French Sought Tailored Deal
Mail and Guardian
Secret documents seized by the Scorpions during their investigation of the arms deal -- revealed for the first time at the Schabir Shaik trial -- give a remarkable insight into the intense lobbying that went on to secure contracts.
Newly evident is the role played by President Thabo Mbeki -- then deputy president*1 and chair of the Cabinet committee that oversaw the arms acquisition process.
Documents suggest French defence giant Thomson-CSF was desperate to obtain Mbeki’s assurance that it had the “right” empowerment partner to guarantee that it and its local subsidiary, African Defence Systems (ADS), would be awarded contracts for the combat system on the Navy’s new corvettes.
Also evident is the role played by various middlemen who acted as go-betweens for Thomson (now renamed Thales) with those perceived to be political decision-makers. An alleged key figure is a man code-named “the tailor” by the French.
“The tailor” has been named as businessman Yusuf Surtee by a previous witness in the trial, Marion Marais, who served as secretary to Thomson’s southern Africaboss, Pierre Moynot, and his successor, Alain Thetard.
Surtee was known at the time for his closeness to former president Nelson Mandela, to whom he supplied the famous “Madiba” shirts.
Surtee this week confirmed that he had “facilitated” a meeting between Thomson and Mandela *2, but said “nothing came of it”.
One of the Thomson documents records how “the tailor” allegedly told Moynot that he had obtained an “assurance” from Mbeki that Thomson, via ADS, would be awarded the corvette combat system contract. Surtee denied this.
Mbeki’s spokesperson, Bheki Khumalo, said the president would not comment on allegations emerging from the Shaik trial at this stage as the matter was sub judice.
But the documents show that French bidders were convinced that it was vital to secure political support in particular via the selection of empowerment partners approved by the political decision-makers.
The use of such “informal processes” outside the boundaries of the formal tender adjudication goes to the heart of the State’s corruption charges against Shaik regarding his relationship with Deputy President Jacob Zuma, which is based on the alleged securing of undue political support via the payment of bribes.
The documents also illuminate what many observers have argued is the political background to the trial the rivalry between Zuma and Mbeki as they show how the French panicked when it began to dawn on them that they may have backed the wrong horse via their partnership with Shaik.
As early as November 28, 1997, a year before the formal Cabinet decision on the preferred bidders for the main contracts, Moynot wrote to his superiors, Messrs Denis and De Bollardiere, describing a meeting with “le tailleur”.
The encrypted fax notes: “He [the tailor] has handed NCS’s Executive Summary to the Deputy President [Mbeki], who, he says, is very satisfied, particularly about the offsets offered ... [NCS is the radar division of Thomson*3].
“Then, a little later on, he repeated that he had obtained assurance from the Deputy President that we would be awarded the combat system and the sensors *4.”
The word “sensors” appears to be a translation from the French for radar. In the final contract Thomson was awarded the “surveillance radar” for the corvettes as well as the integration of the combat suite, via ADS. Surtee this week “categorically” denied that he had acted as a channel between Moynot and Mbeki. “I have never spoken to Moynot about any of this.”
The same fax also records Moynot’s concern about hostility towards the French: “Other information that I obtained ... seems to establish the fact that our acquisition in ADS is in danger of again subjecting the combat system to an invitation to [open] tender *5...
“My feeling is ... that if we wish ... at least to secure the combat system and the radar, a visit by JPP to the deputy president should be arranged as soon as possible and should be used as an opportunity for him to meet with Jacob Zuma.” (JPP was Jean-Paul Perrier, Thomson’s head of international marketing.)
From then on, Thomson pursued a two-track strategy, trying to keep in with Mandela, via “the tailor”, but increasingly realising the importance of the second generation of ANC leadership, Mbeki and Zuma.
