HARARE/JOHANNESBURG - Nicknamed "Tyson", Zimbabwe Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere does not shrink from a fight when it comes to taking on foreign companies that own mineral rights in his country.

"Somebody has to get them to understand the message," the man who has forced global miners to give up majority stakes in their Zimbabwe operations told the Reuters Africa Investment Summit in Johannesburg on Monday.

"You can't continue with that old mentality of islands of prosperity and seas of poverty. It just can't work any more. When we talk to these companies, we are not being malicious or cruel; we are making them see the reality," said Mr Kasukuwere, who takes his nickname from the US heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson.

Critics accuse the former officer in Zimbabwe's feared Central Intelligence Organisation of acting outside the law in forcing foreign companies to comply.

Some say President Robert Mugabe's Zanu (PF) party is using the empowerment drive to squeeze money out of foreign firms to finance its election campaign.

"Tyson's" opponents also are suspicious of his leadership role in the Zanu (PF) youth wing blamed by many for violence that has marred Zimbabwe elections over the past 12 years.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who works uneasily with Mr Mugabe, has been critical of the way the empowerment drive is implemented. He says the campaign is driven by the upcoming elections and is scaring investors away.

RISING STAR

But the burly Mr Kasukuwere, at 41 the youngest minister from Mr Mugabe's Zanu (PF) in the coalition cabinet, is seen as a rising star in his party.

He often is touted as a potential successor to Mr Mugabe, 88, although for the moment he brushes such talk aside.

"I have been asked by my president to serve as a minister. I am quite happy with this position," he said. "I don't have an ambition to go beyond my call of duty right now."

What that means in practice is taking on some powerful players in the world of global mining.

Last month, Mr Kasukuwere forced Impala Platinum, the world's second-largest platinum producer, to transfer 51% of its stake in its Zimplats operation to locals, ending months of wrangling between Implats and Harare.

That has emboldened him to pursue other mines, including Anglo American Platinum, which is developing Unki mine in central Zimbabwe, to comply with the empowerment law.

His reputation for being tough on foreign companies was burnished by a public spat with Implats CEO David Brown, which dragged on for months.

"The problem with Brown is that he talks too much. We are sick and tired of his delaying tactics," he told Reuters news agency in February, a month before Implats bowed to Zimbabwe's pressure.

Mr Kasukuwere also says the empowerment drive strikes a personal note, saying he faced racism in building one of his early business ventures, oil importer ComOil.

"I know what it means for a young black business person to go into business, and during the times I did, the financial institutions were controlled by colonial institutions," he told this week's summit at Reuters' offices in Johannesburg.

"If they gave you a loan to buy a truck, the following day, they will come and repossess because you would have failed to honour your obligations by one day," he said.

Unlike the stiff image conveyed by most senior officials in his party, Mr Kasukuwere is tech-savvy, trending on social network site Twitter and maintaining his own homepage.

He easily took questions from participants in a Reuters chatroom for financial clients, and used jokes to deflect questions about Mr Mugabe's succession plans.

He said he also had a business in South Africa but declined to give further details, citing concern about international sanctions against leaders in Zanu (PF) for suspected human rights violations.

He is a farmer, having benefited from Mr Mugabe's seizures of white-owned commercial farms, and owns a freight business. All of his businesses are said to have flourished since he became a politician.

REUTERS