Brexit Referendum: Vote Leave’s strange relationship with South African mining billionaires

Sabi Strategy Group was deeply involved in the Vote Leave campaign. Sabi Group was the PR firm of the Brenthurst Foundation and its owner was a Brenthurst associate when the Vote Leave contract was signed. Brenthurst Foundation is founded and funded by the billionaire South African Oppenheimer family. Behind a surprising Vote Leave contract In February 2016, Vote Leave campaign hired Sabi Strategy Group Limited, a London-based political consultancy. It was a surprising move, since Sabi Group was a completely unknown firm, established less than a year earlier by Henry Sands, a young political consultant with experience in Africa. How did Sabi Group manage to get a contract with Vote Leave campaign? A possible explanation was Boris Johnson’s personal relationship with journalist Sarah Sands, Henry Sands’ mother. At the time of the referendum campaign, Sarah Sands, who had worked with various publications (The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, Daily Mail, Reader's Digest), was editor of the pro-Conservative Evening Standard. From 2017 to 2020, she was editor of the BBC Radio 4 Today. But there is something else behind Sabi Group’s sudden success than Sarah Sands’ close relationship with Boris Johnson. Sabi Group and its founder were working for the billionaire South African Oppenheimer family when the Vote Leave contract was signed. Oppenheimer family’s foundation Based in Johannesburg, the Brenthurst Foundation is an organisation established by the Oppenheimer family, the South African dynasty that founded global mining giant Anglo American and world’s leading diamond company De Beers. The foundation is headed by founder Jonathan Oppenheimer, former chairman of De Beers and senior vice president of Anglo American, director Greg Mills, a close friend of the Oppenheimer family, and chairman Olusegun Obasanjo, former military head of state and president of Nigeria. Since its inception in 2004, The Brenthurst Foundation has been very active in supporting so-called “business friendly” candidates in African elections. Brenthurst is frequently accused of trying to impose puppet governments that promote interests of the Oppenheimers and their business partners (,, ) Sabi Group is Brenthurst Foundation’s PR firm Henry Sands founded Sabi Strategy Group in March 2015 (Sands is also Sabi Group’s managing director) and his company was almost immediately contracted by the Brenthurst Foundation. In January 2016, one month before signing the Vote Leave contract, Sands himself was hired as an associate by the Brenthurst Foundation. (, The Brenthurst Foundation is the primary client of Sabi Strategy Group. Sabi Group, which has offices in Johannesburg, carried out a full rebranding exercise of Brenthurst, and, following the rebrand, continue to provide full service communications support to the foundation. Henry Sands’ firm provides Brenthurst with “research projects across the world through polling analysis and broader fieldwork”. Henry Sands is not only an associate of Brenthurst, but also the Foundation’s Media Officer. ( Brenthurst Foundation director Greg Mills is Sabi Group’s Senior Advisor. ( Sabi Group has assisted Brenthurst Foundation in supporting politicians across Africa. Henry Sands’ firm was hired to advise Brenthurst-backed politicians in countries like Zambia, Malawi or Ghana. A friend of Cambridge Analytica Henry Sands, Sabi Group’s founder and managing director, is also known in Africa for his relationship with Alexander Nix, former CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the disgraced data company involved in Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Brexit referendum.  Nix referred to Sands as a “friend” in a letter of engagement dated 11 March 2016 and sent to Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema. According to the leaked letter, Hichilema was planning to work with Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 presidential campaign. Sands acted as an intermediary between Nix and Hichilema. ( Sabi Strategy Group prides itself with using Cambridge Analytica-like campaign tactics. ( Sabi Group specializes in manipulating public opinion, influencing voters’ behaviour, delivering discreet and targeted campaign. Sabi Group’s role in the Brexit campaign The role Sabi Group played in the Vote Leave campaign is unclear. According to its website, the firm was contracted to provide events and logistics support to the campaign for a period of four months leading up to the 2016 European Union referendum. Sabi Group carried out “consultations”, assessed “capabilities, resources and weaknesses”, pulled together and implemented “a comprehensive campaign schedule”. ( Documents filed with the Electoral Commission show Vote Leave Limited paid Sabi Group £38,404 for events and referendum materials. (   Documents also show that an American consultant, Mark Hamilton, was Vote Leave campaign’s Head of Major Events ( Hamilton, who was a Senior Director at Sabi Strategy Group, travelled across the UK with Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and other high profile politicians, campaigning for Brexit.