Our hero this week is the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) for suspending one of its ambassadors alleged to have accepted a multimillion-rand bribe to help MTN secure a lucrative operating licence in Iran in 2005. Both the official and the cellphone giant have denied the claims.
Listen to our clip which recently aired on Jacaranda FM.
The department is worthy of hero status because it took firm action amid a storm of controversy involving a multibillion-dollar lawsuit, bribery and nuclear weapons scandal, indicating to South Africans and the world that corruption will not be tolerated.
Dirco spokesperson Clayson Monyela confirmed to Corruption Watch on Thursday 12 July that the department had suspended former ambassador to Tehran Yusuf Saloojee following claims he accepted a R1.65-million bribe to facilitate the MTN-Iran deal.
News of the suspension emerged after International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane replied to a parliamentary question earlier in the week that her department had begun probing the allegations against Saloojee, who is currently the ambassador to Oman.
She confirmed that her department did not receive a request from Saloojee for permission to do paid work outside his official duties.
Saloojee will remain suspended until investigations into his connections to the MTN deal have been concluded, according to Monyela.
He said the probe was being conducted by internal investigators.
The Hawks have announced they are also investigating the matter, but “we are still at the early stages”, Hawks spokesperson McIntosh Polela said.
Although suspended, Saloojee is still an employee of the department.
Monyela added that Saloojee was aware of the probe but the department had not informed MTN, as the government unit did not deal directly with individual private companies.
Monyela would not give details of the start, and terms and reference of the investigation, or the possible penalties Saloojee faced if found guilty.
MTN is being sued in the US for R35.8-billion by Turkish rival operator Turkcell, which alleges MTN bribed Saloojee and other officials, and used other devious methods to win a licence which should have gone to Turkcell, in a scheme called Project Snooker.
Turkcell claims it won an international tender in 2004 for the second private mobile operating licence in Iran, but a year later the licence was awarded to MTN Irancell, a consortium in which MTN holds a 49% stake.
Irancell is that country’s largest cellphone network operator.
The Turkish group alleges MTN "stole" the mobile licence – initially awarded to a Turkcell-led consortium – through high-level bribery and influence-peddling.
Claims have also emerged that MTN promised Iran it would lobby the South African government to vote in the Islamic republic’s favour on nuclear issues, and would facilitate a weapons-trade agreement between the countries.
The MTN group has repeatedly denied it bribed South African and Iranian officials or promised Iran weapons and UN votes, among other allegations.
It said Turkcell’s bid for the licence had failed because it did not meet commercial and legal requirements.
Although Dirco’s move in suspending Saloojee is commendable, it certainly can’t be seen as swift action.
On 20 March 2012 New Age quoted Dirco’s Nkoana-Mashabane as saying in a written response to parliament: “I have not considered it necessary to launch any investigation into the allegations as I am aware that South Africa’s position on Iran’s nuclear programme has not been influenced by any company.
“I am furthermore not aware of any improper payments that had been made to any official. Any evidence to the contrary should be submitted to the relevant law enforcement agencies for further investigation,” she added.
Four months later, on July 11, Nkoana-Mashabane said her department had started an investigation, adding: “We must be absolutely sure that our foreign policy is not for sale and cannot be influenced by powerful companies such as the MTN group.”
Dirco spokesperson Monyela said the department was only now investigating because “the reality of the matter is this issue has been raised repeatedly … and necessitated an investigation”.
Additional sources: City Press, Mail & Guardian, Business Report