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The rise and fall of Saloojee

Jul 15 2012 13:27 City Press

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MTN GROUP LIMITED [JSE:MTN]

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Johannesburg - The first brush ambassador ­Yusuf "Jojo" Saloojee had with the law was as a youngster in Roodepoort, on Joburg’s West Rand.

Together with a group of friends including the late struggle activist Ahmed Timol, Saloojee went to Joburg by train, carrying a stolen exam paper.

When a conductor approached the youngsters, they burnt the paper to hide the evidence. This led to Saloojee’s first encounter with the security branch.

This week, Saloojee was suspended as ambassador to Iran for improper conduct.

He has now been named in a US court as the middleman in telecoms giant MTN’s attempt to get a licence to operate in Iran, which was to become its second-biggest market.

The allegations were levelled against him by former MTN Group [JSE:MTN] executive Chris Kilowan, who claimed in a deposition before a US court that, as South Africa’s ambassador to Iran, Saloojee took R1.4m from MTN as a reward for his efforts to help them secure the contract.

The money was allegedly channelled through Kilowan, who has since left MTN, and paid to lawyers who in turn paid for a mansion in the exclusive Duiwelskloof estate in Pretoria, where Saloojee's wife still lives.

Saloojee is a struggle stalwart who joined the South African Indian Congress.

He became a teacher in Roodepoort, but a close childhood friend said he didn’t specialise in any subject: “Those days you taught what they wanted you to teach, you didn’t have choices.”

He left in the 1960s and went via Zambia to Canada, where he built the anti-apartheid movement from scratch and eventually served as the ANC’s representative there.

In 1990, as democracy neared, he returned to South Africa and shared lodgings with former deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad in Mayfair, Joburg.

Parties were in abundance and Jojo, as a close friend of Thabo Mbeki and Essop Pahad, was

often seen at hang-outs with civil-society types discussing the new South Africa.

Jojo was posted to the United Arab Emirates as ambassador in 1998, starting a tour of the Middle East that would only see him return for the long term when the MTN scandal broke.

His time as ambassador was not without controversy. In 2001, he was accused of sexual misconduct by a female passenger aboard a Singapore Airlines flight. The woman was sleeping in her business-class seat when Saloojee allegedly sexually assaulted her.

It was also alleged that when confronted by the crew and the woman, Saloojee swore at the woman and called her a racist.

He survived the scandal and was again called up for diplomatic service, this time in Iran.

During his tenure, MTN needed help - they wanted to tap the biggest market in the Middle East, but Turkish company Turkcell had beaten them to it.

Through a set of negotiations between MTN and the Iranian government, Saloojee organised and attended meetings with MTN executives to give them strategic advice on who to talk to and what to say.

One of his friends said: “We called it economic diplomacy. You are expected to help South African companies do business. Even ministers would do that.

“People call you to attend events where there are businesspeople and you do it because you recognise how important it is.”

But it seems Saloojee went too far. He desperately needed cash to buy a house for his wife, who wanted to leave Tehran, and had to find money fast.

It’s claimed that he approached Kilowan, who allegedly sorted it out for him - fast.

Today Saloojee is better known in diplomatic circles, and by ordinary South Africans, as the ambassador who was bribed.

And, if the allegations against him prove to be true and his suspension becomes a dismissal, he will earn yet another title: as the man who put South Africa’s foreign policy up for sale.

» Saloojee and Kilowan were asked for comment, but did not respond.

 
mtn group  |  yusuf saloojee  |  iran  |  corruption
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