When the dust settled around the koppie at Marikana on August 16 2012, 34 mineworkers lay dead and a further 78 injured. This was the single largest use of deadly force by the police in South Africa since the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and an indictment of President Jacob Zuma’s administration.
Most of the civilians were shot in the back. The perpetrators, the South African Police Service, were responsible for a massacre of mineworkers who were struggling for a living wage.

The focus of their anger and frustration was not the state but, rather, the mine owners, Lonmin. Far from being blameless, this British platinum giant used its shareholder, ANC heavyweight and South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, to call for what was termed “concomitant action” against the workers. At stake was the continued supply of cheap labour required to maximise profit from the mine.

The struggle of these mineworkers was against a 110-year-old corporation that, for almost 90 years of its existence, was known as the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company (Lonrho). By the late 1980s Lonrho was active in 80 countries, employing more than 140 000 workers in over 800 related subsidiaries. Lonrho’s interests in apartheid South Africa ranged from the distribution of Mercedes-Benz cars to ownership of the country’s third-largest platinum mine, Western Platinum, which it acquired in 1987.

Lonrho shed its Rhodesian roots under the leadership of Roland “Tiny” Rowland, who controlled the company for almost 30 years from 1962 onwards.

Rowland was born in India to a British mother and a German father. Both had been interned in a camp during World War I because of their German links. Rowland would spend part of World War II in a detention camp on the Isle of Man. During the 1930s he lived in Germany for a spell and joined the Hitler Youth.

Rowland had a long-standing feud with the British establishment, which he sometimes disdained while still embracing its conventions of ownership and its institutions. He made his first fortune not in Britain but in the colony of Southern Rhodesia, where his good looks and upper-class accent charmed the local white elite.

Rowland was long associated with British intelligence, even though there is little substantive proof. It was thanks to former MI5 man Sir Joseph Ball that Lonrho hired him. It is speculated that Ball might have been his controller when he was detained on the Isle of Man during the war. In addition, one of the members of his board, until at least 1973, had been an MI6 agent.

Rowland was on good terms with African heads of state, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya.

His privileged relationship with Malawian autocrat Hastings Banda is said to have aided Lonrho in large-scale transfer pricing, in effect a massive underpayment of taxes, which was common practice in Lonrho’s African business empire. A similar allegation was made about Lonmin in South Africa under the leadership of chief executive Ian Farmer before the Marikana massacre in 2012.

Rowland had easy access to United States CIA chief Bill Casey, Israeli intelligence agency Mossad deputy chief David Kimche and Middle Eastern arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. Ronald Reagan’s assistant secretary for African affairs in the 1980s, Chester Crocker, was a major player in Southern African politics through his policy of “constructive engagement” towards Pretoria. He trusted Rowland because of his unfettered access to African heads of state and reassuring penchant for clandestine diplomacy, guaranteed by the invisibility of any staff. Rowland ticked all the boxes for the perfect spy.

Former British Conservative prime minister Edward Heath dubbed Rowland’s boardroom behaviour “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”, sealing his perennial “outsider” status in the British press. This belied the fact that he was the consummate insider trader, enjoying access to powerful networks of influence across the world. His was the face of capitalism that seamlessly conflated business and politics in a manner that has become ordinary in most countries today, despite its deeply corrosive effect on integrity in public life.

It should therefore be no surprise that his personal fortune peaked during Margaret Thatcher’s doggedly pro-market prime ministership. This was thanks to Lonrho chairperson Sir Edward du Cann, who was instrumental in getting Thatcher elected as leader of the Conservative Party in 1975. Du Cann was also key in lobbying Thatcher to meet with Rowland and persuaded her private secretary to “insert documents supporting Lonrho into the prime minister’s red boxes at the end of a working day”. According to Du Cann, “Margaret regarded Tiny as extraordinary”.

Though this didn’t always translate into policy, it enabled Rowland to bypass Whitehall’s foreign affairs mandarins, who were more sceptical of him. The British establishment treated him with contempt only because he exemplified some of the worst elements both of their past colonial entitlement and their future embrace of unregulated hyper-profit, without any of the usual dissembling and diplomatic cover-speak.

