In 2010, President Jacob Zuma involved himself in a claim worth billions of rands against South Africa by a Portuguese apartheid-era sanctions buster, according to a new book.
And two years earlier, shortly before he became president, Zuma took part in “endless briefings” by a British bounty hunter who also hopes to claim large amounts from the state, according to the same book.
Zuma’s motives for such involvement can only be speculated about, writes Hennie van Vuuren in Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, but “it does on the face of it appear highly irregular”.
The book was released on Tuesday this week after being prepared in strict secrecy.
In the late 1980s, Jorge Pinhol helped the apartheid regime to import 50 Super Puma helicopters from France through Portugal.
Pinhol has claimed a 10% commission on the $3-billion deal ever since.
“Who will stump up the cash for this apartheid-era sanctions-busting claim?” Van Vuuren asks.
“The state-owned arms procurement corporation, Armscor. This means that the claim, if successful, will have to be authorised and financed by the treasury. Effectively, the apartheid sanctions buster is trying to force a payment out of the pockets of every South African citizen.”
In 2010, Van Vuuren says, Armscor met the legal team of Pinhol, a former racing-car driver and “serial embargo buster”, who supplied arms to, among others, the Rhodesian military in the late 1970s. The meeting was meant to explore arbitration and settlement of his $300-million (R4-billion) claim.
But leaked minutes of the meeting show an unexpected addition to Pinhol’s team: South African media consultant Liesl Göttert.
The minutes suggest that Armscor vehemently objected to her presence but the Pinhol team insisted that she had “sought and received the agreement of the RSA [Republic of South Africa] president [Zuma] for whom she also acts”.
Ultimately Göttert did not form part of the two-day meeting, the document shows, although on the second day she informed the participants that she had spoken to Zuma overnight, and that she was there “at the direction of the RSA president”.
Göttert this week gave the Mail & Guardian a very different account of events,dismissing Van Vuuren’s as based on “manufactured ‘facts’ ”.
“I did not represent Jacob Zuma at the Lisbon meetings. I never claimed to represent him in any way,” she said.
She had helped to set up the Armscor meeting while acting on behalf of a consortium that had a mandate to recover unpaid commissions and she was ready to support her team — the Pinhol team — when Armscor objected, she said.
“I learnt that there was an unspoken fear that I was in Lisbon to represent Jacob Zuma,” she said. “Their fears about my participation were unfounded and ridiculous.”
Zuma had no “interest or knowledge” of the meeting as far as she knew, Göttert said. Though she had met him frequently in the 1990s, they “parted ways shortly after he took office as president”, she said.
But Van Vuuren says in his book, before parting ways, Göttert linked Zuma to another bounty hunter, former British secret agent Michael Oatley. He is the author of the Ciex report, which claims Absa owes the state billions of rands in repayment of an apartheid-era bailout of the Bankorp group it later acquired.
The Bankorp saga was the subject of a draft report by public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, first reported on by the M&G in January. In the draft report, Mkhwebane suggests Absa could be held liable for as much as R2.25-billion. Oatley lays claim to a commission of about 10% on any such recovery.
Göttert claims that she and Oatley met Zuma several times, Van Vuuren writes. In 2013, Oatley himself claimed the same thing.
Van Vuuren writes: “Michael Oatley told me that he had personally met Jacob Zuma in 2008 before his election as president to discuss the Ciex report with him. Zuma was apparently reluctant to pursue the matter.
“However, according to Oatley, Zuma ‘did suggest that if there is clear evidence it can be handled in a ‘delicate manner’ ’.”
Both Oatley and Göttert this week confirmed they met Zuma in 2008, but said they had had no dealings with him since. Both said there was nothing sinister about the meetings.
Oatley said he had understood Zuma to mean that he would deal with the Ciex matter “by discreet negotiation and a settlement achieved without publicity and without recrimination”.
But this kind of secrecy is the problem, Van Vuuren holds.
“It invites intrigue and sinister dealings involving bounty hunters and alleged secret emissaries for the president.
“The less we know about our past, the greater the opportunity for it to be manipulated for personal and narrow political gain. It is a toxic affair that undermines the public’s interests.”
Zuma, who was on a state visit to Tanzania this week, did not respond to detailed questions put to him on Wednesday.