Lawyer and former arms-deal insider Ajay Sooklal – likely to present himself as a state witness in the looming Jacob Zuma trial – may turn out to be one of the most painful thorns in the former president's side.
Having already made public evidence implicating Zuma in the notorious 1999 arms deal, Sooklal's testimony would likely be key to the state's case against the sullied leader, given his close proximity to Zuma and other individuals implicated in the arms deal graft.
Though Sooklal's name was not included on the original list of state witnesses widely circulated at the end of March, the lead investigator of the team pursuing the case against Zuma, Colonel Johan du Plooy, approached the lawyer last week in hopes he'd avail himself as a witness and make a sworn statement, City Press reported on Sunday. Two NGOs had also approached Sooklal with the same request, Du Plooy told the publication.
Breaking: State has list of 207 #Zuma State Witnesses. Included is former SARS Johan van Loggerenberg, Former Mandela attorney Ismail Ayob, and Mandela shirt tailor Yusuf Surtee. @eNCA #ZumaTrial pic.twitter.com/dHGT0hK9gW— Annika Larsen (@AnnikaLarsen1) March 29, 2018
A former representative of French arms manufacturer Thales – which in 1997 won a R2.6-billion stake in the R60-billion arms acquisition programme – Sooklal gained public prominence four years ago following revelations that he helped Thales arranged clothes, accommodation and legal fees for Zuma when he faced prosecution relating to the arms deal.
Sooklal's ostensibly damning allegations became public information during the Seriti Commission – the official inquiry in 2014 tasked with investigating arms deal crimes (now widely dismissed as a "whitewash" by activists and whistle-blowers). The commission found zero evidence of corruption and carried a R137-million price tag, according to City Press.
Sooklal later detailed, in a high court affidavit last year, how Zuma appealed for his silence pertaining to the allegations.
Subsequently appearing as "witness X" at the civil society-led People's Tribunal on Economic Crime in February, Sooklal presented additional allegations of arms deal graft in his testimony before a panel led by former Constitutional Court justice Zac Yacoob.
The allegations relate broadly to the involvement of Thales (formerly Thompson-CSF), an alleged apartheid sanctions-buster and co-defendant in the Zuma trial, and its links to Zuma while he was still deputy state president.
These were the allegations Sooklal put forward during the tribunal, some of which were already in the public domain:
- Shamim "Chippy" Shaik, the South African National Defence Force chief of acquisitions at the time and brother of Schabir, was allegedly paid $1-million [now about R12-million] by Thales SA head Pierre Moynot. At the Seriti Commission in 2014, Shaik said he had no decision-making authority in the multibillion-rand arms procurement deal in 1999.
- Sooklal restated the contents of an encrypted fax in 2000 in which Alain Thetard (Thales' southern Africa boss) wrote to Yann de Jomaron (African managing director), telling of a meeting with Zuma in which Thales offered the then deputy president a R500,000 per annum bribe to protect the company in the arms deal probe. He didn't confirm if the bribe payments ever materialised.
- Zuma allegedly received benefits including tickets to the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France from Thales, and other payments from Thales between 2005 and 2009.
During the tribunal, a picture of the previously unseen Alain Thetard – who allegedly offered the bribe using the secret code "Eiffel Tower" – was put on display.
Sooklal earlier pointing at a picture of Alain Thetard — whose pic hasn't yet been seen — who allegedly paid Zuma arms deal bribes. Thetard a French arms dealer (Thales) with massive role in arms deal/Zuma corruption. #PeoplesTribunal pic.twitter.com/JJg7eoYnrH— Marc Davies (@MarcDDavies) February 5, 2018
- Then president of France Jacques Chirac tried to influence then president Thabo Mbeki to "bring forces to bear" to stop the NPA investigating Thales' role in the arms deal. This allegedly occurred at a state dinner in Paris. A subsequent French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was also alleged to have implored Zuma to make the investigations "disappear".
- Sooklal said Thales paid for Zuma's legal costs in matters relating to the arms deal that played out in the Mauritius supreme court.
- Thales allegedly made a 1-million euro [about R15-million] "donation" to the ANC ahead of the 2006 elections, the payment of which was made to then ANC treasurer-general Mendi Msimang.
- Former financial adviser to Jacob Zuma Schabir Shaik received money from Thales via a Swiss bank account, some of which was transferred to Mac Maharaj and his wife Zarina, who then transferred these funds to a bank account on the Isle of Man. This information was contained in an earlier court judgment in Switzerland, which Sooklal said was provided to the NPA but not acted upon.
- Zuma in August 2012 allegedly called Sooklal to the presidential residence in Pretoria, asking him not to testify at the Seriti Commission about Thales' payments to Zuma.
Zuma and a representative of Thales, group legal head Christine Guerrier, appeared in the high court in Durban on Friday. City Press on Sunday revealed it had learnt that Thales, prior to the appearance, wrote to KwaZulu-Natal director of public prosecutions Moipone Noko to ask that charges against the company be withdrawn. They asked her to allow the company to justify the request, the report said.
Zuma will appear in court next on June 8 following a postponement on Friday. He will launch his review application on May 15.