Justice department denies using WhatsApp in Botswana 'money laundering' case

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Advocate Gerrie Nel.
Advocate Gerrie Nel.
Photo: Deaan Vivier
  • State attorneys say they did not use WhatsApp to communicate to legal officials in Botswana, as AfriForum claims.
  • South Africa wants to deal with Botswana directly through diplomatic channels and not through "non-state actors" like AfriForum.
  • AfriForum, on behalf of the Botswana government, is set to take the South African government to court in June to force it to reply to a request for Mutual Legal Assistance.

South Africa's Department of Justice has said it used emails and official channels to communicate to Botswana over its request for Mutual Legal Assistance in an alleged money laundering case, not WhatsApp.

On Thursday night, justice ministry spokesperson Chrispin Phiri said senior assistant state attorney Ramathithi Sebelemetsa never used WhatsApp to communicate to Botswana's assistant director of public prosecutions Priscilla Israel.

At a news conference on Wednesday, AfriForum lawyer Gerrie Nel said South African government lawyers had used WhatsApp instead of more formal means, like letters and court papers, to communicate with the Botswana government.

AfriForum has been hired by the Botswana government in an attempt to force the South African government to comply with a request for Mutual Legal Assistance, lodged in September 2019, in its case against former intelligence officer Welheminah Maswabi, codenamed "Butterfly".

In an affidavit lodged in the case it is alleged that businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe was a co-signatory to two bank accounts – at Absa and Nedbank – which held some of the $10 billion (about R150 billion) allegedly stolen from the Botswana government to finance a "coup" before that country's elections in 2019.

READ | Bridgette Motsepe case: AfriForum blames 'political interference' for SA's delay in Botswana matter

Former Botswana president Ian Khama, who had a fall-out with his successor Mokgweetsi Masisi, is also implicated in this case.

Non-state actors

Phiri said the South African justice department can't deal with "non-state actors" like AfriForum in a matter that should be handled through diplomatic channels. "They will struggle to explain who they are [in court]," Phiri said.

He confirmed that the state attorneys communicated with AfriForum's attorney, Willie Spies, via email on 19 November to inform them that Botswana's request for Mutual Legal Assistance was already being executed. The matter was referred to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions in Gauteng, as well as the Asset Forfeiture Unit, for execution.

Sebelemetsa had also asked Israel whether Botswana would consider withdrawing the mandamus application AfriForum had filed on its behalf on 19 August. He also said she had promised to follow up on the matter.

Nel claimed that "an advocate in the office of [South Africa's] National Director of Public Prosecutions" also communicated with Israel on 29 September. He said this was by means of WhatsApp and added that she had asked for an official confirmation that South Africa was moving on the request for Mutual Legal Assistance.

He said the last WhatsApp was on 21 October, when Israel asked for a letter to confirm this, but he said: 

There was no communication after that date to formally acknowledge what they've done.

He also said the justice department missed the 3 November deadline to file papers to oppose the mandamus application. Nel said he did not consider the application to be moot because of the lack of formal communication.

Nel said senior officials from South Africa had travelled to Botswana to talk to the government about the case and officials had also visited the banks.

READ HERE | SA’s lack of cooperation not deterring AfriForum, Botswana in Motsepe-Radebe prosecution

He said AfriForum will, on behalf of the Botswana government, take the South African government to court in an attempt to force it to respond to the mandamus application, but this was only likely to happen in June 2021.

Botswana's Director for Public Prosecutions Stephen Tiroyakgosi said the lack of information from South Africa's side made it difficult to proceed with all the charges in the "Butterfly" case.

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