The day Keyser Soze, er, Kgalema Motlanthe, lost his halo
You know, we've said it before. South African politics has a habit of providing fantastic scripts for thriller novels. The crime lord who bribes the national police commissioner, the intelligence minister's wife who runs drug mules, arms deals and presidents – we really have the lot. Well, it would appear the latest one involves the deputy president (who was once president, and may be again. But not necessarily if this latest instalment turns out to be true), United Nations sanctions, a "romantic" partner, helicopters and Iran. You simply could not make this stuff up. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
On Sunday, the Sunday Times ran one of those stories that you read avidly. Then you take a moment, put the kettle on, drink a cuppa, and then read again. And it's absolutely worth it. We'll spare you all the details, but at its core is the claim that Keyser Soze's romantic partner, Gugu Mtshali, was allegedly part of a bid to solicit a massive bribe (R104-million. Yes. Really, in today's money that is still massive) to help get the ball rolling in a deal worth around R2-billion. The nuts and bolts of it involve getting government's support (through the department of trade and industry) for a deal with Iran, that would see American helicopter parts ending up in that particular Islamic Republic. All well and good. Except that there are UN sanctions in place against Iran at the moment. And yes, South Africa, despite all the romantic posturing, has signed up to them. As the newspaper's report notes, with some interest, it would seem that another deal involving the named company, 360 Aviation, to supply Bell helicopter parts to Iran "is of interest to US intelligence agencies". To add some serious fuel to this fire, some of the parts can be used in attack helicopters, so it's really quite serious.
All of this has a ring of Oilgate around it. In that saga, Motlanthe was accused of somehow creating a situation in which sanctions-busters could get oil out of Iraq through the Oil-for-Food scheme. In the end the Donen Commission report got pretty testy with the UN for naming Motlanthe in the first place, and pretty much exonerated him. It said that he had done nothing wrong. Of course, our politics being what it is, some people will still have suspicions.
So far Motlanthe's office has put out the message that "this doesn't involve him". Their claim is that he had nothing to do with the deals, and so it really can't get involved. Unfortunately for Motlanthe, that's a load of old tosh.
Motlanthe appears to have had a complicated private life of late. We know of his "involvement" with Mtshali because they have appeared in public together. The last time we saw them was at the opening of Parliament back in February. And while there's been no official comment from him about this relationship, it's pretty much accepted that the squeeze you rock up with to that event is your main one. Or at least one of your main three. Right, so they're an item. That he cannot deny. Then we have the problems of reporting on his private life. While he was president, a story appeared in the Sunday Independent in which he was pretty much defamed, and yet it wasn't the fault of the journalist concerned. In that case, there was a classic political operation, in which a rival convinced a pregnant young woman to go on the record and claim that it was Motlanthe's baby. When the reporter concerned asked for official comment, all Motlanthe's office would say was that it wouldn't comment at all on his private life. In a situation like that, the journalist decided to run it. Unfortunately, it wasn't true. It was a lesson for everyone in the depths to which parts of our political class are prepared to sink. It must be said, while we're here, that any claim that this story is somehow a sequel to that cannot stand up. There are simply too many details, too much proof. As Nixon might have liked to remind us, one recording can be simply one recording too many.
But this backstory makes reporting on Motlanthe's "private" life a little difficult. It means that no one really knows the truth. As a result, he can try and spin it into the grey areas, that really they're not that close, that actually Mtshali is not really his "partner". It remains to be seen whether he'll try that approach. But surely the test of all of this is whether Mtshali would have been in a position to try for this "bribe" if she were not dating the deputy president. If she would have been, well maybe it doesn't have much to do with him. It's the same test for other politicians' relatives and partners. If we all thought that Duduzane Zuma had the skills and the experience that made him worth a billion rand to the Gupta's, then we wouldn't mind so much. But it's precisely because he's only worth that kind of money through his surname, that we have an issue. It's the proof, if you like, that there's corruption through the paying for political influence that matters.
However the political test for Motlanthe in this is about the company he keeps. No matter what he says, nothing can change the fact he decided to take someone involved in sanctions-busting on his arm to a national event. This is bad. After Motlanthe was cleared of the Oilgate problems, this is a reminder, in the public mind, that he is as bad as the rest of them. One of his main campaigning tools is that he is somehow different, that he's cleaner, not sullied by arms deals and that sort of thing. Or at least clean-ish. That advantage has now gone.
If ANC politics ever resembled the West Wing political drama, you could imagine a campaign manager with a blood pressure problem shouting at him about it. "Your main weapon was that you weren't Zuma", he'd shout, "and now you are!" DM
Photo: Separated at birth – Kgalema Motlanthe and Keyser Soze.