FINANCE Minister Tendai Biti last night shot down a plan by Air Zimbabwe to borrow US$2 million from “loan shark” Nicholas Van Hoogstraten, declaring: “Over my dead body.”
“As long long as I live, this government will not borrow money from any individual, and that includes Mr Van Hoogstraten,” Biti said, a week after it was revealed that the struggling airline had taken its begging bowl to the controversial British property tycoon.
“For all I care, Mr Hoogstraten can go and throw himself in the River Thames but we will not sanitise his nefarious activities. Let him try his luck elsewhere, not from this ministry. Over my dead body!”
Hoogstraten revealed last Friday that he had over the years extended “small short term emergency loans” to Air Zimbabwe at no interest. In the latest request from the airline, he said, Air Zimbabwe was seeking US$2 million to pay-off the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
IATA suspended the cash-strapped airline earlier this month over a US$280,000 debt which the aviation control body insists must be paid, plus a whooping US$1,7 million deposit – being penalty for defaulting -- before it can be restored on its worldwide financial and flight booking service.
Hoogstraten said: “It is correct that I have been asked by Air Zimbabwe’s London office for a US$2 million loan which I have agreed to subject to Minister Biti personally signing the acknowledgment of debt agreement.”
Van Hoogstraten would have known his conditions were unlikely to me met, his comments coming barely a week after Biti accused him of corrupting the country’s financial services.
Biti said struggling financial institutions were now at the mercy of “two loan sharks — one of Indian descent and the other British” in clear reference to Jayesh Shah and Van Hoogstraten.
Van Hoogstraten shot back: “I do not advertise loans –– institutions and companies come to me as I am generally known in the market as the ‘lender of last resort’. This is similar to my situation in the UK where I have been a financier since my late teens.
“I have been the single largest investor in the Zimbabwean financial market and currently have Zimbabwe Stock Exchange-quoted holdings with a value of well over US$250 million.
“As for being a loan shark, apart from a few relatively small personal loans, all loans I have made are of a 30, 90 or 180-day tenure to financial institutions at market rates of between 16% and 24% per annum with no fees.”
Hoogstraten, 64, briefly returned to Sussex, England, last year to chase up money owed by several local businesses, including a doctor’s surgery which was temporarily forced to close over a £30,000 debt.
Once heralded as Britain's youngest millionaire, Hoogstraten has never made any secret of his robust approach to business.
During one of his many court appearances in Britain, a judge described the tycoon as a "self-styled emissary of Beelzebub".From an early age he aspired to be what he calls a "quality person" and was a great fan of Margaret Thatcher because she made him "proud to be English".
He left school at 16, joined the Royal Navy and travelled the world. Just a year later, he sold his astutely acquired stamp collection for £1,000 and embarked on a business career, buying property in the Bahamas.
Now he is believed to have homes in Barbados, St Lucia, Florida, Cannes and Zimbabwe.
He has spoken warmly of President Robert Mugabe, whom he once described as "100% decent and incorruptible".
He holds vast fortunes in Zimbabwe and once said: "I don't believe in democracy, I believe in rule by the fittest."Hoogstraten is no stranger to controversy and his list of previous convictions includes ordering a grenade attack on the home of a business associate, a Jewish clergyman who he claimed owed him money. For that, he spent four years in Wormwood Scrubs prison in the 1960s, but he would later face much more serious charges.
In 1999, Mohammed Raja, 62, was shot dead by two men identified as Hoogstraten's henchmen, but the tycoon's conviction for manslaughter was quashed by the Court of Appeal in July 2003 and he was freed five months later.
Following his release from prison, Raja's family brought a £6m civil action against him. The civil courts - where the standard of proof required is much lower than the criminal courts - ruled that on the balance of probability, Van Hoogstraten was involved in the murder.
High Court judges ordered him to pay £500,000 interim costs but the businessman was typically defiant and stated that Raja's family would "never get a penny".
Van Hoogstraten also hit the headlines during an ugly spat with ramblers over a public footpath through the grounds of the enormous mansion near Uckfield in East Sussex.
Called Hamilton Palace, after Bermuda's capital, it is neo-classical, with a copper dome. It is estimated to have cost £40m so far and is reportedly the most expensive private house built in Britain for a century.
It is bigger than Buckingham Palace and has a 600ft art gallery and a mausoleum designed to hold Van Hoogstraten's body for 5,000 years. The mausoleum's walls are three feet thick because he said he wanted to "make the building last forever".
Never afraid of a fight, he has described taking on a nun at school. She "tried to whack me with a chair-leg once - I grabbed it and hit her and she never tried again".
In 2008, he was arrested in Harare on charges of illegal currency dealing and possession of pornography. Police who raided his home in Emerald Hill they found hundreds of photographs of naked women in what they said were “indecent poses”. Van Hoogstraten appeared in many of the pictures.
Van Hoogstraten was cleared on the illegal currency dealing charge because police were not able to produce the officer who had allegedly caught him. A magistrate ordered that the tycoon's photograph collection be destroyed.
He was born in 1946 in Shoreham, East Sussex, as plain Nicholas Marcel Hoogstraten - the "van" was added later. His father was a shipping agent and his mother a housewife.
With the profits he made from his Bahama property deals, he moved on to the British housing market, buying six properties in Notting Hill, London, before moving on to Brighton.
By the time he was 22, he was reputed to have had 350 properties in Sussex alone and to have become Britain's youngest millionaire.
But he also gained a sinister reputation and was accused of using strong-arm tactics against tenants of slum properties which he bought cheaply for redevelopment.
In the 1980s, as the housing market boomed, he prospered, acquiring more than 2,000 properties. By the 1990s he had sold 90% of them, making massive profits and investing in other areas, including global mining.
When a fire broke out at one of his properties in the early 1990s in Brighton, he described the five people who died in the blaze as "scum".
To Van Hoogstraten his tenants are "filth", while people who live in council houses are "worthless and lazy".
He once said: "The only purpose in creating great wealth like mine is to separate oneself from the riffraff."
He has also said he believes that "the whole purpose of having money is to put yourself on a pedestal".
Van Hoogstraten has five children - four sons and a daughter - by three different mothers.
He said he is preparing his eldest son Rhett, 20, to take over his empire - which he says is worth £800m.He declared recently: "I'm still young and fit and I've got a long time to go. I'd like Rhett to shadow me and find out everything that's going on.
"But it's a difficult task because I keep everything close to my chest, nothing's in writing, there are no records of anything."