Mystery of the not-so-missing agent

Swaziland’s finance minister, Majozi Sithole, claimed earlier this year that agents contracted to recover a R28-million deposit by the Swazi government on an executive jet for King Mswati had “disappeared”.

It took the Mail & Guardian just two weeks to track them down in Pretoria.

The Swazi Parliament stopped the purchase of the jet in 2002 after an outcry over its price.

The government then allegedly contracted University of South Africa law professor Frans Whelpton to recover the R28-million already deposited with the supplier, Canadian multinational Bombardier Aerospace.

In 2008 the Swazi media quoted Sithole as saying that Whelpton had recovered the money.

The following year Sithole said Whelpton had persuaded Bombardier not to sue the government for breach of contract and instead invest R100-million in “social upliftment projects” in Swaziland.

Whelpton was then quoted in the Times of Swaziland and the Swazi Observer as saying the money would be held in trust by his Pretoria-based lawyers, Roestoff and Kruse Attorneys.

But in a radio interview in February this year the minister conceded that the money had not materialised, claiming that those responsible for recovering it had “disappeared and did not answer their telephones”.

Last week the M&G tracked down Whelpton to his Pretoria residence in Ezra Road, Murrayfield.

It also established his cellphone number.

The M&G visited Whelpton’s heavily protected house and posted written questions in his mailbox when no one answered the intercom.

At the same time, the newspaper pinned down the address of the offices of Whelpton’s lawyers at Lady Brooks Building, 12th Street, Menlo Park, Pretoria.

Through Roestoff and Kruse, Whelpton responded to the M&G’s questions by vehemently denying the Swazi media reports, saying that “they should not be trusted because they are not based on truth”.

The lawyers added: “Our instructions are that these publications [by the Swazi media] and allegations are part of concerted efforts by certain organisations to discredit the king and government of Swaziland.”

The Swazi Observer of February 25 2009 quotes him in connection with the alleged R100-million for social projects in Swaziland as saying: “Yes, I can confirm that I was assured this morning by Dafin [the London-based intermediary company] that the monies would be transferred today to my lawyer’s trust account to be properly managed or controlled.”

He also confirmed that he was appointed by Swaziland’s then-attorney general, Phesheya Dlamini, to negotiate the refund of R28-million with Bombardier and that he had not received any payments from Bombardier, Dafin or Swaziland in respect of this appointment.

“We also confirm that no payment of whatsoever nature was received from any of the parties referred to above in respect of this transaction, or for that matter any other transaction by the firm.”

At the time of going to press, no response had been received to ­follow-up questions from the M&G on whether he had demanded any apologies and retractions from the newspapers that had allegedly misquoted him.

On his “disappearance”, Whelpton said Sithole’s allegation was “not true and was mischievous, to say the least”.

He said he still went to Swaziland regularly and had been residing at the same address for the past 30 years.

Roestoff and Kruse demanded a copy of a draft of the article the M&G planned to publish and warned that, if it failed to provide one, “we [will] hold you personally, and your company, liable for damages to be suffered”.

When it was revealed in 2002 that the government had paid R28-million towards the jet, Sithole and Swazi Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini came under fire for committing government funds without first seeking permission from Parliament.  

In March 2009, Sithole said in his budget speech: “I am happy to report that I have received confirmation that already a sum of 100-million emalangeni has been deposited with the government-appointed agent.”

Two weeks ago Mswati finally got his wish — he received a private jet, supposedly as a gift, from “development partners” the government has refused to name.

The purchase price of the aircraft, whose origins remain murky, has been estimated to be as much as $20-million (R157-million).

Efforts to obtain comment from Sithole proved futile.

He neither responded to emailed questions nor answered his phone.

Bombardier spokesperson Danielle Boudreau said the company could not comment on “any contract in particular, or confirm the names of clients” because of confidentiality clauses.

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, produced this story. All views are the centre’s.

Developing investigative journalism in the public interest. Digging dung. Fertilising democracy.

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