The huge batch of cables released last month by Wikileaks, dating from the 1970s, is a goldmine for researchers of power and profit in South Africa. But some of the stories we found in the cables are as frustrating as they are fascinating.

On 12th September 1973, a British man in his 40s – described as having “black, wavy hair, bad front teeth with gold cap, moderately good-looking in [a] craggy sort of way” – approaches the US Consul in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) with a fantastic story.

Identifying himself as David Goldthorpe, he claims to have an inch-thick dossier – containing lists of people and companies involved in Rhodesian sanctions busting and arms dealing, and details of agents of the South African Bureau of State Security (BOSS) in Europe and the US.

He claims to be the nephew of a Sir Henry Jeffreys, a former diplomatic official who he says is now cooperating with the United Nations on sanctions enforcement. He wants the US Consul to courier this dossier to his uncle via the Diplomatic Pouch , the secure channel of communications used by diplomats to courier sensitive material between their embassies and home governments. (He says he fears to send the dossier by open mail, because it implicates Mozambican companies as well.)

Described as “glib and chummy”, Goldthorpe paints a rather dashing picture of himself. He’s a Brit, working in import-export for a company called INTEREXSA – however, on the side he acts as an informant on Rhodesian sanctions busting and arms trade. He tells Consulate staff that he had been arrested by SA security police in Durban on trumped-up charges, and after skipping bail, he has escaped into Mozambique with his dossier. He now wants the US Embassy’s help, in couriering his dossier to Sir Henry Jeffreys and in easing his passage out the country.

Wikileaks Cable from Lorenco Marques

The secret history of SA corruption—a glimpse from the Wikileaks cables

We know all this because the US Consul’s account of it is among the 1.7 million diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in April. You can read it here. The so-called “Kissinger” cables contain daily correspondence between the US State Department and its embassies across the world, between 1973 to 1976.

These cables weren’t leaked, though – they are formally declassified records that have been released by the US National Archives, and immaculately curated on the Wikileaks website, fully searchable and comprehensively categorised by location, date and topic. Including, of course, thousands of cables from South Africa during that period.

Though the Daily Maverick was at best cautious about the contemporary relevance of this vast repository, it contains plenty of interesting material for researchers of the ‘long tail’ of corruption in South Africa, and provides useful historical context when today’s corruption debates often focus only on the scandal of the week.

With the Americans having inserted themselves at the centre of political intrigue in South Africa – see for example how closely they monitored the arms trade – it is clear that they were becoming increasingly aware of economic crime among South Africa’s elites. Yet the stories that these cables tell are often as frustrating as they are fascinating – rumours, hearsay, and stories that seem likely to remain half-told.

“Let the Matter Drop”

Back in Lourenço Marques, September 1973 – it seems this is not the first time Goldthorpe had come to an US consulate with this request. Five weeks earlier, the Consulate in Durban reported that a Goldthorpe had contacted them from jail with a similar story.

However, it seems in his first approach, he had made two other revelations, admitting that he himself had been a Rhodesian sanctions buster in the past – albeit now “reformed”. He also seems to hint that, if help from the US were not forthcoming, he would ‘play the other side’, by informing the SA security police about US activities in Rhodesia, in exchange for his freedom.

Goldthorpe being held charges car theft and carrying unlicensed weapon. Admits to latter, but alleges SA authorities aware his past activities and offered drop all charges if he agrees supply SAG [south african government] with info on US attempts enforce Rhodesia sanctions.”

Read it in full here.

Evidently that gambit did not work out, and after being released by Durban police and sneaking into Mozambique, he has cleaned up his story a bit and is once again asking the US for help – effectively in exchange for his “dossier”.

It must be noted that, on the face of it, this dossier contained valuable information – the US Department of State was eager to keep tabs on sanctions-busters and would certainly be keen to know the identities of South Africa’s BOSS agents in Europe, if this information wasn’t known already.

But Goldthorpe is out of luck. The State Department’s response – signed by Kenneth Rush, Kissinger’s deputy – is nothing if not terse:

Goldthorpe and Jeffries [sic] unknown to US or UK embassy. If contacted again, post should state pouch not authorized for this use and let matter drop.”

Read it in full here.

In other words, the Americans aren’t interested. Whether they disbelieve Goldthorpe’s story, or don’t want to entangle themselves with a person who seems to be deeply compromised, they are simply not willing to trade for access to the documents.

If Goldthorpe ever contacted them again, there is no evidence of it. His dossier, if it ever existed, may be lost to us.

What next?

There are thousands more records in the Kissinger cables relating to South Africa. The cables offer little more than oblique glimpses into political machinations of the time, by turns fascinating and frustrating. But each glimpse is also a clue, an unsolved mystery, a story waiting to be told.

What is clear is that the US – and presumably other foreign missions as well – were becoming increasingly aware of evidence of economic crime in South Africa, even during the brief period offered by these cables (1973-1976). But if they ever found such evidence of illicit money flowing across the world, did they act on it? Or did they tolerate such practices, or even facilitate them? Most importantly, did they keep further records?

One way to find out would be to look where Wikileaks got these records, and to get more – and from more recent times. The US Department of State appears to have reams of similar cables from the 1980s, when apartheid corruption and international money laundering is believed to have peaked.

Watch this space.

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