Shadowy figures, arms deals and allegations of corruption all feature in the thriller-like story behind the prosecution of South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma which begins in Durban on Friday.
One of the tale’s most intriguing characters is Ajay Sooklal, formerly a lawyer for French defence manufacturer Thales who was at the heart of the weapons sale that has landed Zuma in court.
The former president is accused of taking bribes worth more than four million rand (280,000 euros) to favour Thales, which has been indicted alongside Zuma and will also appear in court.
Sooklal followed the high-level diplomatic manoeuvering, political pressure and backroom deals made over the six years in which the deal was being negotiated and delivered.
He says he has now decided to speak out ahead of Friday’s hearing — the start of Zuma’s long courtroom battle to stay out of jail.
Beside a swimming pool at a hotel in Pretoria, Sooklal told AFP how he was contacted in September 2003 by Pierre Moynot, a director at Thint, a South African affiliate of Thales which was then called Thomson-CSF.
“The minister of justice and constitutional development, Penuell Maduna, was a friend of mine,” said Sooklal, explaining why he was chosen.
Four years earlier, Thales had inked a deal worth nearly three billion rand to supply South Africa with naval vessels — but soon faced accusations of graft and impropriety.
“Mr. Moynot was in consent together with his superiors in their Paris head office that they wouldn’t want these charges for Thint to be pursued because it’s bad for their business,” said the South African lawyer.
“They wanted to retain my services to see if the charges could be dropped.”
Sooklal accepted the work and in 2009 those involved in the case thought that the charges had gone away definitively.
But a long campaign by a South African opposition party eventually saw that decision overturned and Zuma and Thales were ordered to face a judge.
Eyewitness to corruption?
“Over the years from 2003 through 2009 I’ve found that Thales group was complicit in a lot of issues as regards the charges that are now being brought forward involving Jacob Zuma and Thales,” said Sooklal.
“I witnessed first hand Mr. Pierre Moynot paying Mr. Zuma various sums of money,” he said, adding that Moynot personally settled Zuma’s hotel bills in Paris and Brussels on several occasions and “gave Mr. Zuma cash money in Brussels, in London and in Paris”.
“It clearly shows that the Thales officials were complicit in trying to ensure that, in colloquial terms, they were in the good books of Mr. Zuma.”
Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment but his client has repeatedly denied the allegations against him.
Moynot has retired and his family, when contacted by AFP, said he was not available to comment.
Sooklal confirmed that he witnessed a meeting between the defendants in April 2004 where a discussion took place about a fax that will likely be a key piece of prosecution evidence.
A Thales manager wrote in the fax that the company was in the process of transferring 500,000 rand to Zuma annually via his financial adviser Schabir Shaik to guarantee “Thomson-CSF’s protection during the current investigation” and “JZ’s (Jacob Zuma) permanent support for the future projects”.
‘Ready to testify’
The fax was subsequently used against Schabir Shaik, who was sentenced in 2005 to 15 years prison.
Sooklal said the scandal had been closely monitored in Paris.
Former French president Jacques Chirac took up the issue with his then-opposite number in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, he said.
Chirac’s successor Nicolas Sarkozy did the same during an official visit in 2008, lobbying Zuma who was then the ruling party leader, he added.
“I accompanied Mr. Zuma to Mr. Sarkozy’s presidential suite at his hotel in Cape Town where a meeting occurred between Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Zuma,” said Sooklal.
“At that meeting, president Sarkozy intimated that he would like the National Prosecuting Authority to ensure that corruption charges are dropped against Thales group. Mr. Zuma said he was attending to the matter.”
A spokesman for the former French president was not available to comment.
AFP sent Thales a detailed list of questions and allegations made by Sooklal.
“We do not intend to comment on the allegations made by Mr. Ajay Sooklal with whom the group has had a commercial dispute in the past. A commercial dispute that Mr. Sooklal lost,” Thales told AFP.
Sooklal has sought the payment of fees that he said were owed to him by Thales but his claim was rejected.
Many people have asked what has motivated Sooklal to speak out now and about whether he was complicit in the alleged graft.
He participated in a “people’s tribunal” organised by anti-corruption campaign groups in February, and was questioned toughly in that regard.
“I’m not trying to give him a green card as if to say he has done nothing wrong,” said Hennie Van Vuuren, the head of anti-graft action group Open Secrets.
“Whistle blowers are complicated, they have their own motives and reasons for talking out. But as a society we recognise the value and the importance of the information that they can hand to us.”
Sooklal has not yet been called as a witness, but he said firmly: “I’m ready to testify at the trial.”
The case is expected to be adjourned at the preliminary hearing on Friday, with Zuma likely to launch an appeal against the decision to prosecute him.