‘SA spooks fixed Guinea poll' ran the front page of the Mail & Guardian on Friday. The claim, made by the loser in a multi-billion dollar mining dispute, is an extraordinary one: that South Africa’s intelligence service fiddled the results of the Guinea’s presidential elections in 2010, in a bid to win lucrative contracts for South African businesses. It sounds far-fetched, ludicrous even – but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. By SIMON ALLISON.
We know that the South African government takes a huge interest in African affairs. We know that South Africa’s diplomats move in the very highest corridors of continental power, and play a leading role in mediation and peace-building in some of the continent’s most trouble-prone areas. We know that South Africa considers itself to be the African superpower – politically, economically, diplomatically – and we know that it feels the weight of expectation that this label brings with it, and the responsibility to act accordingly.
But just how involved are we prepared to get? And what exactly are our motivations? On Friday, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism published an extraordinary claim on the front page of the Mail & Guardian. It comes from a court in New York, where a mining company is fighting to regain lucrative exploration rights that were recently confiscated by Guinea’s new government. Included in its submissions to the court is the claim that this new government is itself of questionable legitimacy, because it was fraudulently elected – and that the South African Secret Service helped to rig the vote.
The mining group in question, BSG Resources, has a shady history itself in Guinea. In 2008 it was the beneficiary of an unusually generous deal with Guinea’s government (led then by the decrepit dictator Lassana Conte, who would die shortly afterwards, leaving his country in a dangerous, violent limbo from which it is still recovering).
Even in an industry renowned for coevrruption and exploitation, this deal was especially toxic. It covered the rich iron ore deposits in the remote but picturesque Simandou Mountains, but BSGR had no previous experience in iron ore. The blocks apportioned to Simandou had been owned by mining giant Rio Tinto, who was none too happy at their sudden appropriation. According to Guinea’s government, BSGR’s efforts to develop the blocks were half-hearted at best (BSGR denies this), and their true motive became evident when it sold a 51% stake in its Guinean business to another mining giant, Vale, for an astonishing $2.5 billion – a huge sum, very little of which was intended to find its way back into Guinea.
And then, of course, there were allegations of corruption, which are being contested yet again in the court in New York. The new authorities in Guinea – led by President Alpha Conde – have already found that BSRG’s contract was obtained illegally, through bribing officials with bags of cash and diamond-encrusted watches, and has revoked it.
But BSRG are claiming that President Conde should never have come to power in the first place. It has named several well-known South Africans as defence witnesses to prove that, in fact, the 2010 election was fixed with the help of the South African Secret Service and several South African companies. These include former President Kgalema Motlanthe; former cabinet minister and multi-millionaire Tokyo Sexwale; and former intelligence sector bosses Moe Shaik and Gibson Njenje (good luck getting that lot into a court room). BSRG argues that this was designed to secure access to Guinea’s lucrative mining assets for the companies involved.
What to make of these allegations? Of course, BSRG is hardly an impartial observer. It has lost billions in potential revenue, and is fighting desperately to get it back (or, at the very least, to improve its tarnished reputation). And, as yet, they have offered no public evidence to back up their claims.
“Although some aspects of this tale are anchored in reality, amaBhungane has been unable to substantiate the central claim of [South African Secret Service]-sponsored electoral rigging,” concluded Craig McKune and Stefaans Brummer, the authors of the amaBhungane story.
Nonetheless, given South Africa’s track record on the continent, it’s hard to dismiss the allegations entirely.
For one thing, several intelligence sources have told the Daily Maverick that South Africa’s involvement in specific African contexts is much more widespread, and often more direct, than is publicly admitted. The lid on this secret world was lifted briefly in March last year, when 14 South African soldiers died in heavy fighting in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Most people didn’t know that South African soldiers were there in the first place; those that did thought they were merely on a training mission. It later emerged that they were actually there to protect President Francois Bozize, playing an active role in the conflict – all without parliamentary approval or oversight.
For another, this is not the first time that South Africa has been accused of acting for its own commercial benefit. In more good work, amaBhungane reported in May that South Africa’s military involvement in the CAR was entwined with a series of ANC-linked deals in that country. And in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where South Africa has sent over a thousand soldiers to assist a UN force, President Jacob Zuma’s businessman son Khulubuse Zuma just so happens to own two oil licences worth in the region of R100 billion. These, too, are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg – the entwining of commercial and political interests that characterizes domestic politics in South Africa is a model that is being exported on the continent as well.
We don’t know if South African spooks rigged Guinea’s elections in 2010, and we certainly hope they didn’t. But if that court in New York finds that there was some nefarious South African involvement – well, we wouldn’t be all that surprised. DM
- ‘SA spooks fixed Guinea poll’ on Mail & Guardian
- Shock and ore: How Guinea took charge of its most valuable resource on Daily Maverick
- Cleaning up – Guinea’s new mining code on Good Governance Africa
Photo: Alpha Conde, President of Guinea speaks during a plenary session at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, 26 January 2012. The overarching theme of the Meeting, which will take place from 25 to 29 January, is ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models’. EPA/JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BOTT