In South Africa, Rowland befriended former prime minister John Vorster, businessman Harry Oppenheimer and ANC leader Oliver Tambo. He even offered to assist the ANC government-in-waiting to buy a newspaper in 1993, long before the pillaging Gupta brothers captured the political scene and the state in South Africa. For this and other services, he was awarded the Star of South Africa by then-president Nelson Mandela in 1996.

Did Mandela know the true extent of Rowland’s links to the apartheid military machine? Though Mandela may have been briefed privately about the networks nurtured by chameleon-like Rowland in the old South Africa, the public had no inkling of his decades-long association with South African military intelligence. These top-secret documents remained hidden in the dusty South African Defence Force archive in downtown Pretoria — until now.

They provide an extraordinary insight into African politics in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa’s growing relationship with senior members of various African governments and the role of private brokers such as Lonrho, which actively sought to profit from these developments. It was a mutually beneficial relationship with the most significant military power in Southern Africa, which ended with Rowland’s empire sinking its first platinum mineshaft on the highveld.

To do business, Rowland preferred dealing directly with heads of state, jetting between countries and continents in his Gulfstream with pit stops long enough to press the flesh with senior politicians and security men, exchange information and conclude deals. Yet he also had to rely on local agents. In South Africa his bagman was the cardiologist Dr Marquard de Villiers, who controlled Lonrho’s diverse interests in South Africa and Mozambique from his Pretoria medical practice.

Given what can be gleaned from declassified military intelligence records, he was most likely driven by a strong sense of profit.  An old golf buddy of Vorster and part of the Pretoria elite, he could provide Rowland with direct access to the white oligarchs. But it was not just behind-the-scenes information that South Africa got from its relationship with Rowland and Lonrho, they got arms as well.

By the mid-1980s the offer to assist with weapons procurement became more tangible and sinister. Rowland arranged for De Villiers to meet with Israeli spy David Kimche, who at that stage was director general of Israeli foreign affairs after a stint as deputy head of Mossad. Kimche could assist in providing Rowland with Red Eyes (US Stinger surface-to-air missiles) should South Africa-backed Unita (fighting against the Soviet-backed MPLA government in Angola) require them.

It is easy to dismiss Rowland as some sort of rogue, an anomaly, in the British way of doing things. Robin Renwick, the former British ambassador to South Africa, is of this view: “One company that wasn’t above improper relations was Tiny Rowland and Lonrho … He had a corrupt relationship with some African leaders. It is unthinkable that he would have done what he did in Africa in the UK. If he had acted in that manner in Britain he would have gone straight to prison.”

Such a view is profoundly misplaced. Rowland was no sidebar or swashbuckling businessman. He was a sanctions buster who paid his tax in Britain from a fortune made in largely poor African countries. Apartheid spy Craig Williamson told me that he met Rowland and recalls him flying into the Waterkloof military air base just outside Pretoria. He believes that Rowland “was a businessman, in it for himself”.

A former senior Armscor employee describes Rowland’s role in illicit weapons procurement as “a good channel for us [South Africa] during the sanctions period”.

The final characterisation worth noting is by Unisa emeritus law professor André Thomashausen, who was close to the National Party establishment in the 1980s. He met Rowland in the company of then foreign minister Pik Botha at the time and recalls their interaction: “I asked him how he got so successful and he said that he had an effective distribution arm in Africa. He loved Africa. I don’t think he had an ideology other than profit. As for Lonhro, it was probably a front for UK intelligence.”

Is it not possible that Rowland was all three: British businessman, friend of apartheid and English spy? He certainly acted like a spy in the service of the apartheid regime when it suited him. He was also corrupt and in the service of many governments and political agendas. One of those was without doubt the UK and another was South Africa.

This is an edited extract from Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, published by Jacana. Hennie van Vuuren is director of Open Secrets, which investigates historical corruption (