‘I am insulted,’ says Savoi

2011-02-11 00:00

DR Gaston Savoi, the multi-millionaire at the heart of a widespread investigation into alleged bribery and corruption, says he has been caught up in South Africa’s web of politics, power and business.

“It’s a psychological war,” the Uruguayan businessman said this week in an exclusive interview with Media24 Investigations as he prepares to fend off another salvo from the state next week.

Savoi is accused in a health tender scandal which saw police arrest John Block, the Northern Cape finance MEC and a senior ANC member, and other top government officials across two provinces last year.

Next week the state will attempt to rescind Savoi’s R200 000 bail on claims he has failed to disclose all his personal assets as ordered by a court.

“I feel like a used condom that has been blown up and kicked around,” says Savoi, sitting on a veranda overlooking the Steenberg golf and wine estate in Cape Town, where he lives.

Savoi (57) is facing numerous counts of corruption for allegedly bribing officials to set up deals for his Intaka Group of Companies’ water purification and oxygen generation systems.

Savoi says he would not have minded the trouble he is facing if he had been “speeding recklessly” and then “crashed”. But he claims to have done nothing wrong.

He says his work in Brazil had taught him about state-planned development and local empowerment, but had not reckoned on the difference in South Africa.

In Brazil, the government directs investment where it should happen and insists that there should be local partners, but then steps back to allow you to make your own choices.

South African politicians and officials, he says, often stay involved, choosing your partners and setting the rules of engagement, often promoting their own interests.

“Suddenly,” says Dr Savoi, “we appear to have crossed a road that is not allowed to be crossed, but nobody warned us.”

In the Northern Cape Savoi is accused with 11 others, including Block, of colluding with and corrupting government officials. The state claims Savoi gave Block R772 000 and over R16,7 million to other officials for influencing tenders to supply Intaka water plants at grossly over-inflated prices, outside normal tender procedures in sales totalling R113 million.

He faces similar charges in KwaZulu-Natal, where he and others allegedly colluded with officials to manipulate tender specifications to benefit Intaka to the tune of R180 million.

Savoi is also accused there of laundering about R1 million through an attorney’s trust account, which was later said to be a donation to the ANC.

In 2007 police investigators knocked on Intaka’s door, demanding an explanation of the R1 million “donation” to the ANC.

“I’m insulted,” says Savoi, “Suddenly it’s Savoi the fancy gringo — a kingpin making money with government!”

Savoi is bitter over his treatment and the seizure of assets — including a Lear-jet — and of being repeatedly dragged to court, despite co-operating.

“Before, people wanted to come to my wine-tastings and play golf. Suddenly they cross on the other side of the street. Stigma attaches like a bad smell. But what changed from then to now?” he asks.

Savoi says that when he arrived in 2002 with the help of the Trade and Investment Council, he was already wealthy from businesses in the health sector and had no need to fleece South Africa.

He has travelled here regularly since 1994. Within nine years the Savoi family has become ensconced here with six “proudly South African” grandchildren.

An economist with a PhD from the University of Sao Paolo, Savoi saw a recession in South America and cracks in the banking system that spelled a bleak future for his children.

In 2001, the family, led by his father, invested R150 million for a 50% share in the then Shamwari Holdings, developed the Steenberg Hotel and the 54 000 ha Sanbona Wildlife Reserve in the Little Karoo.

The Mantis shares were sold in 2005 but not before then president Thabo Mbeki invited him to a meeting of the President’s Investment Council at Shamwari where he met government ministers, including Phumzile Mlambo-Nguka and Alec Erwin.

He says Erwin’s interest in his patented water purifiers and gas generators led to the Intaka Group, which continues with varied interests today.

Savoi feels the South African legal system and media treat a person as “suspicious until proven guilty” and he will prove the legitimacy of commissions paid in court.

Savoi’s bail case in the Pietermaritzburg Regional Court continues on February 16. The Northern Cape accused will be back in court on March 18.

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