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South African Opposition Demand President Suspend Spokesman Implicated in Bribe Allegations

  • Delia Robertson

Mac Maharaj, former South African Minister of Transport. (File Photo)

Mac Maharaj, former South African Minister of Transport. (File Photo)

South African President Jacob Zuma says he won’t comment on the call by opposition parties for the suspension of his spokesman and former minister of transport Mac Maharaj. The calls came after allegations that Maharaj and his wife received bribes related to a controversial 1999 defense procurement package that was worth $4.8 billion.

Zuma says that he cannot comment on the call to suspend his spokesman Mac Maharaj, because Maharaj has filed a legal complaint against the Mail & Guardian newspaper. Last Friday, the paper published a report that alleged Maharaj lied to South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority, NPA.

Pierre de Vos, professor of constitutional law at the University of Cape Town, tells VOA it appears Zuma is hiding behind the pretext of legality.

“Given the fact that Mr. Maharaj has declined to make any explicit denial that he had actually lied to the NPA, something that would have been a criminal offense if it did happen, and given the other allegations leveled against Mr. Maharaj, I think the president is trying to avoid having to deal with this matter, and I think they don’t really know how to deal with it,” he said.

Before abandoning an investigation into Maharaj in 2007, the NPA questioned him about alleged bribes paid to him and his wife, Zarina, when Maharaj was minister of transport.

The alleged bribes came from the French company Thomson CSF, now known as Thales, through Zuma's former financial advisor Shabir Shaik. In 2005 Shaik was convicted of corruption for numerous payments made to or for the benefit of Zuma, including some on behalf of Thomson CSF. Shaik's conviction led to the dismissal of Zuma, who was then South Africa's deputy president.

Corruption and other charges against Zuma were controversially dropped by the NPA in 2009, a few months before he became president. The charges were related to the 1999 defense procurement package with several international arms-makers.

And now South Africa's Sunday Times reports that it has obtained a copy of a consultancy agreement, never before disclosed, between Thomson CSF and Shaik's company Minderley Investments.

The paper says the agreement shows secret payments totaling $300,000 were routed through Minderley to offshore bank accounts belonging to Maharaj's wife Zarina. The payments were made two months before her husband's department awarded the French company a driver’s license contract worth $33 million, a spin-off deal from the arms procurement package.

When asked on the eNews Channel’s The Justice Factor whether he had accepted a bribe, Maharaj did not directly answer the question.

“I will not subject myself an investigation by any singular media agency, when it is dealing with matters in an isolated way and does not put its information on the table,” he said.

De Vos says the developments will make it difficult for Maharaj to do his job.

"Well obviously, the problem is always if you are the spin-doctor basically, the spokesperson of the president, and a very high profile spokesperson of the president, and you become the story yourself and there are serious questions about your probity and your honesty, then the question is 'Can you actually fulfill your job properly and effectively,'” he said.

De Vos adds that if Maharaj cannot function effectively, it could also weaken the president.