S.Africa: Top politician faces bribery accusations

November 22, 2011 - 4:10 PM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African media say they've uncovered evidence that supports corruption allegations against a leading anti-apartheid activist who served on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela.

Mac Maharaj, who now is President Jacob Zuma's spokesman, vigorously denied the accusations Tuesday, saying at a news conference: "I have not been involved in any bribery. I have not been involved in any corruption."

The Sunday Times reported it has documents showing money was funneled from a French company to Maharaj's wife. Maharaj was the former transport minister, and the French company involved later benefited from a transport ministry contract.

He said prosecutors investigated and did not charge him. Mthunzi Mhaga, spokesman for national prosecutors, confirmed to The Associated Press Tuesday that the case was closed.

Maharaj has long been among the ANC's leading members. He was prominent in the negotiations that led to South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 and served as minister of transport under Mandela.

He was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1976, and was close to Mandela, helping smuggle out the manuscript that would become the basis of Mandela's memoirs, "Long Walk to Freedom."

Another Johannesburg weekly, the Mail & Guardian, said in its latest edition that after Maharaj threatened legal action, it held back on a report on the case based on a deposition he made to investigators seven years ago.

Maharaj said his deposition should not have been made public, and that he had asked police to investigate whether the Mail & Guardian broke any laws to obtain it.

Mail & Guardian editors say they believe they had the right to publish information that "raises serious questions about the conduct of the man who speaks on behalf of the president," but added that in the face of Maharaj's objections, the newspaper was seeking authorization from prosecutors to report on the deposition.

The reports come after a series of disclosures of government corruption in South Africa. Maharaj spoke to reporters the same day his African National Congress party pushed a state secrets bill through parliament that critics say could make it difficult to expose official corruption.

In the Maharaj case, the Times said a South African prosecutor wrote to Swiss authorities for help, and that that led to the uncovering of a consultancy agreement involving Thompson CSF, predecessor to the French company Thales, that pointed to payment by Thompson to Maharaj's wife.

Thales did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

The Swiss Justice Ministry confirmed it received several requests for help from South Africa. Spokeswoman Ingrid Ryser declined to provide details on the South African requests and Switzerland's responses, but referred AP to a May 2008 verdict by Switzerland's Federal Criminal Court. According to that ruling, Swiss authorities provided South Africa with documents on a bank account held by the wife of a former South African transport minister. The unnamed transport minister was being investigated by South African authorities in connection with a bribery case, the ruling said.

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Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva and Sarah DiLorenzo in Paris contributed to this report.