By Jovial Rantao
The South African government and President Jacob Zuma have been caught in the middle of an international wrangle over as much as R2 trillion in US dollars as well as hundreds of tons of gold and at least six million carats of diamonds in assets belonging to the people of Libya.
What could be the world’s largest cash pile is stored in palettes at seven heavily guarded warehouses and bunkers in secret locations between Joburg and Pretoria.
The Libyan billions have led to a Hawks investigation into possible violation of exchange controls as well as international interests from the UN and the US.
It has also led to heightened interest in the local and international intelligence community as well as the criminal underworld.
Those interested in the Libyan loot include several high-ranking ANC politicians, several business leaders, a former high court judge and a number of private companies.
The R2-trillion held in warehouses is separate from several other billions, believed to be in excess of R260 billion, held legally in four banks in South Africa.
Other legal assets include hotels in Joburg and Cape Town.
The Sunday Independent has seen official South African government documents which confirm that at least $179bn in US dollars is kept, illegally, in storage facilities across Gauteng.
Soon after Muammar Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, the new Libyan government embarked on a large-scale mission to recover legal assets in South Africa, the rest of Africa, the US and Europe.
In South Africa, the focus of the Libyans has been on assets brought into the country legally as well as illegally.
Last year, the Libyan government put in place a separate process to identify and repatriate the illegal assets in South Africa.
Investigations by The Sunday Independent on the illegal assets have led to allegations that:
* The US dollar loot was ferried to South Africa in at least 62 flights between Tripoli and South Africa. The crew of the planes were mainly ex-special forces from the apartheid era. The crew are understood to have deposed affidavits clarifying their role in an effort to avoid criminal charges.
* The money, gold and diamonds were moved to South Africa. Most of it was kept here and some was moved to neighbouring southern African countries. Most of the assets were taken out of Libya after Zuma got involved in an AU process to persuade then Libyan President Gaddafi to step down after an Arab-spring-like uprising to force him out of office.
The Libyan government has formed a special board, the National Board for the Following Up and Recovery of Libyan Looted and Disguised Funds, to recover the assets. Now two companies have presented themselves to the South African government, claiming they were mandated by the national board to recover the funds.
The two companies are the Texas-based Washington African Consulting Group (WACG), led by its chief executive Erik Goalied, and Maltese-based Sam Serj, led by its chief executive, Tahah Buishi. Both companies claim to be the only legitimate representatives of the Libyan government.
Goalied has dismissed Sam Serj as impostors who want to stage the “biggest heist in the world”.
He said they were using fake documents and had used a number of South Africans, with the lure of lucrative commissions, to get the South African government to comply. Goalied has formalised his allegations about Sam Serj in an affidavit that he has submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority, who have passed it on to the Hawks.
He told The Sunday Independent that on September 26 he met with the Libyan Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani in New York, where both parties reconfirmed that the WACG should work with the South African government. “The assets are important but the bigger goal is to resolve this smoothly so that relations between South Africa and Libya can improve,” he said.
Goalied said the Libyans did not necessarily want the loot to be sent back to Tripoli. They wanted full and legal control of the assets which, he added, could be used for investments and other job-creation projects that would benefit both countries.
Last month, Goalied wrote to Zuma asking for co-operation and assistance in resolving the assets saga. The Presidency wrote to him this week, acknowledging his letter.
The Presidency has referred The Sunday Independent’s queries to the Treasury. The Treasury, in turn, referred The Sunday Independent to a statement issued last June in which the government called on those with knowledge of Libyan assets in South Africa to come forward. Hawks spokesman Paul Ramaloko declined to confirm the probe.
The Sunday Independent has also established that Goalied has also written to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US Foreign Secretary John Kerry asking for assistance. The UN adopted Resolution 438 which forces countries that have Libyan assets to return them.
The second company – Sam Serj – has already been in South Africa to discuss the return of the assets.
Sam Serj chief executive Buishi claimed his company was the only legitimate entity with a mandate to find and recover assets that belong to the people of Libya.
Buishi said his company has been contracted by the Libyan government to trace and recover assets looted by Gaddafi and those close to him.
He said the assets had been traced to South Africa, Libya’s neighbour, Tunisia, and several countries in Europe.
“We have been contracted by the Libyan government and are working with the South African government to recover the looted assets.
“We had a good meeting during our last visit with the then-minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan.
“We are working with the South African government. Hopefully, there will be a delegation to South Africa to repatriate the assets or come to some sort of arrangement.
“We want to work with the South African government to not only recover the assets but to find ways of re-investing them in South Africa.
“We want the assets to be identified as belonging to the Libyan people.
“Politically, we are trying to help the new Libya integrate with the rest of the African continent. Libya is a very big and rich country and together with South Africa can play a strategic role in Africa,” Buishi said.
Several sources told The Sunday Independent that the Libyans have complained to the UN and have placed South Africa and Zuma on terms, threatening to lay charges of theft with the International Criminal Court if the assets were not returned promptly.
The Sunday Independent understands that the money was brought in by a company, which has hired former SADF special forces and is keeping the warehouses where the money, gold and diamonds are being kept under 24-hour surveillance.
Other cash assets, running into hundreds of millions of rand, are being kept in accounts in South Africa’s major banks.
Several sources have confirmed that the ex-apartheid era special forces pilots and soldiers have deposed affidavits that are designed to protect them from, among others, money-laundering charges.
Jovial Rantao – African Independent editor and Independent Media’s press ombudsman. He is the chairperson of the African Editors Forum and the Southern African Editors Forum. His past editorships include African Independent, the Sunday Independent and Sunday Tribune.