JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's elite Hawks police unit has opened a preliminary investigation into the involvement of local officials in the payment of what U.S. prosecutors call a $10 million bribe to a FIFA executive to secure the 2010 World Cup.
South African sports officials have acknowledged authorizing the payment $10 million to Jack Warner, former head of soccer in the Caribbean and North and Central America, but say the money was a donation for development projects, and not a bribe.
Warner is one of 14 senior soccer officials and businessmen indicted by the United States on charges of corruption which have shaken the world's most popular sport. U.S. authorities say he and other officials planned to keep the money, in return for delivering votes to host the World Cup in South Africa.
The Hawks, formally known as the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, said their initial assessment would determine whether a full investigation was needed, a decision which would be announced next week.
"The preliminary investigation will reveal whether or not we will have an investigation," said Hawks spokesman Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi. "If the investigations reveal there is a case to be answered, we will then inform other stakeholders in the justice system."
Freedom Front Plus, a small rightwing political party that advocates for South Africa's formerly dominant white minority, said on Thursday it had submitted an affidavit asking the Hawks to investigate the South African Football Association.
"We are hoping to understand what happened and also get an explanation from local football officials," Jennifer Rautenbach, the legal advisor to the party told Reuters. "We asked specifically that they look at SAFA officials involved."
On Wednesday, Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula confirmed the contents of a leaked letter from the SAFA which said money originally intended for organizing the 2010 World Cup had been paid directly to Warner.
Mbalula told a news conference the payment was never intended as a bribe to secure the right to host the 2010 tournament, as described in the U.S. indictment, but was a donation to help build a soccer center in Warner's native Trinidad for Caribbeans of African descent.
World Cup 2010 organizing committee members had been expected to appear at the news conference but did not turn up. That means organizing committee chairman Irvin Khoza and high profile chief executive officer Danny Jordaan have yet to address the allegations publicly.