25 July 2024 | 12:15 PM

Mac Maharaj: The ‘foul secret’ that has torn sister from sister

Key Takeaways

New evidence has emerged to support the claim that Mac Maharaj and his wife, Zarina, took kickbacks on a 1990s contract for new drivers’ licences — and it comes from the heart of the presidential spokesperson’s family: Zarina’s sister, who has chosen to go public with what she says is her knowledge of the origins of the Swiss account into which the money was paid.

The payments, in 1996, flowed allegedly from a subsidiary of French multinational Thales, via a Swiss account controlled by Schabir Shaik, to an adjacent account opened by Zarina Maharaj.

Shaik’s dealings with Thales are best known from his corruption conviction in part for facilitating an agreement for the company to pay Jacob Zuma in return for his “protection and support” as the arms deal scandal broke.

During 1996, however, Thales subsidiary IDMatics was in a consortium with Shaik, bidding for the contract to produce the new credit card-style drivers’ licences.

Mac Maharaj was minister of transport at the time and Zarina’s sister, Shirene Carim, an uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) veteran, was living in London.

Maharaj has always refused to answer media questions about the payments.

And when the Mail & Guardian sought to publish details of an in-camera interview under oath with the Scorpions in which he gave answers at odds with the facts, he laid a criminal complaint.

He is also opposing a court application for permission to publish details of the interview.

Now, in a move that appears driven in equal measure by courage and bitterness, anger and principle, Shirene Carim has come forward to recount the details of Zarina’s trip to Geneva in October 1996 to open a Swiss account and to lay bare what she knew about Shaik’s involvement.

The existence of the bank account has been known for some time, but Carim has provided fresh details corroborating the forensic record and adding her view of the attitude of the Maharajs at the time.

Documents obtained by the Scorpions during its investigation of Maharaj showed that Zarina opened an account with Banque SCS Alliance in Geneva on October 14 1996.

It was into this account that more than $210 000 was transferred, cash which originated from Thales subsidiary IDMatics.

The Scorpions case against Maharaj was withdrawn in 2009 by acting National Director of Public Prosecutions Mokotedi Mpshe for reasons that remain unexplained.

Shirene Carim, who served with MK’s special operations division from 1984 to 1987, took the initiative to contact the M&G during a visit to South Africa from her home in London.

She told the M&G she struggled with the decision to make disclosures that would brand her as disloyal to her family and forever cement the rift with her elder sister and possibly the wider family.

But it is also evident that Zarina’s alleged disclosure to her sister that she was going to Geneva to open a bank account to receive money from Shaik injected a poisonous secret into their already difficult relationship from which it never recovered.

Shirene set out the allegations in an initial email to the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism without at first disclosing her identity.

“I’d hoped that by now, justice would prevail.

“In 1996 or 1997, Mac’s wife stayed with me in London UK on her way to Geneva to open a bank account, as she could only have been boasting to me.

“I was given the details of the provider of the funds — Shaik — and the reason why. I was in shock until she left, to be back the following evening.

“She called the next afternoon, having missed her flight due to the time difference in Switzerland of which she was unaware.

“I asked her if I should call my friends in Geneva who would collect her and give her a bed for the night. She declined, saying she’d take a hotel room and Schabir would ‘have to’ pay for it.

“When she should have been back, a call came and I insisted on knowing who was speaking. ‘Schabir’ came the answer. I told him she wasn’t back from Geneva where she’d gone to open a bank account for the proceeds of bribery and corruption.

“She arrived, left for South Africa and the next communication was a call from her husband, Mac, who told me they were writing their wills and would I stand as executor should anything happen to them.

“I reminded him that I’d do anything for the welfare of their children who I loved as my own. He thanked me and told me he’d be in touch.
I’ve never heard from him or seen his wife and children to this day.

“I have been in a state of confusion ever since.”

In a subsequent interview with the M&G, Shirene expanded on this account and her reasons for coming forward now. (See: “Shirene Carim — in her own words”)

Shirene alleged that in the 16 years since 1996, on five trips to South Africa, she had attempted to see her sister face to face in order to deal with the legacy of what she called this “foul secret”.

Each time she was rebuffed, she claimed.

Shirene’s story is consistent with the known facts.

The M&G has discovered, among the evidence submitted at the Shaik trial, previously unreported information suggestive of a link between Shaik, Thales and the account.

Among the documents seized by the Scorpions from Thales’ offices in South Africa were business cards and handwritten numbers for a director of Banque SCS and a fax found during the raids on Shaik featured a business card for the same director.

In addition, details of the build-up to and aftermath of the breakdown in her relationship with Zarina also provide some corroboration for Shirene’s account.

First came a visit by Mac and Zarina to London earlier in 1996, when Nelson Mandela made a triumphant state visit as president of a newly democratic South Africa.

Mandela, with Mac and family in tow, arrived on July 9 1996, Shirene’s 50th birthday.

Mandela’s visit ended on July 13, but Mac and Zarina could not stay for Shirene’s celebration, set to take place on Sunday July 14, despite having been invited long in advance.

One of the reasons they stood her up is telling.

On July 2, Schabir Shaik had written to engineering firm Brown & Root, Shaik’s intended partners in another project under the department of transport, the planned new La Mercy airport outside Durban, now known as King Shaka.

Shaik asked the American company to make arrangements for a Disney World holiday by the Maharaj family.

The intended travel dates were July 13 to 16.

In his letter, Shaik noted that this assistance to the minister was “strategically important to ourselves”.

The family duly skipped the birthday party and Brown & Root picked up the R15 000-plus tab for accommodation and airport transfer and invoiced Shaik.

