From the archive
How French arms dealer ‘kept Jacob Zuma in its pocket’
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Sunday Times on September 28, 2014.
On a crisp Highveld afternoon in September 2003, lawyer Ajay Sooklal walked into French arms dealer Pierre Moynot’s office in Pretoria.
Barely a fortnight earlier, prosecutions boss Bulelani Ngcuka had announced he was charging businessman Schabir Shaik with fraud and corruption for bribing then deputy president Jacob Zuma on behalf of French weapons and electronics maker Thales for political cover in the arms deal investigation.
Ngcuka’s announcement, including that there was a prima facie case against Zuma, sent shock waves through South Africa and the corridors of power in Paris. Thales had been awarded a contract worth R2.6- billion to supply the combat suites for four new frigates the South African Navy was buying from Germany.
The company was almost a third owned by the French government, with its chairman Denis Ranque appointed by the French president himself. France did not relish the prospect of losing contracts around the world while Thales’s reputation was decimated in a corruption trial.
Moynot, who headed Thales’s South African arm, Thint, was under pressure to make the problem go away, and Sooklal was just the man for the job.
Thint had already retained the services of Deneys Reitz, but the prestigious law firm did not have Sooklal’s connections. A former head of business regulation at the Department of Trade and Industry, Sooklal was a friend of intelligence chief Mo Shaik, and his brother was South Africa’s ambassador to the European Union.
He had been recommended to Moynot by Gibson Thula, the former KwaZulu homeland “ambassador” to South Africa, who was described as a personal friend of then justice minister Penuell Maduna.
Moynot wanted Sooklal to drop all his legal and consultancy work, relocate from Pretoria to Durban, and move heaven and earth to get pending charges against Thales withdrawn.
Everything would be done off the books. Thales would cover his expenses and pay him a retainer, but there would be no contract, no invoices and mostly face-to-face meetings to minimise the risk of a paper trail.
For the next six years Sooklal would traverse the globe, meeting presidents, cabinet ministers, party leaders, defence company officials, prosecutors and lawyers in an increasingly desperate bid to get Thales and Zuma off the hook. His quest would take him to Paris, London, Washington, Brussels, Mauritius, India, Austria and Switzerland, sometimes several times a year, often travelling with Zuma to meet witnesses who could help in his corruption trial — all at the French arms giant’s expense.
During this period Sooklal would also set up meetings between Thales and South African officials to clinch deals ranging from missile contracts in Venezuela to the Gautrain’s ticketing system, as well as arranging donations for the ANC.
Sooklal’s first job was to “make representations to the minister of justice”, Maduna. In October 2003 then-president Thabo Mbeki took half his cabinet on a state visit to India. Moynot asked Sooklal to tag along to “interact” with Maduna to get the charges against Thint withdrawn and warrants of arrest against his predecessor Alain Thetard and Thales International head Jean-Paul Perrier uplifted.
Sooklal met Maduna at his room at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. Asked if he could bring Moynot, Maduna said: “Don’t bring that crook to my room.”
Their discussion centred on the so-called encrypted fax. This was a typed-up version of notes written by Thetard outlining a bribe agreement facilitated by Shaik of R500000 a year that Thales would pay Zuma for political protection in the arms deal probe, and to secure future deals. The notes were typed up by Thetard’s personal assistant Sue Delique and faxed in encrypted form to the Thales offices in Paris and Mauritius.
This was a crucial piece of evidence that, if corroborated by Thales, could lead to Shaik’s and, ultimately, Zuma’s convictions. Maduna promised to look into the matter.
A month later, in November 2003, Mbeki paid a state visit to France. This was a golden opportunity for Thales. Moynot told Sooklal that Thales had made “representations [to] officials in the office of President Jacques Chirac”. At a state dinner for Mbeki at the Élysée Palace, Thales chairman Ranque confirmed to Sooklal that the company wanted his help in getting the charges withdrawn.
Sooklal later learned from Maduna that Chirac had approached Mbeki with the same request that night. According to Sooklal, Mbeki told Maduna he should work with the then ANC treasurer, Mendi Msimang, to resolve the issue “as per the request of President Chirac”.
In 2004 Sooklal sprang into action on the home front, meeting Zuma and Msimang, and travelling to France regularly to consult with Perrier, Moynot’s boss in Paris. In April his efforts bore fruit when prosecutions boss Ngcuka agreed to meet Moynot at Maduna’s house in Bryanston, Johannesburg.
Once again the encrypted fax loomed large. Ngcuka later offered to withdraw the case against Thales if Thetard confessed in an affidavit to writing the fax.
Later that month Sooklal introduced Perrier to Msimang, who was accompanying his wife, former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, to a World Health Organisation conference in Geneva. Sooklal recalls having dinner with Msimang. “For the first time I tasted truffles because Mr Msimang insisted on eating it.”
In May 2004, having received Thetard’s affidavit confessing he was the author of the encrypted bribe fax, Ngcuka wrote to Thales confirming he would withdraw the charges and arrest warrants on the understanding Thetard would “submit to questioning” by the prosecutors and testify if necessary.
Sooklal went to Paris and was congratulated by Perrier on a job well done. But it was not time to pop the champagne corks just yet. The Shaik trial was about to kick off, in October, and Perrier was worried about the negative publicity it would generate for Thales. He stressed it had “political connotations” and he didn’t want “any harm to come upon the person of one Deputy President JG Zuma”.
Shaik’s conviction for fraud and corruption in June 2005, with Thetard’s encrypted fax playing a crucial role, changed the rules of the game. Barely a week later Mbeki fired Zuma as deputy president, and in August the Scorpions conducted 19 simultaneous searches, raiding Zuma, Shaik and Moynot’s homes and offices. The Scorpions also decided to reinstate Thetard’s arrest warrant because he had refused to be interviewed at the South African embassy in Paris.
