19/01/2015. Dr Wouter Basson at HPCSA during arguement of his sentencing. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Cape Town - Archivists intent on exposing old crimes in South Africa are taking legal action to try to force the release of records that could reveal how billions of tax rands were squandered on illegal activities in the last years of the apartheid era.

They are also trying to get bank-related records relevant to some of the country’s most controversial figures, including apartheid-era chemical warfare expert Wouter Basson and suspected Mafia kingpin Vito Palazzolo.

Basson is in Cape Town, and Palazzolo, in jail in Italy, lived in the Western Cape.

The South African History Archive (Saha), an independent body established in the 1980s by anti-apartheid activists, is behind the drive to get the records. Since February, it has taken separate legal action against the South African Reserve Bank and the auditor- general.

In an affidavit filed in the South Gauteng High Court last week, relating to the auditor-general matter, history archive director Catherine Kennedy said: “South Africans are entitled to know the full extent of the activities of the apartheid government so they may move forward and ensure these events are never again repeated.”

The history archive filed the papers last week, asking the court to declare the auditor-general’s decision not to grant access to certain records unconstitutional and unlawful.

In August it submitted three Promotion of Access to Information requests to the auditor-general. These were denied because, according to the history archive, the auditor-general said the information in question related to third parties and the Public Audit Act prevented access to these records.

The requests, according to the court papers, included:

* Annual reports of the auditor-general of intelligence to the parliamentary joint standing committee on intelligence from January 1, 2003, to June 30 last year.

* Details of tax exemptions on the export of uncut diamonds by diamond company De Beers from South Africa in 1992 and 1993. In that time 20 million carats of uncut diamonds, valued at about $900 million, were exported. The tax levy of $135m was not paid because De Beers said the South African Diamond Board had exempted it.

* Secret funding used to promote apartheid policies.

In a press release issued this week Saha said: “In terms of private sector activities requested records related to tax exemptions on the export of uncut diamonds and secret funding could shed light on how it is that billions of rand in tax money, money badly needed for social spending requirements, was either never collected or spent on dubious and illegal activities at the end of apartheid.”

In other pending court action, the South African History Archives is trying to have the South African Reserve Bank release records involving, among others, Palazzolo and Basson.

It wants records or evidence the bank obtained during investigations into fraud, manipulation of the rand currency and foreign exchange and smuggling of gold and other precious metals between 1980 and 1985.

In February Saha approached the High Court to have it declare unlawful the Reserve Bank’s refusal to release the requested records.

Palazzolo was implicated in a Swiss money laundering and heroin smuggling scheme. In 2009 he was sentenced in absentia by an Italian court to nine years behind bars for having an association with the Mafia.

In 2013 the Health Professions Council of South Africa found Basson guilty of unprofessional conduct for his work during apartheid. He applied to have this reviewed.

“The named individuals either worked for the apartheid state, or allegedly provided services such as facilitating the circumvention of United Nations sanctions,” the papers filed by the history archive said.

Until the mid-1990s, the Reserve Bank had to approve the movement of large sums of money overseas. “To protect the rand from volatility, transfers of goods and services had to be done at the less favourable commercial rand rate,” the papers said. “It is well known that this system was exploited though fraudulent “round tripping” of money, generating massive illicit profits. One estimate of the total value of the financial rand market had it as between R141billion and R204bn at year-end 1993, or between about R450bn and R650bn at modern rand values.”

Asked this week about the attempt to get his bank-related records, Basson told Weekend Argus: “I have no idea what it could be about, but would be very surprised if an efficient prosecution team such as the one I faced for a number of years would have missed anything they could have used against me.”

Neither Palazzolo’s son, Christian von Palace, nor a member of his legal team responded to queries about the case.

Court papers said the history archive first requested information from the Reserve Bank in 2013, but this was denied because the request was not detailed enough.

It tried again in August 2014, making six Promotion of Access to Information requests. These were refused in October because the Reserve Bank said it had not found records relating to a few individuals, including Basson. It did not give a decision within a specific time frame about others, including Palazzolo. The Promotion of Access to Information Act says this is viewed as a refusal.

Exposing apartheid crimes

The South African History Archive is working with the Cape-Town based Open Secrets project to get records released.

Open Secrets researcher Hennie van Vuuren, said they were looking into apartheid-era economic crimes.

South African History Archive director Catherine Kennedy said: “Open Secrets is collecting apartheid-era archival material for a book that will focus on procurement practices and accountability during apartheid.”

Archine wants their full stories

A socialite, an apartheid-era spy and a fugitive.

These are some of the people the South African History Archive is interested in and wants the Reserve Bank to release related documents.

Court papers filed by the archive, and publicly available, name them as:

* Stephanus Petrus (Fanie) Botha, a senior cabinet minister and National Party leader in the then-Transvaal in 1978. Jan Blaauw, who has since died and who was previously in the military, helped Botha pay his R1.7million debt, allegedly in exchange for “a lucrative diamond concession”.

The Israeli government wanted Botha to be financially secure as he was in the running to become defence minister. But in 1983 Botha resigned when this information was leaked to the media.

* Blaauw started his own businesses in the 1970s, and allegedly became involved in the international arms trade. “He was present at a meeting in 1976 when Botha (then a senior cabinet member) concluded a deal with the Israeli government to provide the government with 500 tons of uranium in return for 30g of tritium, a radioactive substance that thermonuclear weapons require to increase their explosive power.”

* Paul Ekon, a “millionaire socialite” in the 1990s who it later emerged was being investigated for links to a case involving unwrought gold, worth millions of rands. Investigators alleged he was involved in “an international illegal gold smuggling racket”.

* Robert Oliver Hill, who fled the country in 1998 while facing more than 500 fraud charges, some related to a scam involving forged Eskom bonds.

* Craig Michael Williamson, an apartheid-era spy who was a member of the security police. Sixteen years ago the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted him amnesty for various offences, including the murder of anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, assassinated in 1982.

* Giovanni Giuseppe Mario Ricci, an Italian businessman who at one point was convicted of fraud and possession of counterfeit money, and who settled in the Seychelles in the mid-1970s. The charges were later expunged. He became a friend of the president and financier of the Seychelles government, and after a South African-backed failed coup there in 1981, allegedly became an intermediary in that country for South Africa.

Ricci partnered with Williamson and established a company, GMR. “Williamson and Ricci claimed the company was set up to break the capital boycott and trade sanctions by bringing capital from foreign businesses into South Africa, and facilitating the movement of boycotted goods through the Seychelles.”

Weekend Argus