President Cyril Ramaphosa's hardcore anti-corruption stance will soon be tested as a case involving alleged bribery during his reign as MTN chairperson heads to court.
Ramaphosa chaired the MTN board from 2002 to 2013.
On Friday the Hawks arrested and charged Yusuf "Jojo" Saloojee, South Africa's former ambassador to Iran, with corruption linked to a multibillion-dollar contract awarded by the Iranian authorities to MTN.
Although Ramaphosa has never been directly implicated in the case, his shadow looms large over the mobile giant's handling of the matter, that has been in and out of the public domain for over a decade.
The crux of the case against Saloojee is as follows: the state alleges that MTN, through a former exec-turned-whistleblower Chris Kilowan, bought him a house in Pretoria for his "assistance" in landing MTN the second Iranian mobile licence, that was originally awarded to Turkcell.
Turkcell is currently suing MTN for R59bn in damages.
In June last year, the Hawks swooped on MTN and law firm Webber Wentzel for their investigation that ultimately led to Saloojee's arrest on Friday.
Let's pause for a second to point out two curiosities: Kilowan, the alleged corruptor, was not charged with Saloojee, the alleged corruptee, suggesting that Kilowan, who has long turned against MTN and is Turkcell's star witness in their damages claim, will probably be a state witness.
Kilowan's version is that he was merely an instrument in the hands of MTN executives Irene Charnley and Phuthuma Nhleko in the paying of the bribe, meaning the Hawks could still charge current and former MTN executives if they believe and can corroborate Kilowan's version.
Nhleko is the current chairperson and former CEO of MTN; a very close business partner of Ramaphosa who bought the assets of the president's company Shanduka when he became deputy president of the country.
Nhleko is also the major South African beneficiary in Total's recent gas discovery south of Mossel Bay.
The second curiosity is the amount of time it has taken the Hawks to act on this matter, which has been in the public domain since at least 2012, when Kilowan's deposition before the Columbia District Court was revealed by City Press.
The alleged bribery took place in April 2007.
Considering the proven political abuse of the Hawks for internal ANC battles under former president Jacob Zuma, the temptation is irresistible to ponder whether remaining pro-Zuma forces in the unit are jumping onto this case to weaken Ramaphosa politically.
This of course does not mean there is no case against Saloojee and MTN, but it raises the spectre that a faction in the Hawks is digging up dirt on Ramaphosa and his associates to counter his anti-corruption mantra.
This, while people like Zuma, former SAA chair Dudu Myeni and former Transnet and Eskom executives, who have been deeply implicated before the Zondo commission into state capture, are not being pursued with the same amount of verve.
Ramaphosa has been vocal about the "nine lost years" under Zuma and have portrayed himself as the enemy of corruption. A guilty verdict against MTN for bribing an ambassador on his watch as chairperson may gravely injure that image.
So, what is the case?
Kilowan told the US court under oath that he was sent to Iran by MTN in 2004 to scout for a third network licence after Turkcell won the second mobile licence from the Iranians. He reported to businesswoman Charnley, then MTN's head of North Africa and the Middle East.
MTN managed to convince the Iranians to withdraw the award to Turkcell and give it to them.
He and Charnley discussed ways to remunerate the people who helped them to sway the deal, Kilowan testified.
At a dinner with Saloojee, the ambassador allegedly asked for R1.4m to purchase a house in Pretoria in which to live after he retired from foreign affairs.
"Can you ask Irene – they have offered me something last year, and I said no, but can you ask Irene as to whether they would be prepared to give me money to buy the house," Kilowan recalled Saloojee saying.
Kilowan claims that Charnley approved the bribe and asked for a contract to be signed. She left MTN shortly thereafter and Kilowan made arrangements to pay the amount from his personal bank account.
They agreed that Saloojee would reimburse Kilowan with the money he was due to receive from MTN, Kilowan testified.
Nhleko, according to Kilowan, was upset that Charnley had given permission to the payment, but agreed to "do a contract for him".
Neither Nhleko, nor Charnley have reimbursed Kilowan for the payment and deny being involved in bribery. Saloojee also denied being bribed.
The Ramaphosa-chaired MTN board commissioned South African-born British Judge Lord Leonard Hoffmann to investigate the charges against Nhleko and Charnley. Hoffmann cleared them both and found Kilowan to have been an unreliable witness; an opinion the Hawks and the reinvigorated national prosecuting authority (NPA) seemingly disagree with.
- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24.