Recently, the Italian Center for Investigative Reporting (IRPI) and the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) launched a series probing the Italian Mafia in Africa. Internal confidential documents obtained by ANCIR and IRPI revealed that this was just the tip of the iceberg, one extending to the deepest reaches of Africa’s political economies, including the funding of political parties, the allocation of critical resources, such as diamonds and land; and the purchase of policy.
Our investigation mapped assets, scrutinising the presence and role of the Italian mafia in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Angola, Kenya and elsewhere. This ranged from the Cosa Nostra’s key financier, allegedly being an FBI informant to their involvement in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds – a central source of revenue for Mugabe’s regime.
We could not have done this without the trust of sources both within the game, and those externally scrutinising it. In 2014, soon after returning from Zurich, Switzerland, we spoke to Peter Robbins, one of the leaders in the battle for economic sanctions against resources exported by the apartheid regime. Chair of the World Gold Commission, which received most of its funding from the UN Committee on Apartheid – part of a small group of watchers who knew where the bodies were buried – circa apartheid and its transition to democracy. In a series of conversations, he would tell us of the struggles faced; the roles played by visible and hidden actors – and the value of minerals – perceived by politicians like Vorster as ‘bricks in the wall’ of the apartheid regime existence.
At its core was gold: sales from South Africa were a national secret; Switzerland, the bank vault for the world’s dirty secrets, acted as a major clearinghouse, yet more opaque particularly where it related to gold transactions with South Africa or related to South African gold.
The starting point, he said, the easiest to unravel, was the jewellery industry. Italy used more gold for this purpose than any other country – about 400 tonnes a year, equivalent to two thirds of South Africa’s production at the time. Various Italian trade unions were joining forces, then, to oppose Italy’s ties to South Africa. Most Italian jewellery, I was told, was produced in the North of the country, especially around Vicenza. “I imagined,” he said, “that it was produced in tiny workshops full of short-sighted old men, bashing the stuff with little hammers.” Turns out, it was produced on an industrial scale. Ingots of gold were chucked, ‘into the maw of a massive machine…’ The source would meet the union bosses, including the local heads of Italy’s CGIL branch, the largest of the three confederations. While British unions, allegedly, were backing down after Thatcher yelled at them, in Italy, said the source, solidarity meant something, and they weren’t backing down. The unions meant to go all the way. Almost all the gold seen had the Rand Refinery insignia.
And much of it purchased from a select groups of Italian banks authorised by the government to trade in gold. According to official trade figures, Italy bought very little gold from South Africa. Almost all the 400 tonnes of gold imports were described as of Swiss origin, despite the fact that Switzerland possessing no gold mines.
This included those vast quantities of gold bars with the Rand insignia. It would have been $5 billion dollars then and would have made Italy the largest importer of South African gold, and South African goods, in the world. The Italian workers found out that their banks purchased the gold mainly from Swiss banks located in Ticino, the Italian speaking canton in Switzerland. “A knowing look passed between the workers and union officials as soon as Ticino was mentioned,” said the source. ‘Mafia’, they hissed. The Communist-inspired CGIL wanted in on exposing the links between Italy’s State and the apartheid regime. Grappa sessions and old Italian union songs were in order.
One economist, similarly involved with sanctions, stated that the gold was transported from Johannesburg to Geneva, and stored in transit warehouses, before being re-exported to Northern Italy. The gold never officially entered Swiss territory – according to a senior executive at Switzerland’s Economics Ministry. Ticino, claimed another source, was where mafia such as ‘our business’ or the Cosa Nostra operated. Vito Palazzolo was considered the main moneyman of the Cosa Nostra. He worked as a banker in Switzerland, and appeared the connecting link between South Africa and Italy.
Indeed, several South African apartheid Presidents, including Pik Botha and De Klerk, had gone out of their way to provide him with residence and other perks, despite his illegal entry.
In November 1998, Robbins was invited back to Vicenza. The factory owners were dressed in silk suits and tinted glasses; grim-faced. The union bosses looked pleased. Oliver Tambo, then President of the ANC, would be invited to the Vicenzaoro – the annual exhibition of the jewellery industry. He would tour the stands and affably praise the merchandise.
It was news to Tambo, I was told, that Vicenza labour unions were fighting the import of South African gold; in the process, fighting apartheid. The Italian government, embarrassed that Italy was the major trading partner of apartheid gold, supported the decision of the jewellers to acquire gold from other sources. Pressure was placed on the Italian banks to follow through. The bigger question, however, remained unanswered for the unions: they believed that SA gold was invoiced at a higher price and the difference placed in Swiss accounts. This had the effect of profit shifting from SA.
The impact on the Italian workers was that of reduced wages, given that artificially depreciated profits were declared in Italy. But more disastrous was the effect of the Mafia, intertwined in Italy’s economy from the Italian Republic earliest days – the New York Times would write in 1943 that the Sicilian mafia was enmeshed, in part, thanks to the appointment of the mafia by the Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories (AMGOT) as heads of local towns following the fall of the Fascist state, and long prior. As the Republic grew, so did the Mafia, weaving itself within formal society by laundering the illicit through the licit, until one was the other, and the other, an idea of what could have been. Men of honour, the Cosa Nostra called themselves. Men of honour, Robbins and the Vicenza-based labor unions were instead.
Khadija Sharife is a senior researcher for the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR). ANCIR’s investigative lab experts (or iLab), including Heinrich Bohmke (cross-examination), Alexander Yearsley (forensics investigation), Giovanni Pellerano (tech expert), assisted the Mafia in Africa investigation through the provision of investigative support services. For more information, please visit: https://correctiv.org/en/investigations/mafia-africa/
The iLab service – a virtual investigative hub – is available to all West African media at no cost, with priority for ANCIR members such as Premium Times. ANCIR’s iLab is kindly supported by Open Society West Africa (OSIWA. For more information, please visit: http://investigativecenters.org/ilab/