It is not clear whether Maharaj ever repaid Shaik.

During this time, Shaik also addressed a letter to Mac at the Dorchester Hotel in London, where he was staying as part of Mandela’s entourage.

The letter confirmed the booking at Disney World and included the following note to Mac: “Brown & Root people, my partner and colleagues in South Africa, were expecting you to call them.
Kindly advise Dr Anwar Wissa when that would be possible given your more relaxed schedule in the States.

“Special message. I understand from my warehouse that the expected documents had reached your desk in the UK. Kindly confirm at your soonest.”

Mac and Zarina did see Shirene during that London trip, however.

Shirene and her partner Ted joined them for a meal at a restaurant on the Thames.

After dinner, despite the glow of South Africa’s democratic transition and the glittering setting, some of Zarina’s bitterness burst through, Shirene alleged.

“We went out for a coffee on the balcony. Zarina stood there and said, in front of everyone, in front of my daughters, in front of their partners, in front of her children, she said: ‘If it wasn’t for you, Mac would be minister of defence’.”

The background to that comment was, according to Shirene, her perceived political unreliability: “According to them, I was a renegade.”

She believes this stemmed partly from a report she made to Mac about conditions in ANC camps in Angola following the 1984 Pango mutiny, which was brutally put down.

“I was in the camps in Pango and I was listening to the people complaining [about conditions] and I was saying to them, ‘I will take your complaints back to HQ.’

“So, when I went back to Lusaka, I said to Mac: ‘You know people are very unhappy … and the causes of the mutiny, I’ve been told it was this and it was that.’

“Some of the soldiers had been [there] since the 1976 uprisings: they were not being deployed … many of them had not even been allowed to set foot outside the camp in eight years.

“And Mac said: ‘Oh you’re just a …’ I forget the term he used — someone on the periphery.”

Shirene is aware that she will be accused of drawing on this well of bitterness to make up a damaging story about her sister after the existence of the Geneva bank account was first revealed in City Press in March 2007.

Against that accusation, she said, she had raised the issue before.

Her partner, Ted Dougherty, confirmed that she long ago relayed to him the outlines of Zarina’s Geneva gambit and its implications.

Shirene said she also told her brother Adam, who lives in Canada, and her daughter Magali long before the details became public.

“I told Magali because she was staunch ANC and she said, ‘Mum, you’ve got to go to the ANC and report them.’ I said, ‘Magali can you imagine what would happen if we brought this up? What would happen to their children?'”

Shirene said Adam did not want to get involved and she was worried that a wedge had been established between her and her daughter.

“Since my sister went to visit her in June last year, she hasn’t communicated with me. I don’t know what Zarina has told her.”

Shirene said she also wrote to Mac and Zarina asking for an explanation for why they had involved her.

They never wrote back or came to see her again, in spite of passing through London on many occasions.

In about 2007, she also wrote an email about Zarina to two other people: activist and artist John Matshikiza and former M&G editor Ferial Haffajee.

Matshikiza was a friend of Shirene’s when he lived in London.

When she realised he had written the foreword to Zarina’s autobiography, Dancing to a Different Rhythm, published in 2006, she made contact: “I needed to warn him so he would be prepared whenever it became public knowledge that she had been involved in corruption.”

She said neither Matshikiza (who died in 2008) nor Haffajee replied to her.

Haffajee said that she received the correspondence and wrote back, but did not receive a reply.

She said she recalled that Swiss accounts were mentioned amid “personal stuff” about Zarina and she passed the information on to the newsroom with a caveat about the source, but it was never followed up.

Corroboration of these contacts was provided by Zarina herself.

Shirene showed the M&G an SMS from her most recent communication with her sister, in December last year, in which Zarina notes: “Shirene, the ever widening chasm between us can perhaps still be narrowed — the content of your emails to Johnny when he was still alive and a journalist, notwithstanding. Drop in in the new year.”

But the casualness of the invitation infuriated Shirene: “Like … I should ‘drop in’ — even if you might be busy — [when] what I wanted to say was: ‘I wanted to see you only to ask you why you burdened me with your foul secret which you expect me to take to my grave’.”

Maharaj’s lawyer Rudi Krause responds

Dear Mr Sole,
We are instructed to respond as follows to your email under reply:
1. It stands to reason, should it be correct that Ms Carim had previously mentioned these allegations to whomsoever, that it was simply not published or acted upon because of its origin and the lack of veracity of these allegations. Perhaps even more so if regard is had to the motive with which these “revelations” are made.

2. Responsible journalism requires of you to treat these false, and undoubtedly uncorroborated allegations in a similar light, especially where your motive in publishing allegations of this nature is similarly suspicious and where Ms Carim’s “approach” to you hardly appears to be coincidental.

An “approach”, we hasten to add, to the very employees of the Mail & Guardian who are suspects in a criminal investigation relating to serious offences committed which directly affect Mr Maharaj.

3. Mr and Mrs Maharaj, accordingly, deny and reject these false allegations.

We thank you for the opportunity to answer to this ad hoc trivialty.
Kind regards,
Rudi Krause
BDK Attorneys

Shaik responds

“I’ve never met the woman [Shirene Carim], I never called her, I did not even know that she [Zarina Maharaj] had a sister. So I am not aware of it. This appears to be some family breakdown.”

* Got a tip-off for us about this story? Email [email protected]

The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit initiative to develop investigative journalism in the public interest, produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for all our stories, activities and sources of funding.

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Buyeleni Sibanyoni and Sam Sole

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