighter jets, corvettes, submarines and helicopters that the government entered into at the turn of the century.

The government, perhaps fearful of the international repercussions, has resisted such a conclusion. But Judge Willie Seriti's arms procurement commission, which starts public hearings in August, will face a barrage of new evidence to that effect.

The Mail & Guardian has previously revealed how British multinational BAE Systems, which supplied the jets, paid roughly R200-million to Fana Hlongwane, who was the late defence minister Joe Modise's adviser when the arms deal was negotiated.

It has also reported how Thyssen ­allegedly reached a $3-million (about R18-million then) bribe agreement with Chippy Shaik, then head of defence procurement.

Last month the Sunday Times alleged that BAE bankrolled the late Stella Sigcau's daughter when she studied in London. Sigcau, then public enterprises minister, served on the Cabinet subcommittee that made key arms procurement decisions.

The new allegations are unrelated to Yengeni's fraudulent cover-up of a discount he received on a luxury vehicle from another arms bidder, for which he was briefly jailed in 2006.

Raids and a find
German investigators raided ThyssenKrupp's Düsseldorf headquarters in 2006 after tax authorities became suspicious of payments made in the course of the South African arms deal.

AmaBhungane has seen correspondence in which detectives involved in the investigation discuss some of the evidence found.

Among the gems in the haul was an agreement allegedly signed by Yengeni and Christoph Hoenings, an executive of Thyssen Rheinstahl Technik, a ThyssenKrupp predecessor company.

Hoenings was a key protagonist in the Thyssen-led German Frigate Consortium's campaign to sell the corvettes to South Africa.

Allegedly concluded when Hoenings visited South Africa in September 1995, the agreement promised Yengeni 2.5-million deutschmark (R6-million then) on conclusion of the campaign to sell the corvettes to South Africa.

Hoenings, who has since left Thyssen, this week refused to comment, saying from Düsseldorf: "I do not speak to the press, please understand this, thank you."

Men of influence

Hoenings's online profile on business networking website, however, is unabashed about his use of political connectivity to land contracts.

It says he offers "years of experience as a sales director for exports in shipbuilding/marine", "strong contacts with political parties and well-connected individuals in a number of developing and emerging countries", and "creativity in the development of marketing strategies for obtaining foreign government contracts".

The profile offers the "use of my personal network by interested third parties" – perhaps not unlike Yengeni, whose LinkedIn profile describes him as an "independent government relations professional".

During the South African corvette campaign, Hoenings worked closely with Tony Georgiadis, the London-based shipping magnate who made a seamless transition from supplying apartheid South Africa with embargo-busting crude oil to being best friends with the top echelons of former president Thabo Mbeki's ANC.

Georgiadis appears to have been brought aboard as an agent by the Germans after Christmas Eve 1994, when all seemed lost. That day, Armscor, the state arms procurement agency, had announced the shortlisting of shipyards from Spain and Britain to supply corvettes, eliminating bids from Germany, Denmark and France.

But Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president, travelled to Germany the next month, allegedly to reassure officials.

Hoenings himself was quoted in the Weekend Argus as saying that Mbeki had told him and the German foreign minister that "the race is still open to all contenders".

In May 1995, Cabinet put a hold on the corvette acquisition pending a "defence review", among other things to determine the ideal force design of the post-apartheid defence force.

The corvette tender process was started afresh in late 1997 as part of a comprehensive "strategic defence procurement" of jets, ships, ­submarines and helicopters.

Enter Yengeni

Yengeni was well placed to assist the Germans during this precarious time when the South Africans were reconsidering their needs.

In Parliament, he was ANC chief whip and chair of the joint standing committee on defence. He also later served on the defence review, held under the auspices of the department of defence.

Yengeni allegedly signed the agreement with Hoenings on September 11 1995. The German detectives' correspondence details some corroborating evidence.

Hoenings' travel claims, they said, showed him meeting Yengeni and Georgiadis in South Africa on the day the agreement was allegedly signed.

After his return to Germany, Hoenings entered a provision for the 2.5-million deutschmark in Thyssen Rheinstahl accounts.

At the time, foreign bribery was not illegal in Germany. It was, in fact, tax-deductible, meaning there was no need to disguise such actions internally.

The provision was removed when Thyssen Rheinstahl and Krupp merged two years later and investigators found no indication in the accounts that the money was paid.

The detectives thought it likely, however, that Yengeni ultimately received the money by indirect means.


Certainly, the contact continued as the defence review unfolded. Hoenings's travel claims specified another four sets of meetings in 1996 and 1997 involving him, Yengeni and Georgiadis.

One set of meetings was in Germany and two were in Switzerland the final one in Zurich in November 1997, two months after the corvette tender, ultimately won by the Germans, was reopened.

Also found, the detectives said, was a claim by Georgiadis for the air fare for Yengeni's first visit to Zurich. Georgiadis allegedly faxed Hoenings the travel agent's invoice, with the note: "The attached for your 'confidential' file (in case he [Yengeni] ever denies having come)."

Georgiadis said this week: "I really, really have no comment whatsoever to make on anything regarding that, okay … I know nothing about it [the bribe agreement]."

German authorities abandoned their investigation of Thyssen in 2008, apparently after reaching a tax settlement. They did not prosecute corruption, in part because it was difficult to prove that any of Thyssen's actions continued after foreign ­bribery was outlawed.

A ThyssenKrupp spokesperson said on Thursday: "The issues related to your request were duly investigated by German authorities. These investigations have been [settled] without any findings."

Full circle

In 2011 there was an outcry when it was discovered that then-defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu had appointed Yengeni to a committee to conduct a new defence review, despite his conviction for the luxury car cover up.

Sisulu insisted in parliamentary answers to the Democratic Alliance that Yengeni had "paid his dues by serving a prison sentence and was released from custody".

At a media briefing she said: "I chose him to be a member of the committee because of the role he played in the first review.

"He has the necessary background of how we've come to be where we are."

Commission seeks evidence from Germany

Judge Willie Seriti's arms procurement commission on Thursday confirmed it was aware of the allegedly explosive nature of the evidence found by German authorities and said it was trying to secure it.

Commission spokesperson William Baloyi said: "We are aware of the many statements from a var-iety of sources within South Africa to the effect that the German investigators have uncovered massive evidence implicating various

people and entities in wrongdoing … We have been communicating with the German authorities to secure such evidence and are still awaiting their final response. Obviously the interactions with [them] are of a sensitive nature and we can therefore not comment further."

The commission will start public hearings in August.  

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