Thales was furious that the National Prosecuting Authority had reneged on their deal, and sought the advice of Maduna, the man who had brokered it. In September Maduna, who had quit politics after the 2004 elections to join law firm Bowman Gilfillan, travelled to London to meet Moynot. He brought his wife along at Thales’s expense. Sooklal recalls attending a meeting with Moynot and Maduna in a conference room at the Radisson Hampshire hotel in London.
“At that meeting Maduna said: ‘Mr Moynot, I hope you brought my fees.’ And then Mr Moynot handed him an envelope with cash money and Mr Moynot told Mr Maduna: ‘We thank you for your assistance in 2004 and here is à50000 [about R700000 at today’s rate] as payment in this matter.”
It seemed that Moynot, who confirmed paying Maduna in court papers, was no longer regarded as “that crook”. Also in court papers, Maduna disputed receiving the money. He could not be reached for comment this week.
Sooklal later asked Maduna if he had made any inroads with the prosecutors but was told: “Ajay, these are reactionaries in the NPA now. I don’t have very much clout with them and unfortunately all my representations have failed.” In November 2005 Zuma and Thint were charged.
For the next two years, leading up to the ANC elective conference at Polokwane, Sooklal jetted around the world, often with Zuma. Throughout, the French arms maker picked up the tab for Zuma’s flights and accommodation, including for trips abroad to meet witnesses for other legs of the arms deal investigation.
Sooklal recalls meeting Thetard, the author of the encrypted fax, in Mauritius in February 2006. The Thales executive wanted a “private” meeting on the beach “because he said he doesn’t trust the phones, he thinks maybe the hotel is bugged”. Thetard then recounted how Shaik had proposed a bribe of R500000 a year for Zuma, who would have to confirm acceptance by using the code words “Eiffel Tower”. When Shaik had called Thetard into the meeting room at Zuma’s official residence King’s House in Durban on March 11, 2000, Zuma had greeted him with the words: “I see the Eiffel Tower lights are shining today.”
Thetard could not be reached to confirm Sooklal’s version.
Furious political lobbying continued. Three months before Zuma and Thint were due to go on trial in July 2006, Moynot and Sooklal met Msimang. Moynot told the ANC treasurer that Thales wanted to make a à1-million donation to the ANC. Sooklal was told to make the arrangements, and was given the name of a trust “aligned to the ANC” that was registered in Gauteng. Sooklal later drove Moynot to Msimang’s house in the posh suburb of Waterkloof, Pretoria, and gave him a cheque written by “a friend of the Thales Group who pays all our commissions abroad” from a bank in Dubai.
The ANC denied receiving the donation, calling it hearsay. Msimang could not be reached to confirm Sooklal’s account.
In August 2006 Sooklal took Moynot to Luthuli House to meet Msimang to ask the ANC for help in obtaining a permanent stay of prosecution. He also arranged a meeting in May 2007 between Mbeki, Perrier and Moynot at Genadendal, Mbeki’s official residence in Cape Town. On the way to the airport Moynot called Zuma to brief him about the meeting.
Thales picked up the tab for Zuma’s legal fees, too. In June 2007 Sooklal and Moynot met Zuma’s lawyer Michael Hulley in Mauritius. Hulley told Moynot that Zuma wanted Thales to pay for the lawyers he would hire in Mauritius. Moynot consulted Paris, and “the following morning at breakfast” confirmed his bill would be taken care of. A “friend [of Thales] from Mozambique” would be used to hide the payment.
In October 2007 Thales invited Zuma and Sooklal to Paris for the Rugby World Cup. Moynot met them at the Concorde la Fayette hotel. “I expressed that Zuma’s luggage was missing, and Mr Moynot says, ‘well, buy him clothes and I will pay for it’,” Sooklal recalled. “During the course of that day Mr Zuma bought virtually a whole new wardrobe” paid for by Thales.
While at the La Fayette, Zuma met “various witnesses in respect of his looming criminal trial”, including some from Germany and Italy unrelated to Thales, but the French company picked up the tab nonetheless.
Zuma and Thint were eventually charged on December 27, 2007 — a week after he was elected ANC president. Soon afterwards he travelled to London with Sooklal to consult witnesses for his trial, then to Paris to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy, followed by lunch with Moynot and Perrier.
“Mr Zuma expressed a desire to go to the clothing store where we had previously purchased clothing in October 2007 and Mr Moynot readily accompanied him [and] paid for the purchase of the clothing.” Thales also picked up the tab for Zuma’s stay at the presidential suite of a Paris hotel while waiting to catch a night train to London.
Over the next year the corruption case against Zuma and Thint see-sawed dramatically. In September 2008 Judge Chris Nicolson ruled the charges should be dismissed on a technicality. This was overturned on appeal in January 2009.
With the April elections looming, the stakes were becoming high. In March Zuma’s lawyer, Hulley, approached prosecutors with the so-called spy tapes. On April 6 prosecutions boss Mokotedi Mpshe decided these revealed an abuse of power that warranted dropping charges, even though almost all his colleagues disagreed.
Sooklal flew to London and Paris to brief his Thales bosses, and was treated to a celebratory dinner on return to South Africa. “A lot of champagne, French champagne, was consumed.” Moynot also asked Sooklal “to buy a piece of cloth to cut a suit for Mr Zuma now that he was to become the president”.
•Thales declined to respond to detailed questions, saying the matter was part of a “confidential arbitration”. Moynot branded Sooklal a “liar”, but confirmed bankrolling Zuma and the ANC.
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