Bribes given like 'Monopoly money' to South Africa leaders, panel hears in case implicating President Cyril Ramaphosa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up South Africa, is being investigated for his ties to Bosasa.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up South Africa, is being investigated for his ties to Bosasa.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

CAPE TOWN (NYTIMES) - Cash bribes were called "Monopoly money" and handed out to high-ranking members of South Africa's governing party on monthly retainers. When that pay-off was not enough, US$22,000 (S$29,700) was stuffed into a Louis Vuitton handbag and delivered to a close ally of the president at the time.

That sent the recipient "over the moon", according to Mr Angelo Agrizzi, a businessman - and now whistle-blower - who detailed, at a continuing government inquiry into public corruption, extravagant bribes doled out to members of the party, the African National Congress (ANC), at the highest levels of government.

A current government minister, he testified, liked receiving an annual Christmas basket that included "four cases of high-quality whiskey, 40 cases of beer, eight lambs - cut up, obviously". Her daughter was partial to high-end convertibles, Audi A3 Cabriolets, but kept crashing the cars given to her.

"So I actually called her in one day and sat her down and said, 'Can I arrange for driver training, special driver training for you', because it was getting embarrassing," Mr Agrizzi said.

The granular details about the bribes in South Africa, where widespread corruption has gutted state institutions and public programmes, emerged after several days of explosive testimony, broadcast live nationwide, by Mr Agrizzi at the inquiry.

Mr Agrizzi was the chief operating officer of Bosasa, a South African logistics company that he said handed out between US$300,000 to US$440,000 a month in cash bribes to senior ANC officials to secure lucrative government contracts.

Mr Agrizzi, who wrapped up his testimony on Tuesday (Jan 29), implicated by name not only powerful politicians, but also senior civil servants who he said had facilitated transactions or were paid to look away.

Though Bosasa had long been accused of unethical and illegal conduct, the company continued to win government contracts through its ties with the ANC.

Even President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up South Africa, is being investigated for his ties to Bosasa.

Last week, the public protector's office, a government agency responsible for investigating corruption, started an investigation into US$37,000 given by Bosasa to Mr Ramaphosa's campaign before party elections in December 2017 - and also into whether Mr Ramaphosa misled Parliament about why that money was given.

On Tuesday, Mr Ramaphosa met the public protector, Ms Busisiwe Mkhwebane, to discuss the case, said Mr Oupa Segalwe, a spokesman for the office.

Initially, Mr Ramaphosa said in Parliament that the payment had been made to his son, Andile, for doing consulting work for Bosasa. Mr Ramaphosa later said that the money was donated by the company to his 2017 campaign. He added that he had not been aware of the donation and pledged to return it.

"The president performed a spectacular about-turn and was forced to admit to the nation that his campaign received dirty money from Bosasa," Mr Mmusi Maimane, leader of the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, said.

The reports come just months before national elections are expected to be held, most likely in May. Allies of Mr Ramaphosa, who ousted Jacob Zuma from power a year ago, are hoping that he will win a decisive victory and carry out changes inside a fractured ANC.

"We've gone through a challenging number of years, nine years to be exact, where we seemed to lose our way, where we deviated from the path that you traditionally would have expected us to traverse," Mr Ramaphosa said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, referring to Zuma's nine-year presidency.

But Mr Agrizzi's testimony indicated that malfeasance has long been - and still is - an integral part of the ANC, which has held power since the end of apartheid in 1994. Corruption, he testified, long predated Zuma's presidency and involves officials in Mr Ramaphosa's own Cabinet and in the party's top hierarchy.

Established by leaders of the ANC's Women's League, Bosasa was bought and then built up by a white South African businessman, Mr Gavin Watson, who with his brothers became anti-apartheid heroes for playing rugby with black South Africans in the 1970s.

After democracy was introduced in the 1990s, the Watsons used their links to the ANC for business purposes. The company changed its name last year to African Global Operations.

Mr Agrizzi served as Mr Watson's right-hand man but said he was coming clean after nearly dying during heart surgery in 2016. He said Bosasa's business grew thanks to ties to the ANC during the government of Mr Thabo Mbeki.

By 2009, the company was under severe scrutiny: The Special Investigating Unit, a government agency, released a report detailing widespread fraud in Bosasa's relations with officials overseeing the nation's prisons.

But nothing came of the report or further investigations into Bosasa, Mr Agrizzi said, because the company paid off national prosecutors and ANC lawmakers on a parliamentary committee overseeing prisons.

Bosasa also bought protection from prosecutors by cultivating ties with Ms Dudu Myeni, a close ally of Zuma, Mr Agrizzi said. Ms Myeni served for years as the head of South Africa's now bankrupt national airline despite having no experience in the industry.

Bosasa funnelled US$22,000 a month to Zuma through her, Mr Agrizzi said, adding that the money was once stuffed into a Louis Vuitton bag that sent Ms Myeni "over the moon". Zuma has not commented on the testimony.

As Bosasa sought further protection, Mr Agrizzi said a monthly retainer was also paid to another close ally of Zuma, Ms Nomvula Mokonyane, who was so quick in getting things done for the company that she was nicknamed the "Energiser Bunny".

The company also rewarded Ms Mokonyane - who is now Mr Ramaphosa's minister for environmental affairs - with the annual Christmas basket, and her daughter with cars, Mr Agrizzi said.

Ms Mokonyane's lawyers said that her "right to procedural fairness" had been breached by the investigating panel and that she "felt betrayed" that newspapers had obtained Mr Agrizzi's prepared testimony.