A $1 billion lithium project in Zimbabwe, backed by South Africa’s Moti Group and more recently a significant Chinese investor, is feared to be just rock.
Lithium is used to make the batteries powering electric cars and has in recent years rapidly become a sought-after commodity, with mining companies scouring the earth for major deposits.
This is after investigations by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and AmaBhungane revealed how Moti Group executives lured a Chinese partner to invest with them while privately discussing how the lithium project might fail.
Zunaid Moti, a South African businessman, is claimed to be at the heart of “oiling the relationship between the ANC and Zanu PF” while prior the Zimbabwe elections reportedly funded a visit of South African celebrities and regional journalists.
Moti entered the lithium market at the beginning of 2018 with the intention of replicating his success in the mining sector, which he had already established with his African Chrome Fields (ACF).
According to investigations, the ‘notorious’’ businessman assembled a sizable portfolio of lithium claims in Mashonaland East province during 2018 under a new mining company called Pulserate Investments.
The project has received a lot of media attention, particularly since Moti “stepped away” from his leadership position at the company his family still owns, with reports suggesting this was motivated by his imprisonment in Germany between 2018 and 2019 on what appeared to be false accusations brought by a rival company.
New CEO, and former director-general of South Africa’s National Treasury, Dondo Mogajane, came in and praised the lithium initiative as a “game changer” for Zimbabwe, which is backed by the powerful Chinese investor.
However, South African media reported a problem with that deal, saying a 2018 exploration report established that the area around Pulserate’s claims is “unlikely to host [lithium-bearing] pegmatites of sufficient size or grade to be economically significant”, and concluded that “no further work is recommended in the area”.
It was reported that Moti Group started their own exploration and its Chief Operations Officer was recorded stating “there is Jack-shit there – just rock”.
His colleagues also said “we know there is nothing” and admitted having no qualms about losing the entire project as long as they can keep a down payment from their apparently unsuspecting investor.
Investigations also revealed that Moti also told a subordinate “there is fuck-all there”, a probable reference to the Pulserate Lithium claims.
All of these internal disclosures come months before glowing paid-for pieces promoting the “African lithium powerhouse” that appeared in South African newspapers this year.
In response to questions raised by South African media, Moti dismissed all concerns, saying not all of the claim area has been explored.
He claimed there was “positive” feedback from geologists which he cannot share due to confidentiality.
Despite internal convictions that the project has little value, this did not stop Pulserate from luring in Chinese billionaire, named by South African media as Pei Zhenhua and his Yibin Tianyi Lithium Industry Co.
Pei, whose personal net worth is estimated to be about $8-billion, is a major shareholder of Contemporary Amperex Technology Co (CATL), the largest supplier of electric vehicle batteries in the world.
Documents in the #MotiFiles, a massive leak from inside the Moti Group, intense negotiations following a MOU signed on 31 March 2022 led to the signing of a Share Purchase Agreement on 20 May 2023 with a low-key ceremony over a video call.
Yibin Tianyi agreed to a $6-million upfront cash payment for 20% of the project, with the promise of an additional $4-million if initial investigation proved successful, and a pledge to spend $20-million on comprehensive exploration if the idea appeared viable.
Yibin Tianyi was given the option to purchase additional 50% based on the findings of the exploration.
Pulserate collected an upfront payment while Pei’s employees were busy “drilling holes for two years, if they stay that long,” according to Moti Group in-house lawyer Natalie Graaff.
Documents also suggest that Moti planned to discreetly turn this relatively small initial payment into a far larger cash injection, with one idea proposing pre-selling future Pei receipts to commodities firm Trafigura for R1 billion.
Finally, Moti personally informed his investor that using his young son Mikaeel and “others” as the faces of the business did not mean he would forsake engagement, but that he would be “in the background always.”
When questions were posed to Moti and Pei, Bloomberg reported that the Chinese had decided to back down and significantly reduce their investment.
Further questioning showed the Chinese investor stated that it “has no investment in the relevant project” and requested his name not be mentioned.
Mogajane said while it might be technically true, it was because the shareholding was restructured so that Yibin Tianyi’s parent company owned the shares.
Questions to Yibin Tianyi were also sent to a representative of the parent company.
Investigations say it is therefore unclear to what extent Moti’s lithium project has crumbled.