Arms deal tribunal: 'Witness X' drops corruption bombshells

President Jacob Zuma. (Phill Magakoe, AFP)
President Jacob Zuma. (Phill Magakoe, AFP)

Johannesburg - A former arms deal insider has implicated a range of powerful actors - including two former French presidents, President Jacob Zuma and other senior South African politicians - in alleged corrupt dealings and subsequent cover-ups pertaining to South Africa’s infamous weapons acquisition program.

Lawyer Ajay Sooklal, a former agent or representative for French arms conglomerate Thales and its South African subsidiaries, on Monday testified at the People’s Tribunal on Economic Crime at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg.

Some of Sooklal’s insights into Thales’ involvement in the arms deal have surfaced before, but the former arms agent and lawyer added further explosive claims with regards to the highly contentious series of weapons contracts the South African government entered into with European arms suppliers in the 1990s.

Thales in 1997 won a R2.6bn stake in South Africa’s R60bn arms acquisition program to supply combat systems for four frigates procured by the navy.

Sooklal, who had been referred to as "Witness X" before his testimony, later decided to withdraw as a witness.

This was followed by a series of probing questions by retired constitutional court judge Zak Yacoob into Sooklal’s own involvement in Thales’ financial dealings with Zuma, his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, and other individuals who’d allegedly been bribed by the French arms supplier.

READ: Tribunal hears Zuma era corruption, rooted in apartheid and 1999 arms deals

Before his exit from the proceedings, Sooklal, among other claims, stated the following: 

* Thales committed to a R500 000 a year "payment" to then deputy president Jacob Zuma to secure the deputy president’s protection in any South African probes into Thales’ conduct in the arms deal. The alleged payments were also intended to secure Zuma’s support of the company’s future dealings with the South African government.
* Zuma did receive payments and other benefits, including air tickets and tickets to the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, from Thales, between 2005 and 2009. Sooklal, however, did not confirm whether the R500 000 a year payment materialised.
* Shamin "Chippy" Shaik, the brother of Schabir Shaik and the former head of South Africa’s arms procurement process, received a cash payment of US$1m from Thales. 
* The very top executives of Thales, which was earlier known as Thompson-CSF, and its South African subsidiaries, were all directly aware of or actively sanctioned the dubious payments made around the arms deal contract.
* Two successive French presidents directly placed pressure on former president Thabo Mbeki and later on Zuma to ensure that any South African probes into the arms deal would not focus on Thales. In 2004, former president Jacques Chirac allegedly tried to influence Mbeki and other senior government officials to help ensure that Thales wouldn’t come under the magnifying glass in arms deal investigations in South Africa. In 2008, after Zuma had become ANC president, Chirac’s successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, allegedly met with Zuma in Paris. Sarkozy allegedly asked Zuma to help make the investigations into Thint, Thales’ South African subsidiary, "disappear", Sooklal testified.
* Zuma invited Sooklal to a meeting at the president’s official residence in Pretoria in August 2012. Zuma allegedly told Sooklal that he had just appointed the Seriti commission of inquiry into the arms deal. He then allegedly implored Sooklal to refrain from testifying about Zuma’s payments from Thales or Thint at the commission of inquiry.

The tribunal continues on Tuesday.  

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