Back in the late 90s reports that a rich Manzini based businessman had bought a limousine started flying around. Even without the aid of the internet or social media stories of this super rich businessman went viral, spreading like wildfire from Matsamo to Nhlangano.  Everyone wanted a glimpse of this limousine, some wanted to be in his circle of influence and politicians fawned like teenage kids and treated him like a Hollywood star.

Swazis only knew of a limousine in Steven Seagal movies and soon rumours started swirling around that the king had decreed that the car be expropriated because no Swazi was allowed to be richer than the head of state.

Little was known about this man except that he was rich, super rich. It turned out the name of the rich man was Ronny Johny Smith, a renowned businessman and founder of Tiger group of companies. Smith owned swathes of land in Mafutseni, Manzini, Mbabane and just about anywhere you can think of.

Smith rose to fame when he constructed what was then called Tiger City, at the time the first of its kind multi-storied glass building around Manzini. Put into context, a “run down” Tiger City was to be later bought by businessman Moses Motsa for E11.25 Million in 2009 and subsequently sold to Inyatsi group. Among others, the building is presently occupied by Mkhiwa clinic. It can only be imagined how much it cost back then at full capacity. 

An independent evaluation by Inyatsi in 2011 had put the property at E30 Million. At his prime Smith owned houses on the Bluff and in La Mercy and lived the life of a Hollywood film star, flying around the world and spending lavishly on every whim. He once sent his daughter, Tanya Smith, to the Champs Elysee's in Paris to buy a designer dress for a party she was going to in Durban.

The Tiger City building in Manzini

Smith owned houses all over South Africa, Durban in particular, had a farm in Jamaica and E10 Billion worth of assets, including an imported mobile home. According to prosecutors and police officers who spent 10 years investigating him, his Bluff home in Durban had cameras mounted on high walls and was surrounded by bodyguards 24 hours a day.

The family holidayed worldwide, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. He spent considerable time on his farm in Jamaica. In the book “Sting in the tail” former Scorpion boss Bulelani Ngcuka reported that the assets of Smith were in the region of E10 Billion but with no business interest in the South Africa, something that raised suspicion that he was merely laundering money in the country.

Smith had bank accounts in America, Dubai, Jersey and Hong Kong. His multi-million building in Zakhele was an attraction for everyone who wanted to see luxury unheard of in eSwatini, especially at the time. His lavish Bluff home, set in park-like gardens, was full of original paintings, chandeliers, crystal ornaments, Persian carpets and antique furniture.

A sweeping driveway brought his wealthy visitors to a porticoed front entrance. The family was also well known in close-knit social circles in eSwatini, where they were friends of the royal family's Princess Futfumele.

In Robin Hood style, Smith gave generously to community projects in Mbabane where he was raised and "had an open hand" when it came to government projects in the country, according to South African reports of the time.

The rise and fall of the smooth and likeable Smith could be likened to the plot of a Jackie Collins novel. Together with his wife, Baby Amelia, his daughter Tanya and son Ralsto were once the envy of their Bluff neighbours as they swanned around in luxury cars wearing expensive clothes and jewellery. But it was his fortune, not his fame, that interested police in South Africa and eSwatini.

South Africa's elite crime fighting police division then known as Scorpions

They could not understand where all his money was coming from. So, for 10 years they watched him. According to an investigation by then South Africa's Scorpions, Smith was known to have five passports, four cellphones, and as many as 20 luxury cars. It was only when investigations revealed his Tiger Group of Companies in eSwatini made more money than the books showed that doubts started emerging. According to Ansie Venter, a South African prosecutor based in Middelburg, Smith's businesses were "a front" to launder money made from drug deals.

It was later alleged that he was trafficking cocaine and mindrax from eSwatini to wholesalers in Durban, South Africa. Smith also had properties and bank accounts in a number of other countries. According to South African prosecutors, Smith held offshore accounts in the USA, at the time worth more than R15 million. He also had assets in Jersey, Dubai and Hong Kong but drug dealings were alleged to extend from South Africa to Dubai and India.

Trevor White, the curator designated by the court to investigate Smith's financial affairs, told newspapers in 1999 that he had found E400 000 belonging to Smith kept in a Durban attorney's trust account; a house belonging to Smith in La Mercy; and several other luxury cars.

NB: Catch part two of this series here and the final part here