Over 200 diplomats to be booted out of SA over duty-free booze scandal

A Lesotho diplomat allegedly poses with her “booze shrine” posted on Twitter. Picture: Twitter

Johannesburg – South Africa is expected to expel over 200 diplomats, from more than 10 different African countries – including Lesotho, Malawi, Burundi, Guinea, and Rwanda – over the next weeks, over a multimillion-rand duty-free booze scandal.

Last week, about 17 diplomats were shown the door, including the expulsion last Thursday of Duwa Mutharika, daughter of the late Malawi president Bingu Wa Mutharika and the niece of the former president Peter Mutharika, who was defeated during the 2020 elections reruns.

The Malawian government issued a press statement on Friday, where it acknowledged that it had been informed that some of its diplomats “abused their diplomatic privileges” and declared persona non grata.

The statement added that the Malawian government “has since conveyed its regrets to the Republic of South Africa on the conduct of the concerned diplomats”.

The diplomats were said to have been running backyard shebeens that netted them millions of rands in cash, especially during last year’s Covid-19 induced lockdown level 5, where the sale of alcohol and booze was prohibited in South Africa, over a period of about three months.

The diplomats were allegedly buying alcohol at different duty-free shops, at very low prices as part of their privileges, then selling it at a profit costing South Africa over R100 million per month in lost revenue, officials said.

Investigators in the matter have uncovered how a deputy ambassador allegedly made R36 million in three months, from the sale of alcohol, during the months of hard lockdown.

The Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) spokesperson Clayson Monyela yesterday confirmed that they have given the first batch of diplomats – 17 of them in total – from two countries, 72 hours to leave South Africa with their families, after they were declared persona non grata.

Monyela said the diplomats “were found guilty of engaging in illicit trade in duty-free alcohol” after “an intensive investigation into their flouting of diplomatic privileges”.

“If they don’t leave within the prescribed period, they will be arrested.” Monyela warned, adding that South Africa was losing about R100 million per month from the syndicate.

Monyela couldn’t confirm or deny allegations that some of the diplomats actually owned taverns and shebeens – in South African townships and their respective countries of origin – which they supplied with alcohol from the syndicate.

“This is still an ongoing investigation,” he said.

The Sunday Independent was told that the 17 diplomats expelled this week are from Lesotho and Malawi, and that all of them had allegedly turned their living rooms into “shrines with expensive alcohol beverages” according to investigators.

“Some of these diplomats were gloating and boasting about the ill-gotten gains on social media,” one of the investigators has alleged.

Sources say the next diplomats that will be booted out of the country and declared persona non grata are those from Burundi, Guinea and Rwanda.

“We are looking at a total of 206 diplomats that are going to be expelled from South Africa over the next few weeks, after they were implicated in being part of this syndicate,” a source close to the investigation said.

In their press statement, the Lesotho government stated that “it distances itself and condemns the actions of the said diplomats in the strongest terms”.

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