Mark Willcox, dealmaker behind Tokyo Sexwale’s once burgeoning mining empire, dies

Mark Willcox

MARK Willcox, the former CEO of Mvelaphanda Holdings and right hand man to Tokyo Sexwale, has died. Willcox, who had been contending with ill health, suffered a heart attack over the weekend. He was fifty-two.

Willcox trained as a lawyer, obtaining an LLB from the University of Cape Town. After a stint in the US, he returned to South Africa where he became involved in commercial law. It was while structuring a transaction in 1998 involving diamond assets near Kimberley that Willcox first met Sexwale.

The two were the driving forces behind Mvelaphanda Holdings – a company that capitalised on the sometimes ferocious mining sector deal-making of the early 2000s.

This was the time of the newly promulgated Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act and its Mining Charter which had asked of mining companies to sell 26% of their shares to empowerment partners. Given Sexwale’s political credentials, Mvela Holdings was in the boxseat to pick up deals.

Willcox proved critical in making that happen for Mvela Holdings which went on to found and list Mvelaphanda Resources in 2004. It was through Mvela Resources that Mvela Holdings held diverse mining interests in gold (Gold Fields), platinum (Northam Platinum) and diamonds (Trans Hex).

In addition to these transactions, Willcox also fatefully presided over the sale of Mvela Resources shares to Afripalm Resources, a company that held the business interests of Lazarus Zim as well as the Gupta brothers.

An article in 2005 in the Mail & Guardian – ‘The Fabulous Mr Willcox’ – attributed a claim allegedly made by Willcox to associates that he’d netted R300m in empowerment deals alone. At the time, he was a 4.4% shareholder in Mvela Holdings worth R118m, a then not inconsiderable sum to have garnered in such a short time.

While Willcox did not crave publicity, it was impossible for him to remain invisible: he was gregarious, witty and artful. It was also rare for him not to be on the end of some high-flying corporate transaction or for him to not know about it. He was rarely wrong-footed. In fact, there was barely a deal he didn’t consider possible such as the tie-up proposed in 2009 between Impala Platinum, then run by the late David Brown, and Mvela Resources.

If Willcox represented the apogee of mining sector deal-making, with a sector gorged on the mega-profits of the so-called supercycle, he also came to represent its darker side.

Mvela Resources eventually delisted in 2011 in a deal with Northam Platinum. But Willcox had already shifted Mvela Holdings’ interests to energy. In 2010, Mvela Holdings invested in Ophir Resources, a UK-listed business with oil in central and West Africa.

It was while developing Mvela’s energy interests that Willcox cooperated with Khulubuse Zuma, the nephew of former South African president Jacob Zuma, in acquiring prospects in central Africa.

Willcox through Sexwale company Africa Management Ltd was also linked with Och-Ziff Capital Management, the company that pled guilty in a 2016 federal probe. According to the investigation, Och-Ziff had funnelled millions of dollars to African officials in return for oil concessions.

Willcox largely shrank from public life, but he remained an enthusiastic deal-maker throughout, most recently working with Mcebesi Jonas, the former deputy finance minister who famously turned down a bribe from the Gupta family during the Zuma presidency. They considered investing in AIM-listed Ironveld, an iron, vanadium and titanium prospector situated in the northern Bushveld.

Willcox also had property and hospitality investments. The “glittering” opening of Tang Restaurant in Sandton during 2021, a TimesLive columnist was surprised to learn, had Willcox as its silent investor.