Thales has emphatically denied allegations that fixer Ajay Sooklal facilitated a R500 000 a year bribe for President Jacob Zuma and arranged perks for him when he faced corruption charges linked to the arms deal.
On the weekend the Sunday Times published an article based on documents it obtained which apparently detail Sooklal’s activities as a lawyer and secret fixer for Thales over six years. The newspaper said the documents are transcripts of testimony given under oath before retired Judge Phillip Levinsohn at confidential arbitration hearings earlier this year regarding a dispute between Sooklal and Thales. Sooklal alleges he is owed R70 million in outstanding fees – Thales has offered him R42 million.
According to the Sunday Times report on the transcripts, Zuma accepted a R500 000 a year bribe from Thales in return for political protection from the arms deal probe and to secure future business and Thales gave former ANC treasurer Mendi Msimang a cheque for a million euros in April 2006 to be paid into an ANC-aligned trust before the company was due to stand trial for corruption regarding Zuma.
Thint, Thales’s South African subsidiary, won a R2.6 billion contract to supply combat suites to the South African Navy’s four Meko class frigates procured in the 1999 ‘arms deal’.
“In these articles, Mr Sooklal refers to a case that dates back to 1999 and in which no charges exist against Thomson-CSF International,” Thales said in response. “Thales denies in the most categorical manner these allegations, which call for no further comment…Thales reserves the right to take legal action in order to defend its interests.”
The company added that if requested, it will “offer its full cooperation to the relevant South African authorities and in particular the Sereti [sic] commission.”
Opposition Democratic Alliance party MP and shadow defence minister David Maynier requested Judge Will Seriti subpoena Sooklal to give evidence before the Arms Procurement Commission. The Commission’s advocate Fanyana Mdumbe said, “The commission will endeavour to obtain the transcript of the arbitration proceedings, peruse it and decide on the course of action to take.”
The ANC responded to the new report by saying it was hearsay and rumour mongering. National ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said the article is simply aimed at distracting the party from its main work.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj said, “There is nothing new in the allegations. However, the Presidency wishes to once again advise all those possessing any information that they believe can assist the Seriti Commission of Inquiry into allegations of fraud, corruption, impropriety or irregularity in the Strategic Defence Procurement Packages to forward that information to the Commission so that it can be interrogated.”
However, Maynier and others are sceptical about the Commission’s ability to investigate, saying that Sooklal might not necessarily be called as a witness by the Commission. “Bizarrely, the commission only seems interested in witnesses who have personal knowledge of arms deal corruption…if he does have personal knowledge of corruption involving President Jacob Zuma, he may try to invoke attorney-client privilege in order to avoid appearing before the Arms Procurement Commission.”
Former ANC MP and Scopa head and current arms deal activist Andrew Feinstein is also sceptical of the Commission, having withdrawn from it because “it became clear to us that the process was compromised when senior people began resigning, claiming there was a second agenda.”
The Mail and Guardian reports that Feinstein, when serving on the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa) in 2000, was encouraged by Zuma to investigate arms deal corruption so that he could receive a bribe from Thales (then under pressure) to stop the investigation. Feinstein told the newspaper that as soon as he had received his bribe, he stopped communicating with Feinstein in 2001 and the investigation was canned.
The new report could come to haunt Zuma again as fresh facts emerge about his relationship with Thales, the arms deal and his former financial advisor Schabir Shaik. In 2005 Shaik was convicted of corruption (providing Zuma payments for things like school fees and car cleaning), fraud (hiding the true nature of the payments) and facilitating a bribe for Zuma from Thomson-CSF (as Thales was then known).
Zuma and Thales were charged but in April 2009 the National Prosecuting Authority dropped charges of corruption against Zuma citing a political conspiracy against him.