Sunday Times (South Africa)

South African high commissioner Obed Mlaba presents his diplomatic credentials to Queen Elizabeth in London.
Image: GETTY IMAGES
One of South Africa’s most influential diplomats is accused of running his embassy “like a spaza shop”, brokering personal business deals with international companies and soliciting donations for his foundation.

Obed Mlaba, South Africa’s high commissioner to the UK, has been sending letters to directors of various companies operating in the UK and South Africa, on government letterheads, to secure business deals for his personal projects.

The projects include the building of a technical school and a private hospital in KwaZulu-Natal under the auspices of the Obed Mlaba Foundation Trust.

Mlaba, a former eThekwini mayor who was linked to a multimillion-rand waste management tender irregularity in 2009, is also using government letterheads to lobby investors to inject money into the revival of the defunct football team African Wanderers. He says in his letters the former PSL club was “formed in 1906, incidentally exactly in the same year the ANC was conceptualised”.

As far back as 2015, Mlaba received queries from the Department of International Relations and Co-operation regarding his “potential conflict of interest” relating to the nondisclosure of his financial interests. Yet no action has been taken against him.

Questions have also been raised about Mlaba’s security clearance, with sources in the department saying this week that he had failed his security vetting in 2013, shortly before he left to take up his post at South Africa House in London.

Mlaba said this week that there was nothing inappropriate about his deals, but two South African businessmen based in London said he was known for abusing his position for personal gain.

“The first time I went to his office to introduce myself, he told me his daughter has a waste management company and asked if I could help her. I then realised he was here to line his pockets and he wasn’t representing South Africa, but himself,” one said.

The other businessman claimed Mlaba wanted to use the embassy to launch his foundation and fundraise for his school project last year. “He has asked me to solicit funds for his school on several occasions. He is running the embassy like his own spaza shop.

“Ambassador Mlaba was told he isn’t supposed to use the embassy for his fundraising, and he started lobbying the South African Chamber of Commerce in the UK, of which he is a patron, to help him fundraise at their functions.”

Mlaba finished his term as eThekwini mayor under a cloud.

The Manase inquiry implicated him in a multibillion-rand corrupt tender involving his family trust, revealing that he had tried to get a R3-billion contract awarded to a company linked to his two daughters and the Mlaba family trust.

The department was made aware that Mlaba had failed state security clearance last August.

“Any high commissioner who fails a state security clearance is a risk to our national security,” said one source. “It simply means he can easily be bought by foreign agencies as he has access to state secrets.”

Mlaba’s lawyer, Sarosh Zaiwalla, said in an e-mail there were no rules restricting Mlaba from engaging in any business so long as he had declared it to his department. “The post of the high commissioner in the UK is in the hands of the president of South Africa. Our client was notified by the president of South Africa to take up the position as high commissioner. The president would have only appointed our client after investigating all required compliances. This is a matter between the president’s office and state security and is therefore of no concern to our client.”

International relations spokesman Nelson Kgwete said: “The issues of security clearance are matters between an employer and employee. Any possible matters of conflict of interest that arise affecting any of our employees, including high commissioner Mlaba, will be investigated fully to determine the truth.”

mzilikazi@sundaytimes.co.za