How much did Mbeki and Blatter know?

What did former president Thabo Mbeki and Fifa president Sepp Blatter know about – and do to facilitate – the $10-million “bribe” allegedly to win the 2010 World Cup vote?

This week, doubt faded about whether the amount was paid; whether South Africa intended for it to be paid; and whether it went to private pockets. Fifa confirmed paying it. Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula confirmed what is evident from leaked correspondence – that the government wanted it paid. And a United States court transcript was unsealed in which football boss Chuck Blazer admitted receiving a cut.

Underlying the question of culpability, is whether South African and Fifa officials knew, or should have known, that the money was intended to influence the May 2004 Fifa vote in South Africa’s favour, or that it would fund football bosses rather than football development.

There, too, the evidence is mounting, and the context is instructive.

The US indictment alleges then Concacaf president Jack Warner and secretary general Chuck Blazer visited Morocco in the months before the Fifa vote, and that Warner accepted a $1-million bribe to favour that country to host the World Cup. Concacaf is the football confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

But this changed when South Africa allegedly trumped Morocco with an offer to pay Warner $10-million. Warner, Blazer and a third Concacaf official voted for South Africa at the Fifa congress in Zurich on May 15 2004, handing it a 14-10 victory over Morocco.

During the run-up to the vote, Warner and Blazer were lobbied fiercely by South Africa. Warner attended former President Thabo Mbeki’s presidential inauguration on April 27, three weeks before the Fifa vote.

From there, he and Blazer joined South African bid chief executive Danny Jordaan, politician-turned-businessperson Tokyo Sexwale, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a frail Nelson Mandela on a business jet to Warner’s home country, Trinidad and Tobago.

From Trinidad, Mandela and Tutu would have travelled to Concacaf’s annual congress in Granada to put South Africa’s case, but the trip was cut short when news of the death of Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, reached them.

The fact that South Africa rolled out its biggest guns to woo Warner and Concacaf indicates how crucial bid officials considered Concacaf’s vote to be.

In a later address to business leaders, Sexwale and bid chairperson Irvin Khoza hinted at Warner’s assertiveness in turning Concacaf’s Fifa voting power to his own advantage. They said that he had asked for an assurance that Mandela would come. When the latter’s doctors advised against him travelling, it sparked a debate that eventually included Mbeki. The doctors were overruled.

Warner’s insistence on Mandela visiting his home country reportedly related to his political ambitions. An opposition politician, he was running for office and would have benefited from the association with the elder statesman.

Two weeks later there was more contact between Warner, Blazer and South Africa’s top guns. On May 14, the day before the vote, The Star reported having witnessed Mbeki, Mandela and former president FW de Klerk arriving at a Zurich hotel earlier that day, followed by Warner and Blazer, who were whisked upstairs to meet Mbeki and Mandela.

The Star reported being reliably informed that Warner had promised them his “full support”.

A senior government official this week claimed that Warner had, in the period before the vote, solicited gratification from South African officials.

“He was told off but was persistent. He engaged the then minister [of sport] and the government of South Africa was not interested. He was very persistent, according to information at my disposal.”

At that point outgoing Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who had staked much on the South African bid, appealed to the South African government at a high level, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official claimed that Blatter “hinted” at the need to gratify Warner, given that South Africa appeared to be two votes short if Concacaf swung the other way.

It may be fair to assume that Blatter’s approach was to Mbeki, given the Fifa president’s preference for dealing directly with heads of state.

Mbeki’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. Fifa spokesperson Delia Fischer did not respond directly to the allegation about Blatter, but repeated an earlier statement that said “the request [that Fifa pays the $10-million to accounts controlled by Warner] came from the South African government with the concurrence of Safa and the LOC [local organising committee].”

According to the US indictment, it was during the high-stakes lobbying leading up to the vote that South Africa agreed to pay $10-million to support football development in the “African diaspora”.

If the indictment is right about the timing, it is hard to imagine that the men who led the bid and the country did not perceive a nexus between the donation they promised and Concacaf’s support. And, if Warner was as insistent as described, it is equally hard to imagine they did not envisage him pocketing it. 

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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