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Tall Thales: Sunday Times Arms Deal exposé drills holes in Zuma’s version

Tall Thales: Sunday Times Arms Deal exposé drills holes in Zuma’s version

On Sunday the Sunday Times splashed with a front-page story that spoke for itself: “Exposed! How Arms Dealer Bankrolled Zuma”, shouted the headline. For so long the legal position around President Jacob Zuma has been short-handed to “corruption charges” that it serves as a timely reminder about how serious the claims against Zuma are. But it appears that this exposé also blows a few holes in some of the claims that Zuma has made about why he accepted money from Schabir Shaik during the Arms Deal. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

In 2005 Zuma’s then-financial advisor Schabir Shaik was convicted on three charges. The first was corruption relating to essentially keeping Zuma on a retainer, of providing payments to him for various costs, ranging from school fees to car cleaning. The second was fraud, relating to how Shaik managed his company accounts partly to hide the real motivation behind these payments. The third charge was that Shaik facilitated a bribe for Zuma from the French Arms Company Thomson-CSF (which changed its name to Thales). As was only logical, both Zuma and Thales were then charged, as a legal finding had now been made against them, even though they had not been in the dock. In the end, due partly to the Zuma Spy Tapes, and partly to what was surely political pressure, those charges were dropped on the eve of the 2009 elections.

Now, just as the DA is making some progress with its plan to reinstate those charges through a legal review application, it appears that infighting amongst those who allegedly tried to provide the bribe for Zuma has led to some of the beans being spilled. These relate particularly to the third charge.

The Sunday Times says that the source of its information is transcripts of evidence given to a judge, in a confidential arbitration hearing. That hearing involves attorney Ajay Sooklal, and Thales, which he used to work for. The paper’s claim is that he was a “fixer” for Thales, and worked to make sure that the company would not have to face to corruption charges. Sooklal sat through the Shaik trial as an attorney with a watching brief for Thales. But it’s now being strongly suggested he played a much bigger role than that, that he lobbied every person with power over the process, in particular the then-Justice Minister Penuell Maduna.

Some of the snippets that do appear to be completely new are that Thales bought Zuma what is described as virtually a new wardrobe in Paris, and that there were code words to suggest he was going to ensure Thales got Arms Deal contracts in return for cold, hard cash.

The reason for the arbitration hearing that has led to these details being released, or leaked, is that Sooklal and Thales have now had a falling-out. He’s claiming R70 million in unpaid fees, they’ve offered R42 million. There is, it would appear, not much honour among arms dealers and their fixers.

At first blush, these new facts seem to really be a reminder of how serious the case against Zuma was in 2009. It demonstrates that in fact the National Prosecuting Authority did have a strong case against him, and shows, once again, that the decision to drop those charges was political in its very nature and just plain wrong.

However, even in the days after that decision in 2009, it was already clear that then NPA head Mokotedi Mpshe had done the wrong thing. He had no real legal argument to support his decision, and the team prosecuting Zuma strongly disagreed with it and were allowed to do so in public.

Still, this story does actually tell us far more than we knew before.

One of the main defences offered by Shaik during his trial, and repeated in public since his conviction (which, we should remember, was upheld by both the Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court), was that the money he provided to Zuma was merely to help out a fellow veteran of the Struggle. That he was just helping a friend. In short, he said that he had been one of the people who moved money around for the ANC during the 1980s, and thus he was simply helping out a fellow comrade now.

Judge Hilary Squires didn’t buy that argument (partly as a result of the fact that Zuma insisted on starting the construction of a home at a little place called Nkandla, when he had no expectation of a source of income unless Shaik was arranging a bribe. That part of the story isn’t quite over yet.) and so convicted Shaik. But it is surely an argument that Zuma would try to use, should his day in court finally arrive. These new claims must blow a massive hole in this defence. It would be impossible to say that the arranging of money from Thales was just a friend being helpful. The details that have emerged about how Zuma ended up meeting certain people from Thales also show that clearly there was a conspiracy in which everyone agreed; Zuma would receive money, and perform certain actions as a result.

It will surely be impossible for Zuma to claim he was not a willing participant. He spent the money and he wore the clothes.

Just two hours after the charges against him were formally dropped in the Durban High Court, I asked him what the payments from Shaik actually were. At first he didn’t answer the question, and just moved on to the next one. I had to stand up in the live-on-television press conference, and insist upon an answer. Eventually, Zuma said, “It was a loan”. Which, as far as has been stated publicly, has never been paid back.

Zuma’s other big defence in public has been that he was the victim of a political conspiracy. Essentially, this is what the Zuma Spy Tapes were supposed to prove, that in fact there was no case against him, but the NPA was being manipulated by people close to Thabo Mbeki. These facts suggest that far from being a victim, Zuma actually benefited from corruption. It will surely make it much harder for him to claim, in both the courts of law and public opinion, that he should not have faced these charges in the first place.

Now that these details have been revealed, it is likely that more could come out. While it’s the result of an internal dispute between Thales and Sooklal, the fact is this fight between them could be more damaging to Zuma than to anyone else. As a result, it’s likely to increase the pressure on Zuma in more ways that he could possibly handle at the same time.

Having said all of that, this does not necessarily change the political reality around Zuma within the ANC all that much. The party has spent most of its moral capital, time and energy of late just defending Zuma over Nkandla. While it is natural for any political organisation to defend its leader should they come under attack, there are still no real signs yet of this unity under fire cracking. That said, these newest details are likely to increase the pressure on the organisation as a whole.

Luthuli House itself said in response to this story that it was just “rumour-mongering” and “hearsay”. The Presidency says these are “rehashed” allegations and that there is nothing new in them.

That certainly does not appear as if either the ANC or Zuma is engaging with these claims in any meaningful way. But it does, once again, show how willing the ANC appears to be to sacrifice its own good name, its own history, and its own heritage to protect Zuma. Somehow the party is now nearly at the point where it has sacrificed almost everything it once stood for to protect just one person.

And it cannot be claimed that that one person has created jobs, found solutions to our problems, or even understands how much a long-term nuclear deal is going to cost us. His administration can’t even keep the water flowing in the country’s biggest city.

Surely these new details, these squalid snippets about how Zuma was dressed by a French arms dealer, bring the point of reckoning for the party that much closer. DM

Photo: Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa attends a ‘Millenium Development Goals’ meeting during the general debate of the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 25 September 2013. EPA/PETER FOLEY

Read more:

  • The Sunday Times original story
  • The Presidency’s non-statement
  • Wikipedia on the Schabir Shaik trial (it’s pretty comprehensive)
  • The full judgment by Judge Hilary Squires in the Shaik matter (but read it properly; you’ll be glad you did, considering how it’s only going to get more important)

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