JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - South Africa on Wednesday said the $10 million that US authorities allege was a bribe paid to host the 2010 World Cup was a fully-approved payment to support football among the "African diaspora" in the Caribbean.
Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula launched a passionate defence of South Africa's hosting of the tournament, which is widely cherished as a moment of national pride as it became the first African country to hold the event.
"The fact that a payment of $10 million was made to an approved programme above board does not equate to bribery," Mbalula said. "Those who allege should prove their allegations."
He said the $10 million was donated "unconditionally" and South Africa had no record how it was eventually spent.
"If the money was misused, we don't know, we can't account for it," said Mbalula.
"We thought we were dealing with people of good standing. The fact that they later turned into gangsters is not our problem."
FIFA president Sepp Blatter said on Tuesday he would resign just days after being re-elected amid an FBI investigation probing charges of corruption at football's world governing body.
"We refuse to be caught up in a battle of the United States authorities and FIFA," Mbalula told a press conference in Johannesburg.
"Our purpose and intent is to ensure that we respond to the allegations levelled at our country, government and its citizens.
"We therefore wish to categorically deny that our country and government have bribed anyone."
Two senior officials responsible for South Africa winning the bid were expected to attend the press conference and answer questions, but they both pulled out the last moment.
Danny Jordaan led the 2010 bid and is now the head of the South African Football Association, while Molefi Oliphant is the former head of the association who signed a 2008 letter confirming the $10 million payment.
The letter, which emerged on Tuesday, was addressed to FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke - in contradiction to FIFA claims that Valcke and senior FIFA officials knew nothing about the African diaspora programme.
The US indictment said a FIFA official authorised the $10 million payment to Jack Warner, then president of the confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf).
According to the indictment, bundles of cash in a briefcase were handed over at a Paris hotel as a bribe by a "high-ranking South African bid committee official".
The cash was allegedly later handed to Warner.
Thabo Mbeki, who was president when South Africa won the bid in 2004, has also denied that any bribes were paid to secure the World Cup, which is seen as a symbol of the country's emergence from decades of apartheid rule.
The African diaspora programme was virtually unknown in South Africa, but in a 2011 interview Mbeki said that some funds had been "made available in Trinidad and Tobago to develop soccer in the Caribbean".
"The intent from the onset was that all of the continent and the diaspora would all benefit from the legacy of the World Cup," Mbalula told reporters on Wednesday.
Despite years of allegations, Blatter had retained his role at the head of FIFA thanks to the support of many African and Asian nations.
"Sepp Blatter has been a good friend of South Africa, we will not lie about it," the sports minister said.
"He played a major role in terms of shifting the world to focus on Africa. History will remember him for that."