Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesperson Clayson Monyela File photo: Phill Magakoe
Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesperson Clayson Monyela File photo: Phill Magakoe

Warning on abuse of diplomatic privileges after liquor scandal

By Rapula Moatshe Time of article published Jun 19, 2021

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Pretoria - The ongoing investigation into the multimillion rand illicit trade in duty-free alcohol by several diplomats in South Africa is not only targeting implicated individuals from the African continent.

Department of International Relations and Co-operation spokesperson Clayson Monyela said diplomats from outside the continent were also suspected of abusing their diplomatic privileges.

Because of the investigation, Monyela didn't name the regions where the suspects came from.

“Just to emphasise that the diplomats involved are not only from the African continent, other regions are also affected,” he said.

This was in response to questions by the Pretoria News regarding a group of Malawian and Basotho diplomats who were recently booted out of the country for engaging in the illicit trade of duty-free alcohol.

Monyela said: “As we said in our statement, the transgression had to do with the abuse of diplomatic privileges on duty-free alcohol.”

He confirmed that those found guilty had already left the country “before the expiry of the 72 hours at different times”.

Asked whether the guilty diplomats colluded with shops selling duty-free alcohol and whether the shop owners would also face the music, he said: “The SA Revenue Service (Sars) and other state agencies are looking into other aspects of this matter.”

The Sars investigation revealed the tax-dodging racket cheated the tax collector out of an estimated R100 million a month.

Following the expulsion of the diplomats, the Malawian government announced that it had “put in place appropriate measures to ensure continuity of operations of the mission in Pretoria”.

Monyela said: “They (diplomats) haven't been replaced yet, but as the government of Malawi said, that process is under way.”

South Africa would in future put in place strict measures to stop diplomats from committing similar offences.

Monyela said: “Sars on Monday gazetted a 24-page technical update to rules under the Customs and Excise Act which governs sin taxes in South Africa – and which exempts diplomats from paying such taxes on goods for their own consumption.”

Last week the department announced that there was an ongoing investigation into the conduct of several other diplomats suspected of reselling duty-free alcohol.

Asked about the number of the diplomats under investigation and their countries of origin, Monyela said: “The investigation is ongoing. No update yet.”

The Pretoria News’s sister publication Sunday Independent reported that the 17 diplomats from Lesotho and Malawi were expelled in connection with allegations that they had turned their living rooms into “shrines with expensive alcohol beverages”.

It also reported that those in line for expulsion would be diplomats from Burundi, Guinea and Rwanda.

Some Lesotho diplomats were also in hot water for similar offences and were expelled from South Africa.

At least 206 diplomats from more than 10 different African countries could soon face expulsion over the duty-free alcohol scandal.

According to the report, the diplomats were allegedly operating backyard shebeens and raking in millions of rand in cash, especially during the alcohol ban last year under Covid-19 lockdown level 5.

The diplomats were allegedly buying tax-free alcohol at different duty-free shops and resold it to members of the public, bars and restaurants.

In a media statement, the department said: “The Department of International Relations and Co-operation wishes to confirm that it has, on behalf of the Republic of South Africa, declared several diplomats personae non grata following an investigation into their flouting of diplomatic privileges.”

It further said the decision was taken in line with the Vienna Convention of 1961.

“The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 is fundamental to the conduct of foreign relations and ensures that diplomats can conduct their duties without the threat of influence by the host government,” said the department.

Lesotho's United For Change party leader Malichaba Lekhoaba said: “As Basotho, we strongly condemn the disgusting behaviour of the Lesotho diplomats in South Africa that has negatively affected the economy of that country through this humiliating act to Lesotho.

“However, I do not believe that this has any potential harm to the diplomatic relations between Lesotho and South Africa.”

Lekhoaba said her party strongly believed that Lesotho must review its policy of the people sent to the missions to stop this behaviour from taking place again, not only in South Africa but in other countries.

“It must be people with integrity and who fully understand the mandate of their country as diplomats and also understand the consequences of such behaviour.

“Secondly, the government must respond without mercy and act swiftly on any misconduct reported in the missions and take legal actions. We hope and trust that tough actions towards these diplomats by the government of Lesotho will make others be cautious when imagining (emulating) this behaviour. This will prevent the incidence from (recurring).”

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