Ivor Ichikowitz bridles at suggestions that he is a “briefcase arms dealer” and a “peddler of influence” in the murky world of multibillion- dollar international weapons deals.
“It is very hurtful to be referred to as an arms dealer because it is tantamount to calling the chairman of (pharmaceutical company) GlaxoSmithKline a drug dealer.”
Ichikowitz (44), chairperson of Africa’s largest privately owned defence company, the Paramount Group, and a long-time friend of IT billionaire Robert Gumede (47), announced this week they had bought a 49.9% stake of Johannesburg’s stricken Golden Lions Rugby Union.
Springs-born Ichikowitz is unapologetic about the “close relationships” he has cultivated with key power-brokers in South Africa and heads of states and government ministers in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe, Asia and South America.
“There is no denying the relationships are there.
It is what I do for a living,” he said. “We sell to governments. I cannot do my job without having close relationships with heads of state, and ministers of defence and finance. They are the only people authorised to deal in our kind of business. If I were dealing with anyone else, then I would absolutely?be?in?the?category?of?arms?dealer.”
But it is his business dealings and friendships with the likes of ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa, Moeletsi Mbeki – brother of the former president – Sandi Majali, the ANC’s frontman in the Oilgate scandal, and former foreign affairs minister Pik Botha that have sparked the most controversy.
So too has his public support for President Jacob Zuma.
In 2008 he publicly pledged R6 million to Zuma’s election campaign.
Later that year he laid on his company jet so that Zuma could fly to Lebanon and Kazakhstan on an apparent ANC fundraising and business drive.
Paramount, which is aiming for a $1 billion (about R7 billion) turnover by 2015, has partnered with Indian truckmaker Ashok Leyland to build mine-protected vehicles and has established a manufacturing plant in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
Three weeks ago, Ichikowitz launched Paramount’s new Mbombe armoured fighting vehicle at the African Aerospace and Defence expo in Cape Town.
Ichikowitz described it as “well-suited for .?.?. both conventional and non-conventional war, peacekeeping and counter-insurgency operations”.
One newspaper tartly observed that his descriptions of the Mbombe fighting vehicle suggested the “ideal buyer would be someone like Mother Teresa or Archbishop Desmond Tutu”.
But Ichikowitz is adamant that his company’s primary focus is related to peacekeeping. “We’re not in the weapons business, we’re not in the arms business. We do not get involved in countries that are in any way UN no-go zones.”
But he says: “You don’t have a crystal ball so one can’t tell what’s going to happen in five or six years time when the equipment has the potential to fall into the wrong hands.”
Ichikowitz maintains that he has not profited from his political connections and says his association with Mbeki’s brother Moeletsi hurt his business in South Africa.