Even here the French were haunted by the possibility that they might back the wrong horse and thus blow the sure bet that ADS would be awarded the work on the combat suite. In April 1998 they purchased 50% of ADS, but held off selecting a black empowerment partner for nearly a year. It appears that they became aware that they found themselves in the middle of an ANC power struggle that might upset all their plans.
A hand-written note, believed to be written by Thetard, records information obtained on June 9 1998 from the “Ministry” in Paris. The news was bad: “Mr Thabo Mbeki thought to be ill disposed towards Thomson-CSF: reasons: 1) fight with S. SHAIK/ ZUMA on the inclusion of new partners in ADS. 2) THABO MBEKI is not friendly with the tailor (tailor = Mandela).” The solution proposed was that Jean-Paul Perrier must meet Mbeki “without any intermediaries” and “find out who would be a good partner” for Thomson.
On July 9, 1998, the French got another hint that they needed to change their strategy when De Bollardiere secured a meeting with Chippy Shaik, the Chief of Acquisition. In a letter to his colleagues, De Bollardiere indicated that Chippy’s position was that if Thomson’s partners and friends suited him, he would make things easier and if not, he would make things difficult.
The letter goes on: “He is warning us regarding an association with the tailleur who has no political and/or historical legitimacy and whose only connection to N. Mandela was insufficient to relay their [our] action here.”
The letter goes on to say: “The idea to meet T Mbeki to validate our options (ADS partner) seems very pertinent [appropriate] to him.”
It was at this point that a competing empowerment partner, Futuristic Business Solutions, appeared on the scene as a way to balance Nkobi.
By December 1998, Thomson had apparently managed to see Mbeki. The meeting is mentioned in a letter from De Bollardiere to South Africa’s then ambassador to France, Barbara Masekela.
In the same file is a note of “Questions to put to Mr T Mbeki”, including whether ADS was still the nominated combat suite supplier and whether Shaik’s Nkobi Group was “still a good choice”.
Other notes indicate another meeting with Mbeki on February 10, 1999, shortly before Thomson went through with its 100% purchase of ADS.
With acknowledgements to Sam Sole and the Mail and Guardian.
*1 Big Fish 6
*2 Big Fish 7
*3 Actually, NCS stands for Naval Combat Systems, aself-standing division of Thomson-CSF (Thales).
T-NCS produces inter alia the Tavitac Naval Combat Management System, the MRR naval surveillance and tracking radar (STAR), Castor optronic radar tracker and Mirador electro-optic tracker.
*4 Actually, sensors includes the STAR and the underwater surveillance system (the Hullmount Sonar), the electro-optic tracker (EOT) and the optronic radar tracker (ORT).
T-NCS was awarded the STAR, whereas the German DASA option was originally preferred by the SA Navy.
Thomson Underwater Systems (UWS)was awarded the HMS, whereas the German STN Atlas option was originally preferred by the SA Navy.
T-NCS was also successful in replacing the Grintek/Plessey Internal Communications System (ICS) with the French Thomson-Signaal FOCON-32 ICS.
T-NCS was also successful in having the French Aerospatiale MM40 Block II Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) selected in place of the Swedish Saab RBS15 SSM which had originally been preferred by the SA Navy. It appears Thomson indirectly has (or had) shareholding in Aerospatiale.
T-NCS was also successful in having the French Diacerto Combat System Databus from Thomson-Detexis selected in place of the South African CCII Systems Information Management System (IMS) which had originally been nominated and selected by the SA Navy.
T-NCS also tried very hard by means of direct negotiations with Chippy Shaik to replace the South African Mtek EOT with the French Mirador.
T-NCS also tried very hard by means of direct negotiations with Chippy Shaik to replace the South African Reutech Radar Systems RTS6400 ORT with the French Castor 2C.
T-NCS even tried to replace the South African Denel/Kentron Umkhonto Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) with the French Crotale Navale SAM.
*5 This was a constitutional imperative for Big Fishes 1, 5, 6 and 7, as well as for Shamin (Chippy) Shaikh as per his delegated authority as Chief of Acquisitions.